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Russia: Putin Plays To Armenian Diaspora, But For What Purpose?

Russia has been pursuing a more active policy toward Armenia, both in the economic and political spheres. But Russian observers were nevertheless surprised by President Vladimir Putin's appearance at an Armenian diaspora congress last week that chose Moscow as the founding city of a new World Organization of Armenians. RFE/RL looks at the possible reasons behind Putin's efforts to improve relations with one of Russia's largest ethnic communities.

Moscow, 13 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted a new style in his public appearances. He improvises speeches and pops up -- apparently unexpectedly -- at various events.

But last week, Putin had political commentators in Russia stumped after he appeared at a congress representing some of Armenian's far-flung diaspora. The event was organized by influential millionaire Ara Abramian and launched a new World Organization of Armenians.

Welcoming the new organization, Putin expressed "hope that the contribution of the Armenian diaspora will grow and develop in parallel with the Russo-Armenian business partnership." Earlier in the day, Putin had met with visiting Armenian President Robert Kocharian.

Carnegie Foundation strategic analyst Dmitry Trenin says Putin's appearance represents the logical reflection of the evolution of ties between Armenia and Russia, both strategic and economic.

"The situation in the South Caucasus is going toward increased instability in Georgia and potentially in Azerbaijan. In these conditions, a stable Armenia with good relations with Moscow -- plus the presence of troops on its territory -- has made [Armenia] more valuable in Russia's eye," Trenin said.

At the same time, Moscow and Yerevan recently agreed on a debt-for-equities swap scheme to purge Russia's $100 million claim.

"Armenian companies are becoming the property of Russia, with Armenia paying back its debt toward Russia in this manner," Trenin says.

Russia has gone on what Armenian journalist Haroutiun Khachatrian calls an "acquisition binge" in the South Caucasus in general, but especially in Armenia.

Khachatrian wrote in a recent article on EurasiaNet that as a result of two debt-for-equity deals in favor of electricity monopolist UES, Russia holds a 50 percent stake in Armenia's electricity generation capacity. UES also became the financial manager for the Medzamor nuclear power plant, Armenia's prime source of energy.

Gazprom and Itera are already key shareholders in Armenia's gas distribution company.

One key figure in bringing Russia and Armenia closer could well be Abramian, a leader of Russia's Armenians. According to the Russian newspaper "Niezavisimaya gazeta," Abramian has been a key figure in working out Russian acquisitions in Armenia.

Abramian, who started a career in the Soviet military complex before making millions in diamonds, has built a reputation as "Moscow's Armenian." And as head of the Union of Armenians of Russia, Abramian has had considerable success, as he acknowledged to journalists at last week's congress.

"We created the Union of Armenians of Russia three years ago and our work didn't go too badly," Abramian said. "We found a mechanism of uniting Armenians [in Russia] because it's difficult to set up such an organization in Russia. Before us, there were 400 organizations, and in the matter of a year, all of them joined the Union of Armenians of Russia."

Abramian is reported to enjoy good connections with the Kremlin. According to Abramian's biography posted on the UNESCO web site -- he is an UNESCO goodwill ambassador -- Abramian helped reconstruct the Kremlin in the mid-1990s and was involved in other projects with the Kremlin's property management office, a department Putin was also working for at the time.

By attending last week's congress, some observers believe Putin was actually sending a message to the 2.5 million Armenians in Russia, the largest community outside of Armenia. In his speech, Putin quoted a 300-year-old decree by Peter the Great that Armenians "must be most kindly treated and encouraged in every way to come to Russia."

"No sooner said than done," Putin quipped.

Vladimir Pribylovski, the director of Panorama, a think tank in Moscow, believes Putin is trying to gain points with Russia's ethnic communities ahead of elections.

"The Armenian and Jewish lobbies have the most possibilities -- they're really well organized, and so compared to other ethnic communities they have more capacities. And so Putin [chooses] to focus on them," Pribylovski said.

Until Putin, few Russian politicians had expressed any interest in the Armenian diaspora.

Last year, Putin responded to Armenians' long-standing complaints about discrimination in Russia's Krasnodar Krai, a southern region bordering the North Caucasus and Abkhazia.

Historically, Krasnodar leaders have fed on local xenophobia, probably exacerbated by the region's proximity to the war in Chechnya and other unrest. Krasnodar Governor Aleksandr Tkachev has demanded the "deportation" of Armenians and other minority ethnic groups, calling them "undesirable."

According to the Russian newspaper "Izvestia," Tkachev was called to the Kremlin for a verbal lashing from Putin, gaining the Russian president praise from Armenian leaders both in Russia and abroad.

Armenian journalist Susanna Petrossian, who works with the Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan, has still another explanation for Putin's support of the Armenian diaspora.

Petrossian argues that Putin may be trying to use Armenians in Russia as a lever on the influential Armenian diaspora abroad to make them push in favor of Russian interests with governments and businesses in the West.

"To some extent, Russia may try to get access to Armenian lobbying groups [abroad] through Ara Abramian and the structures that he is setting up. To make things clearer, in the United States, the Armenian lobby -- with its resources and capabilities, and through its influence -- comes in second after the Jewish lobby," Petrossian said.

With 1 million Armenians, the United States is home to the world's second-largest Armenian diaspora community.