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Russian President Visits Armenia

Medvedev and Sarkisian at a meeting in June
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has begun a two-day official visit to Armenia, his first trip to the small Caucasus state since he became president.

The visit can be seen as part of the maneuvering that has followed the August war between Russia and Georgia. Russia seeks to consolidate its position in Armenia to maintain a continuing foothold in former Soviet South Caucasus countries, and to keep open an important trade route to Iran.

Yerevan, which has few resources of its own, has for its part little choice but to continue close relations with Moscow, as it is flanked by two hostile neighbors -- powerful Turkey and oil-rich Azerbaijan.

Medvedev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, will doubtless discuss how the short but fierce conflict between Russia and Georgia could reflect on the long-frozen dispute over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Ethnic-Armenian forces drove out Azerbaijani forces from that territory in the early 1990s, and negotiations to find a solution since then have been fruitless.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, during a visit to Yerevan last week, called for an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute "as soon as possible." He pointed to the dangers of such frozen conflicts suddenly thawing -- just like the Russian-Georgian war, which erupted over Georgia's Moscow-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Given Russia's solid backing for Armenia over the years in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, Medvedev's visit to Armenia is likely to raise concerns among neighboring countries.

But Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov issued some pacifying words this week. Speaking to BBC television, he insisted that Moscow recognizes the territorial integrity of all former Soviet countries. He made no mention of Georgia, where Russia has recognized the two separatist regions as independent states.

On the economic front, Medvedev will be seeking to bind Yerevan even closer through increased business ties. Russia is already a top trade partner of Armenia, as well as its leading supplier of arms.

Russia also delivers gas and nuclear fuel to Armenia's largest power plant and nuclear power plant, which generate up to 80 percent of electric power in the republic.

Russian investment is evident in most sectors of the Armenian economy, from mobile-phone networks to Armenia's railways, which are run by the Russian state railways. There are reportedly some 600 joint ventures registered in Armenia that benefit from Russian capital.

Another important economic link between the two countries are the estimated 2 million Armenians who work in Russia and send remittances to their families at home.