The Armenian government has confirmed plans to build an Iran-Armenia railway and a new nuclear power plant as part of a series of new, "large-scale" initiatives.
In an October 2 speech to parliament, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan declared that the "time has come for Armenia to implement ambitious economic projects, super-projects." Aside from the railway and nuclear power plant, Sargsyan said that work will also begin in the next few months on an Armenian investment foundation "that will fund large-scale programs."
"Such projects not only solve major strategic problems, but have a large-scale impact on the economy and society," said Sargsyan.
Details are not yet available; instructions, however, have been given to the Ministries of Energy and Transportation to come up with proposed work plans for the railway and power station projects.
In a September statement to Diaspora Armenians in New York City, Sargsyan stated that "similar and larger-scale programs" are also in the works, the presidential press service reported. He did not elaborate.
The "new initiatives" have prompted a debate about whether or not President Sargsyan is trying to diminish Russian influence on the country, and to strengthen Yerevan's ties with other players in the South Caucasus.
The fact that the three projects were first mentioned in a speech to Armenian Americans in New York City has prompted some local observers to believe that the government may be trying to draw greater Diaspora interest to diversify the investment mix.
"An attempt is being made to strengthen Armenia's foreign policy," commented opposition parliamentarian Stepan Safarian, a member of the pro-West Heritage Party.
The president's decision to invite Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Armenia in September has prompted other opposition members to agree.
"It is obvious that Sargsyan's foreign policy is different from his predecessor's," added opposition politician Suren Sureniants, a senior associate of opposition leader and former president Levon Ter-Petrosian. "The pro-Russian emphases are in some way altered and it can be seen that Sargsyan is trying to become more comprehensible for the West."
But not all observers agree.
"One can hardly think that by constructing a new railway and nuclear power station an attempt is being made to get rid of Russian control," said political analyst Sevak Sarukhanian, deputy director of Yerevan's Noravank Foundation for Strategic Research. "On the contrary, it will deepen Armenian-Russian strategic cooperation, since . . . Russia will have its share in both construction projects."
Armenia's existing railway network is already managed by Russian Railways; the Armenia-Iran railway would, therefore, have Russian involvement. Similarly, Armenia depends on Russia for nuclear fuel and technological support for its existing nuclear power station, which is managed by the Russian company UES.
Overall, nearly 80 percent of Armenia's energy system is estimated to be under Russian control. Russia also maintains control over the Hrazdan hydropower plant, one of the largest in the South Caucasus.
The Iran-Armenia gas pipeline is one example of a similar, large-scale project that had initially stirred speculation that Armenia was attempting to pull away from Russia. Gazprom's majority stake in ArmRosGazprom, however, means that Russian interests are represented in the pipeline.
A recent Armenian about-face on the desirability of importing Iranian gas illustrated the implications of that presence.
On September 10, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Armen Movsisian told Armenian media that Armenia will be able to import Iranian gas in November. The pipeline, which Movsisian presented as the solution to "the issue of Armenia's energy security," has an annual capacity for 2.3-2.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas.
Iran reportedly plans to export some 1.1 billion cubic meters of gas to Armenia annually, and will increase that number gradually to reach 2.3 billion cubic meters by 2019, according to the Armenian Ministry of Energy's website.
Iran was reportedly ready to start supplies of gas to Armenia by October 13. "Iran will pump three million cubic meters of gas to Armenia during this winter," said National Iranian Gas Company managing director Reza Kasaei-Zadeh in a recent interview with the Iranian ISNA news agency.
In-exchange Armenian exports of electricity reportedly began on October 5.
However, Armenia's Energy Ministry earlier this week affirmed that Armenia "does not yet have a need" for Iranian gas.
One analyst cited the incident as a sign that Moscow still holds the cards for Armenia's energy market.
"It is clear that Armenia refused to receive Iranian gas as a result of Russian pressure," said independent political analyst David Petrosian. "Russia controls almost the entire energy system of Armenia through its state corporation. It seeks to keep Armenia in a state of dependence . . . Armenia will receive gas from Iran only when Russian gas is in short supply."
Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.