MOSCOW (AP) — Algeria has demanded that Moscow take back several MiG fighter jets supplied under a major arms deal because of quality concerns, dealing a painful blow to Russian pride, news reports said Tuesday.
The effort to return the planes, which is expected to top the agenda of visiting Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's talks Tuesday in the Kremlin, could tarnish Russia's reputation as a reliable supplier and damage its hopes to expand its niche in the world's arms market.
''The return of the planes would be unprecedented for Russia,'' said Alexander Khramchikhin, a senior researcher at the Moscow-based Institute for Political and Military Analysis.
Algeria said it wanted to return the first 15 MiG-29 fighter jets supplied last year and refused to take the remaining aircraft under a US$1.3 billion (euro890 million) contract, Russian news reports said. The 2006 deal envisaged the delivery of 34 MiG-29s in 2007-2008.
Algerian officials said the planes had some old and substandard parts. After months of talks, Russian and Algerian officials reached a deal last week on details of their return, the business daily Kommersant said. It said penalties and other aspects of the issue had yet to be worked out.
Officials at the Algerian Defense Ministry and the government headquarters would not comment on the reports, which cited sources in Russian weapons industries. A spokesman for Russia's state arms trading monopoly, Rosoboronexport, also refused to comment Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Bouteflika did not publicly mention the MiG deal as they sat down for talks, but Putin said they had ''many issues to discuss, including military-technical cooperation.''
The MiG contract was part of a package of arms deals signed during Putin's trip to Algeria in March 2006, worth an estimated US$8 billion (euro5.5 billion). In return, Russia has agreed to write off Algeria's US$4.7 billion (euro3.2 billion) Soviet-era debt to Moscow — much of it owed for weapons deliveries.
Some Russian experts said the collapse of the Algerian contract reflected the steady decline of the nation's weapons industries, which fell on hard times after the 1991 Soviet collapse, when government orders nearly halted. Top weapons manufacturers such as MiG have survived largely thanks to export orders.
''The military-industrial complex has degraded because of the personnel exodus and the loss of key technologies,'' Khramchikhin said. ''Control over quality of manufacturing is virtually nonexistent. The number of complaints has grown sharply.''
While Russian arms sales have grown steadily, reaching a post-Soviet record of US$7.5 billion (euro5.1 billion) last year, some deals have caused controversy.
India, a top customer for Russian weapons, has been involved in a broadly publicized dispute over a contract for Russia to refurbish the Soviet-built aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. A Russian shipyard has fallen far behind schedule in fulfilling the order and demanded a higher price for its work; the Indians protested loudly and the bickering continues.
Russia has been courting India to win a multibillion dollar contract to supply it with 126 new fighter planes, offering the MiG-35, an advanced version of the MiG-29. Problems with the Algerian deal, coming on top of the dispute over the aircraft carrier, could hurt MiG's chances in tough competition from U.S., French and Swedish companies.
Some commentators said that pressure from France, which wants to sell its Rafale jets to Algeria, could also be a factor behind Algeria's reported rejection of the MiGs.
Andrei Maslov, head of a Russian think-tank specializing in African studies, Rosafroexpertiza, said that Algeria could be tempted to purchase French jets as a complement to booming energy sales to France. ''The money spent on Rafales would be just a fraction of what it will earn by selling gas to France,'' said Maslov.