By Atom Markarian
Armenia took over the rotating presidency of the European Union’s effort to build transport corridors to the Caucasus and Central Asia as it hosted an annual conference of the TRACECA project’s coordinating body on Thursday.
The two-day conference is attended by senior officials from the EU executive, the European Commission, and TRACECA’s 13 member countries, including Azerbaijan. Welcoming the participants, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said his land-locked country remains keenly interested in the success of the idea aimed at facilitating transcontinental commerce.
“The regional TRACECA countries are situated at the intersection of several transport corridors and possess enormous potential for cargo transit,” he said. “Our state attaches great importance to the functioning of transport corridors and is ready for any constructive dialogue to develop them.”
The EU has already spent large sums on the development of transport infrastructure in the ex-Soviet republics of the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Their future communication with Europe is to be facilitated through the creation of inexpensive and stable ferry links between Romanian and Bulgarian and Georgian Black Sea ports.
As part of TRACECA, the EU granted Armenia 5 million euros ($5.8 million) in the late 1990s for modernizing its railway network that has fallen into decline since the Soviet collapse. Another 1 million-euro grant has been spent on the construction of a railway cargo terminal near Yerevan.
Armenia’s participation in the efforts to revive the ancient Silk Road is seriously hampered by the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that keeps its land borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey closed. Azerbaijan has made it clear since TRACECA’s launch in 1996 that it will not engage in any economic cooperation with Armenia before a Karabakh settlement even within the new EU framework.
Armenia may find its one year presidency a difficult task also given the fact that TRACECA’s executive secretariat is headquartered in Baku.
The project’s implementation is further complicated by other ethnic conflicts and broader instability in the region. Pir Knutsen, a senior European Commission official representing the EU at the Yerevan conference, acknowledged this reality, but stressed that more time is need for the success of the undertaking.
“I should say that the force of TRACECA is that it is a long-term, stable cooperation framework,” he said. “It’s not something which you invent one day and forget about next year. Progress in its implementation is slower than we would wish. Nonetheless, it is progress.”
Armenia’s prospects for becoming a major transit country may brighten after the upcoming accession of Iran and Afghanistan to TRACECA. Both Islamic republics have already formally applied for membership.