By Atom Markarian
Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian made Wednesday a strong case for the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border, saying that it would greatly reduce Armenia’s dependence on Georgia for commercial communication with the outside world.
Manukian argued that an open frontier would restore the Turkish-Armenian rail link and give Armenia an attractive alternative to importing and exporting goods through the Georgian railway. “We would get rid of Georgia’s monopolist status in railway communication,” he said, underscoring the Armenian government’s long-standing complaints that transit fees charged by Tbilisi are disproportionately high.
Responding to those concerns, Georgia’s new President Mikhail Saakashvili has promised to revise the tariffs downwards. But his chief minister, Zurab Zhvania, made no such commitment when he visited Yerevan in late December. Over 90 percent of Armenia’s external trade is carried out through Georgian territory.
Manukian said that if Turkey lifts its 11-year economic embargo the Georgians will lower the transit fees to avoid an even bigger loss of revenues that could result from an Armenian switch to the Turkish railway and Black Sea ports. He also argued that Armenia could itself become a transit country.
“There is a lot of trade between Georgia and Turkey, but the two countries have no railway link,” he said. “It is obvious that in order to spend less on transportation the Turkish and Georgian sides would be interested in using the [Armenian] railway.”
Manukian’s enthusiasm is at odds with the position of one of the three parties’ represented in his government, the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). While denouncing the Turkish blockade, Dashnaktsutyun leaders say that an open border with Turkey could leave Armenia economically dependent on its historic foe and open the floodgates to cheap Turkish imports.
Those concerns are not shared by President Robert Kocharian and the two other parties making his coalition government. Most of the country’s leading businessmen have also spoken out in favor of cross-border commerce with Turkey.