By Armen Zakarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenian leaders expressed hope Tuesday for a quick and peaceful end to the mounting standoff between Georgia’s central government and its quasi-independent Black Sea region of Ajaria which could complicate Armenia's commercial traffic with the outside world.
The statements came as the authorities in Tbilisi imposed a blockade on Ajaria’s ports and land borders in retaliation for its ruler Aslan Abashidze’s refusal to allow President Mikhail Saakashvili to visit the autonomous republic at the weekend. The move has led to the temporary closure of one of Georgia’s two main sea ports located in the Ajar capital Batumi.
“I think that they will be able to resolve the crisis at the negotiation table without serious problems,” President Robert Kocharian told reporters. He said the Georgian leadership is well aware of the ports’ significance for the Armenian economy.
“Stability in Georgia is extremely important for us, and we hope there will be stability,” Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said for his part.
Georgian navy units reportedly prevented seven ships from unloading in Batumi, escorting them to the port of Poti about 80 kilometers to the north. Over 90 percent of Armenia’s external trade is carried out through the two Black Sea conduits. There were also media reports of increased military presence on both sides of Ajaria’s administrative border with Georgia proper, raising fears of a fresh armed conflict in the volatile country.
In what may have been a related development, an explosion Tuesday morning destroyed a
stretch of railway tracks near the town of Mtskheta, 15 kilometers west of Tbilisi, causing no casualties. Georgian security officials suggested involvement by the Ajar leadership.
Russia, which has a military base in Ajaria, has openly sided with Abashidze in the dispute, warning Tbilisi against attempting to forcibly bring the restive province to heel. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has also urged Saakashvili to show restraint.
Kocharian’s press office reported later in the day that the Armenian leader had a phone conversation with Russia’s newly reelected President Vladimir Putin. The “situation in the South Caucasus” was among issues discussed by the two men, it said. No further details were reported.
Meanwhile, some of Armenia’s leading businessmen are already ringing alarm bells over possible implications of the Georgian crisis. Ruben Hayrapetian, whose Grand Tobacco cigarette-producing factory relies on the Batumi port for raw tobacco imports, said: “Its closure would have a big impact. We would suffer substantial financial losses.”
But other local tycoons sounded less worried. Khachatur Sukiasian of the SIL Group, who also deals with the Ajar port, said he will simply reroute his supplies to Poti. “I don’t think the damage will be great,” he said.
“The overwhelming majority of goods reach Armenia through the port of Poti, not Batumi,” argued Harutiun Pambukian of the MAX Group.
“But Poti is not that far away from Batumi,” he added. “That is why Georgia’s development and prosperity is essential for us.”
Saakashvili attempted to enter Ajaria the day after wrapping up an official visit to Armenia during which he praised its leaders’ regional policy. He pledged to facilitate transit of Armenian cargoes via Georgia.
(AP-Photolur photo: Georgians pass by an armed guard as they cross a checkpoint between Georgia and Aajria near Poti.)