By Shakeh Avoyan
Armenia was scrambling on Wednesday to divert its vital supplies of goods from Batumi, a major Black Sea port and the capital of the Georgian autonomous region of Ajaria blockaded by the central government for the second consecutive day.
Government officials and transportation firms said the supply line is being rerouted to the Tbilisi-controlled port of Poti which already handled a large part of cargoes shipped to and from Armenia through the Georgian railway. They said an appropriate letter was sent on Tuesday by the Armenian railway chief to a Ukrainian company that operates a cargo ferry link between Batumi and the Ukrainian port of Ilyichevsk.
“Sixty freight cars of cargo bound for Armenia left Ilyichevsk yesterday and we expect them to reach Poti tomorrow,” Tamar Ghalechian, the spokeswoman for the Armenian Ministry of Transport and Communications, told RFE/RL.
Gagik Aghajanian, the chief executive of Armenia’s biggest cargo shipment company, Apaven, confirmed the information. He said the five ships heading for Poti are mostly carrying diesel fuel.
According to the Transport Ministry, between 1,300 and 1,400 freight cars of fuel, food and other goods, were transported to Armenia from Batumi and Poti each month before the standoff between Georgia’s new President Mikhail Saakashvili and Ajaria’s defiant leader, Aslan Abashidze. Saakashvili is seeking to reassert Tbilisi’s control over the Black Sea region after being twice barred from entering it on Sunday. He imposed an economic blockade on Ajaria in retaliation for the humiliating challenge.
Only one commercial ship with Armenia-bound sugar on board was reportedly stranded in the Batumi port. The load belongs to the Astghatsolk trading company, Armenia’s principal importer of sugar, wheat and other foodstuffs. Its millionaire owner, Samvel Aleksanian, said the ship has so far been prevented from leaving the port.
Aleksanian also said he is confident that the difficulties will not push up the basic commodity prices in Armenia. Apaven’s Aghajanian shared the view, arguing that local importers may even spend less on Georgian rail transit fees because Poti is closer to the Armenian border.
Aghajanian warned at the same time that the Poti port, which has only 12 docks and is smaller than a similar facility in Batumi, may be unable to cope with the increased cargo traffic, causing costly delays. “That could create a serious problem,” he told RFE/RL.
The two Georgian ports are also a major transit point for Caspian oil which is off-loaded from trains onto tankers before reaching international markets.