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By Ruzanna Stepanian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian ended a two-day official visit to Georgia on Tuesday, announcing a major shift in Tbilisi’s policy which he said bodes well for the reopening of strategic railways that connect Armenia with the outside world.

He noted in particular a “huge softening” of Georgia’s conditions for the resumption of rail communication with Russia running through the breakaway republic of Abkhazia. The Abkhaz section of the railway has been closed since the outbreak of an armed conflict in 1992 that resulted in the Black Sea region’s de facto independence from the Tbilisi government.

“There has been a softening of the Georgian approach to the issue,” Markarian told reporters in Yerevan on his return from the Georgian capital where he met with President Mikhail Saakashvili and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania.

“Whereas in the past Georgia linked the reopening of the railway to the status of Abkhazia, it is now talking about security and the system of governance in the Gali district [of Abkhazia] mainly populated by Georgians,” he said.

The Georgians, Markarian added, realize that a full resolution of the Abkhaz conflict is “very difficult” under the existing circumstances. “They themselves do not know how they can resolve it,” he said.

It is widely believed that the reopening of the Abkhaz railway would give a strong boost to Armenia’s struggling economy by reducing high transportation costs associated with import-export operations. Successive Armenian governments have for years lobbied for its reactivation.

However, the issue carries less urgency for Georgia which can communicate with Russia by rail via neighboring Azerbaijan and has an open border with Turkey as well as its own Black Sea ports. Strained relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have also seriously hampered efforts to restore commercial traffic through Abkhazia before an agreement on the region’s final status.

According to Markarian, Georgia is also interested in the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border because it would be able to use the presently idle rail link between the towns of Gyumri in Armenia and Kars in Turkey. He said Saakashvili promised to raise the issue during talks with Turkish leaders next month.

Economic issues topped the agenda of the Armenian premier’s talks in Tbilisi, with Markarian and Zhvania presiding on Monday over a meeting of an intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. Both men called for a sharp increase in the volume of commercial exchange between the two neighboring states.

“It is impossible to imagine Georgia’s development without Armenia’s development,” Zhvania was quoted as saying by the Armenian government’s press service.

Markarian lauded Saakashvili’s reform-minded administration for its anti-corruption initiatives which he said will make it easier for Armenians to do business in Georgia. “As we toured Georgia during our trip we saw practically no police on the roads,” he said, mentioning a frequent source of complaints by Armenian travelers. “They are introducing a new system which in my view will help to increase the turnover of goods between our countries.”
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