By Ruzanna Khachatrian
A senior Russian official indicated on Friday that the reopening of Russia’s border with Georgia sealed a month ago is not on the cards despite the blockade’s growing economic damage to Armenia, its main regional ally.
Sergey Mironov, the speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said the Armenians should “understand” Moscow’s justification for the drastic measure imposed following the tragedy in a Russian school seized by Chechen terrorists.
“We are familiar with all problems facing Armenia, including those relating to access to other countries, and are ready to assist it,” Mironov told reporters at the start of a three-day visit to Yerevan. “But I hope that Armenia as a whole and its leadership will understand the circumstances which forced Russia to resort to that.”
A joint statement issued by Mironov and Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian later in the day called for a joint fight against “international terrorism” which the Kremlin blames for the decade-long armed conflict in Chechnya. “We stand together with Armenia and the majority of world countries in combating terrorism,” Mironov said.
The Russian authorities claim that Chechen militants have used the territory of Georgia and Azerbaijan as safe heavens to plan and carry out terrorist attacks against civilian targets across Russia. President Vladimir Putin ordered the closure of his country’s rugged and porous frontier with the two South Caucasus states immediately after the school bloodbath in the North Caucasian town of Beslan.
But critics counter that the gunmen that took more than a thousand hostages were from Chechnya and had little trouble crossing into the neighboring Russian republic of North Ossetia.
The Armenian government is increasingly concerned about the blockade’s negative impact on the Armenian economy, with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian describing it as “serious” in parliament on Wednesday. Markarian said President Robert Kocharian has already raised the issue with Putin.
Russia is a key trading partner of Armenia, and a large part of their commercial exchange is carried out through the Russian-Georgian border crossings.
Markarian said that the border closure has, among other things, disrupted supplies of Russian equipment to Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power plant which was shut down for regular repairs this summer. He warned that the disruption could delay the reactivation of Metsamor’s sole reactor.
The Russian embargo has also affected ordinary Armenians traveling to Russia by bus. The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported this week that some 45 Armenian bus passengers have been stranded at a Russian-Georgian border checkpoint on the Caucasus mountain range since September 3. It also quoted a Georgian border guard as saying that three other busloads of Armenians had turned back earlier.
Georgia, whose relations with Russia remain extremely strained, has criticized the border closure as unjustified and counterproductive. This position was reaffirmed by Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania on Thursday as he attended the founding conference in Tbilisi of a Georgian-Armenian business association. According to the Georgian Caucasus Press news agency, members of the association “unanimously condemned” the Russian actions.
(Photolur photo: Sergey Mironov.)