By Ruzanna Stepanian
Russia has agreed to let out hundreds of Armenia-bound vehicles stranded on its closed border with Georgia after repeated requests from Armenian leaders, Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian announced on Wednesday.
Manukian told RFE/RL that the move followed “continuous negotiations” between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Robert Kocharian. But he added that freight carriers and individual travelers stuck at the main Russian-Georgian border crossing at Verkhny Lars have yet to obtain permission to enter Georgian territory and proceed to Armenia.
“The Russian side reopened the border [for Armenia] last night,” he said. “We are now negotiating with the Georgian side. If all goes well, those trucks will reach Armenia tonight.”
There was no immediate reaction to the news from Tbilisi.
Moscow closed its frontiers with Georgia and Azerbaijan immediately after the September 3 school massacre in its republic of North Ossetia. Russian officials say that Chechen militants, widely blamed for the terrorist attack, often cross into Russia from the two South Caucasus states.
The Russian blockade was beginning to inflict considerable damage on the economy of Armenia, its main regional ally with which it has no common border. It has been widely criticized in the Armenian press. Even newspapers sympathetic to Russia have denounced it as a blow to the “strategic partnership” maintained by the two nations since the Soviet collapse. The fact that Kocharian has raised the issue with Putin underscores the extent of the Armenian concerns.
The Kremlin’s announced decision to let Armenian cargos though the mountainous checkpoint followed a weekend visit to Yerevan by Sergey Mironov, the speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament. It is not yet clear whether the move gives vehicles bound for Armenia a permanent passage through Verkhny Lars or is a one-off measure designed to ease the transport backlog on the Russian side.
Arsen Ghazarian, who heads Armenia’s biggest freight company, cautioned that it is “not yet a solution” to the problem. According to his estimates, as many as 1,500 Armenian or Armenian-bound vehicles, including 250 heavy trucks, have been stranded on either side of the Russian-Georgian frontier that cuts across the Caucasus mountain range.
“The main problem is a humanitarian one,” Ghazarian told RFE/RL. “Lots of drivers and other people stuck at the border have been suffering for weeks.”
Landlocked Armenia’s transport communication with Russia and other countries has been further complicated by the ongoing repairs on a ferry service between Georgian and Russian Black Sea Ports. Ghazarian said some Armenian importers are already trying to reroute their Russian supplies via Ukraine.