By Emil Danielyan
Russia reopened its border with Georgia and Azerbaijan on Friday, ending a nearly two-month transport embargo that severed one of Armenia’s main supply lines and prompted criticism of Moscow’s regional policy in Yerevan.
“Starting from today, Verkhny Lars is open to both international cargo and passenger traffic,” Anatoly Dryukov, the Russian ambassador to Armenia, said, referring to the main Russian-Georgian border crossing on the Caucasus mountain range.
Officials in Moscow were reported to confirm that traffic across the border began traveling in both directions earlier in the day. The Russian government sealed the border in early September following the bloody terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, southern Russia. It said the measure is aimed at thwarting cross-border movements of Chechen “terrorists.”
The lifting of the blockade came two days after a phone conversation between Presidents Robert Kocharian and Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin said on Thursday that it took place at Kocharian’s request but gave no details. There was no word on the conversation from the Armenian president’s press service.
Armenian officials said earlier that Kocharian has repeatedly raised the negative impact of the border closing with Putin. They said the phone talks between the two leaders were instrumental in the brief reopening of the Verkhny Lars crossing earlier this month. The move allowed hundreds of Armenian trucks, personal cars and buses stranded on its Russian side for more than a month to cross into Georgia and reach Armenia.
The border’s reopening, which coincided with the start of Kocharian’s official visit to Georgia, was rather unexpected in the light of uncompromising statements made by senior Russian officials. Visiting Yerevan as recently as last week, Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin said that Verkhny Lars will remain shut for at least one for month.
The checkpoint handles up to a quarter of Armenia’s commercial exchange with or through Russia. Its closure hit particularly hard small and medium-sized Armenian companies involved in import and export operations. There are still no credible estimates of the losses suffered by them as a result.
The embargo drew an almost unanimous criticism from Armenian politicians, political analysts and media commentators. Some of them have accused Moscow of disregarding its main regional ally and urged Yerevan to reconsider its pro-Russian foreign policy orientation.
In a related move, the Georgian authorities let in Thursday dozens of Armenian vehicles stranded on another major Russian-Georgian border crossing that passes through Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia. They were due to reach Armenia on Friday. The Caucasus Press news agency quoted Georgian officials as describing the move as a gesture of good will.
The authorities in Tbilisi banned traffic between South Ossetia and Georgia proper this summer with the stated aim of tackling widespread smuggling of goods from the de-facto independent territory.
(Itar-Tass-Photolur photo: Armenian children stranded in South Ossetia with their parents picketing a local office of the OSCE.)