By Ruzanna Stepanian
The state-run railway companies of Armenia and Russia agreed on Wednesday to set up a joint venture, underscoring Moscow’s renewed efforts to restore rail communication with Armenia via Georgia after a 12-year hiatus. The agreement was signed in Yerevan by the visiting head of the Russian national railway, Gennady Fadeyev, and his Armenian counterparts.
“Armenia today is under blockade,” Fadeyev told reporters on his arrival in the Armenian capital. “It has practically no [access to] sea and railways. Things are transported mainly by road and air.”
“You can’t carry many things through that means of transportation. Today we will look at the possibility of setting up a joint venture,” he said.
Fadeyev would not elaborate on the specifics of the project, saying only that the Russians hope to arouse Tbilisi’s interest in it. “I would have lied if I had said that we don’t want Georgia to be an equal party to our agreements,” he said. “Georgia provides for the shortest route of communication between Russia and Armenia.”
His talks in Yerevan came two days after Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin’s visit to Tbilisi during which he claimed to have made progress towards the restoration of rail service that used to connect Armenia and Georgia to Russia and the rest of Europe. That is presumably key to the success of the Russian-Armenian venture.
The rail link was disrupted in 1992 with the outbreak of an armed conflict in Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian republic bordering Russia. The authorities in Tbilisi have until now been reluctant to allow the resumption of commercial traffic through the Abkhaz section of the railway, insisting that it be preceded by the return of tens of thousands of Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia.
They seemed to have softened their stance in March 2003 when then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin announced an agreement on the gradual reopening of the railway. Its implementation subsequently stalled, however.
Levitin and senior Georgian government officials reportedly agreed to “intensify” joint efforts to put that agreement into practice. A joint Russian-Georgian statement cited by the Itar-Tass news agency said the two sides expect mutual benefits from the reopening of the railway.
“I’m not familiar with details but his meetings [in Tbilisi] seem to have been encouraging,” Fadeyev said.
The lack of rail communication with Russia and other countries makes export-oriented Armenian companies less competitive and hampers foreign investment in Armenia’s struggling economy. It is also a serious hindrance to Russian-Armenian economic ties.
Official statistics show the volume of bilateral trade falling by 15.5 percent to $186.5 million during the first nine months of this year. Armenia’s trade with the European Union, by contrast, reached $549 million during the same period.
(Photolur photo: Fadeyev meeting with President Robert Kocharian on Wednesday.)