By Emil Danielyan
Relations between Armenia and Georgia have improved since the November 2003"revolution of roses" in Tbilisi that brought a team of young Western-leaning reformers to power, senior Armenian officials declared on Thursday.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and a close associate of President Robert Kocharian said the administration of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has taken serious steps to facilitate bilateral commerce and the vital transit of Armenian cargo through his country.
"The centuries-old friendship between our peoples and efforts to deepen mutual trust and cooperation between our states have received a new impetus since the change of government in Georgia," said Markarian. "All of that is reinforced by growing mutual high-level visits, frequent meetings and discussions of mutually beneficial programs."
He singled out the recent reconstruction of a Georgian highway leading to the Armenian border and a crackdown on the notoriously corrupt traffic police that routinely extorted bribes from Armenian travelers.
The Armenian premier was addressing the founding congress in Yerevan of the Armenian-Georgian Association of Business Cooperation which unites prominent entrepreneurs from the two neighboring states. Its stated aim is to promote bilateral economic cooperation with a favorable trading regime and closer business contacts.
"This cooperation would not have taken place had there been no change of government in Georgia," said Vladimir Badalian, the association's Armenian co-chairman. Badalian, whose daughter is married to Kocharian's son, is also a senior member of the Armenian parliament.
The Armenian and Georgian leaders, who have exchanged official visits this year, welcomed the gatherings with written statements read out to its participants. "I hope that your initiative will help to rekindle the traditions which brought up many generations of our peoples," read Saakashvili's message.
"Such meetings help the two governments determine necessary conditions for expanding economic ties," Kocharian said for his part.
Also underscoring the government support for the Armenian-Georgian business group was the presence of Saakashvili's Dutch wife, Sandra Roelofs, at the congress. "This is a very good initiative. We are neighboring countries and have a lot in common," Roelofs told RFE/RL.
"Armenia does not have sea ports and is quite dependent on neighboring countries for transport because not everything can be transported by air," she added. "So I think good knowledge of legislation and partners in Georgia will benefit the Armenian economy and also Georgia as a transit country. Together they can achieve a lot."
The association's Georgian co-chairman, Beso Jugheli, said its first practical step will be to try to ensure the lifting of prohibitive fees levied from Armenian and Georgian vehicles entering each other's country. Jugheli said he and 11 other Georgian lawmakers affiliated with the pressure group will lobby the parliament in Tbilisi to pass relevant legislative changes next month.
More important to Armenia is a reduction of transit fees paid its by businesspeople using Georgian territory for freight shipments. The Georgian Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti process more than 90 percent of Armenia's external cargo turnover. The Armenian government has long been pressing the Georgians to cut the transit tariffs. Saakashvili admitted that they are disproportionately high shortly after sweeping to power on the back of a popular revolt against his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze.
Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian told RFE/RL that he will visit Tbilisi later this month to discuss the issue with Georgian officials. "I think the issue will find a solution," he said on the sidelines of the business forum.
The Georgian "rose revolution," sparked by a reputedly fraudulent parliamentary election, was touted in the West as a triumph of democracy, precipitating Georgia's as well as Armenia's and Azerbaijan's inclusion in the European Union's New Neighborhood Policy program. The bloodless regime change also inspired the Armenian opposition to its unsuccessful attempt last spring to force Kocharian into resignation with a campaign of street protests.
Saakashvili has won further international acclaim for his economic reforms and especially his tough crackdown on rampant corruption. "We have an unusual president. I am closely watching him," said Vakhtang Kikabidze, a prominent Georgian movie actor who also attended the Yerevan forum. "He is a very interesting young man. I like what he is doing."
Kikabidze, who is also very popular in Armenia, added that positive change in his country is evident. "I think nobody in the former Soviet Union is combating corruption the way we do now," he said.
(RFE/RL photo: Sandra Roelofs arriving at the business forum.)