By Ruzanna Stepanian
Georgia would like to connect to a pipeline that will transport Iranian natural gas to Armenia and to serve as a transit route for its possible export to other countries, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli announced at the weekend.
Officials said the issue was high on the agenda of his two-day visit to Yerevan during which he met with President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. The two sides focused on bilateral economic ties and, in particular, efforts to restore Armenia’s and Georgia’s rail communication with Russia.
“We are definitely interested in using that pipeline for importing gas to Georgia,” Noghaideli told reporters, ending the trip on Saturday. “And in the future we will look into more large-scale projects.”
“The Georgian side raised that issue, saying that they would benefit from being a transit route for the export of Iranian gas to Ukraine,” Markarian said for his part. “We listened to their wish and will consider it later on.”
The pipeline in question is scheduled to go into service by 2007. Work on its 42-kilometer Armenian section got underway last November and is financed by a $34 million loan provided by the Iranian government.
Armenia hopes the pipeline will reduce its dependence on Russia for energy resources. Russia is currently its sole gas supplier. Georgia likewise imports the fuel from Russia but is due to receive gas from Azerbaijan as well within the next few years. Tbilisi appears to be seeking to further diversify its suppliers.
The idea of extending the Iran-Armenia pipeline to third countries has long been discussed by the two governments. However, the diameter of the pipeline currently under construction is smaller than was originally planned, making re-exports of Iranian gas highly problematic. The decision to limit its capacity is believed to have been taken under Russian pressure.
Markarian appeared to refer to the Russian factor when he said, “There are countries interested in the project [proposed by Georgia]. But will they actually take part in its implementation?”
The two sides also discussed the continuing delay in the opening of a rail ferry service between the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti and Russia’s Port-Kavkaz. Armenian government officials and businessmen hope that the link, which was due to be launched in late January, would partly restore Armenia’s rail connection with the outside world.
Markarian attributed the delay to “technical problems” on the Russian side. “We hope that the Russian side will solve that problem,” he said. “The Georgian side is ready to implement the project.”
Both he and Noghaideli welcomed a 50 percent surge in Georgian-Armenian trade which totaled $78 million last year. However, the figure is quite modest in both absolute and relative terms, making up less than 4 percent of Armenia’s overall external trade.
Still, Armenian officials say that commercial ties between the two countries have become easier since the November 2003 “rose revolution” in Tbilisi that brought to power a team of young pro-Western reformers.
But their hopes that the new Georgian leadership will lower transit fees for cargo shipped to and from Armenia through Georgian territory have yet to materialize. Noghaideli said the issue was not on the agenda of his visit. He indicated that a tariff reduction depends on an increase the volume of the cargo turnover.