By Atom Markarian
A Russian ferryboat laden with rail cars docked at Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti on Friday, marking the launch of a long-awaited transport link which will partly restore Armenia’s rail communication with Russia disrupted more than a decade ago.
The presidents of Russia and Armenia welcomed the rail ferry service, saying that it will give a boost to bilateral commercial ties. “We hope that this line will work in the interests of all countries of the region,” Russia’s Vladimir Putin said in Yerevan. “I think it’s a good step in the right direction.”
His Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian described the development as “the beginning of a solution to a very serious problem that stifled our economic cooperation.”
Leading Armenian businessman likewise said it will considerably facilitate Russian-Armenian commerce. According to Gagik Aghajanian of the Armenian Union of Cargo Transporters, the disproportionately high transportation costs hampering bilateral trade will drop by up to 30 percent as a result.
“This will be the shortest and cheapest of the existing trade routes,” Aghajanian told RFE/RL.
Khachatur Sukiasian, a parliament deputy who owns over a dozen companies, is also looking forward to the new link. “Armenian goods exported to Russia will be more competitive,” he argued.
The launch of the ferry service between Poti and Russia’s Port-Kavkaz, initially scheduled for the end of January, followed years of preparations and negotiations between the Russian, Georgian and Armenian governments. The latter has long been pushing for it, anxious to ease land-locked Armenia’s economic isolation.
Ferries capable of carrying heavy train cars have until now operated between Poti and Ukrainian and Bulgarian ports. Armenia relies on them heavily in its commercial exchange with the rest of the world.
The lack of inexpensive trade routes is seen as a key reason for recent years’ steady decrease in Russian-Armenian trade. Its overall volume fell by 13 percent to about $250 million last year.
The Poti-Port-Kavkaz link is expected to operate twice a week with two Russian ferryboats capable of carrying up to 24 rail cars. Aghajanian admitted that that capacity will not be enough to meet demand in cargo shipments to and from Russia.