By Anna Saghabalian
President Mikhail Saakashvili’s radical shake-up of the once corrupt Georgian traffic police has been responsible for a surge in the number of Armenians spending their summer holidays in Georgia, a government-connected Armenian businessman said on Wednesday.
According to Vladimir Badalian, a co-chairman of the Armenian-Georgian Association of Business Cooperation, at least 10,000 Armenian tourists have traveled to Georgia’s Black Sea region of Ajaria this year and many more are likely to do so next year. He said they were attracted by not only the relatively low cost of the Ajarian seaside resorts but also by the virtual eradication of police corruption on Georgia’s roads.
“You can enter Georgia and drive all the way to the Black Sea coast without any problems,” Badalian told RFE/RL. “Nobody will stop you on the way. As a result of that, 10,000 vacationers went to Ajaria by their own cars.”
The Georgian traffic police were notorious in the past for their corruption and in particular routine extortion of bribes from the drivers of Armenian cars and buses venturing into Georgian territory. Saakashvili disbanded them and formed a new, Western-style road patrol service from scratch shortly after taking office on the back of the November 2003 “rose revolution” in Tbilisi.
Saakashvili welcomed last week the influx of holidaymakers from Armenia, similarly attributing it to his crackdown on police corruption. Speaking to Armenian journalists in the Ajarian capital Batumi, he said he hopes their number will grow tenfold next year. “We should also develop links to organize visits to both countries, so that people who go to Armenia also come to Georgia and vice versa,” he said. “There should be no border obstacles.”
Saakashvili also called for closer economic times between the two neighboring nations. “I see with delight how rapidly the Armenian economy is developing. Annual growth in Armenia is about 10 per cent,” he said, according to the Georgian Imedi TV. “I think that there are many things we should learn from Armenia, for example how to organize the banking system, a system for micro-loans, a cooperative system in agriculture and the export of agricultural produce.”
“I think Armenia emerged from this crisis earlier and Georgia is now enjoying rapid
economic growth. Developing without each other would not be rational, natural or right,” he added.
Badalian, whose daughter is married to the older son of President Robert Kocharian, was also in Batumi last week along with a group of businessmen from Armenia. He said they are interested in investing in the local tourism infrastructure and were encouraged to do so by local authorities.
Badalian also noted growing Armenian business interest in Georgia’s broader economy. “The manufacturing sector of Georgia has lagged behind that of Armenia,” he explained. “Many businessmen here, for whom the Armenian market is too small, are now looking for new markets.”