By Anna Saghabalian
Armenian officials and business leaders expressed concern on Monday about the sudden closure of the main Russian-Georgian border crossing which is used by Armenian companies exporting goods to Russia and other former Soviet republics.
The Russian government brought commercial and individual traffic through the Upper Lars crossing to a halt on Thursday, saying that it needs to carry out repairs at the customs and border checkpoints on the Russian side of the mountainous frontier.
The move was denounced as politically motivated by Georgia’s Foreign Ministry which sent a note of protest to Moscow. It came on the heels of a highly controversial Russian ban on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water. The ban, which has hit hard two key sectors of the struggling Georgian economy, is widely seen as a retaliatory measure against Tbilisi’s pro-Western foreign policy.
Vahan Hovannisian, deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament and a leader of the governing Dashnaktsutyun party, deplored the closure of Upper Lars, effectively dismissing the Russian assurances that political factors are not at play. “This definitely has to do with Russian-Georgian tensions that periodically escalate and are then defused,” he told reporters. “Our partners in Russia must understand that any action against Georgia automatically hits Armenia’s interests as well, and they must be more flexible and cautious.”
Arsen Ghazarian, the chief executive of a freight company who also heads the Armenian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, likewise complained that the decision to temporary shut down the Russian-Georgian border crossing “no economic basis.” “We hope that this is a temporary phenomenon,” he told RFE/RL. “This major regional highway, which connects Armenia and the other South Caucasus counties to Russia, can not remain closed forever.”
Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli insisted over the weekend that Russia can hardly inflict additional economic damage on his country with its latest actions. “As Georgia virtually exports nothing to Russia, it is first and foremost Armenia that has been affected the most, if we are speaking in economic terms.,” Noghaideli told reporters. “Accordingly, I have notified the Armenian prime minister and they too will react to this.”
Upper Lars handles the bulk of Russian-Armenian trade in summer months. Its closure could be particularly damaging for Armenian exports of fruit and other agricultural produce that were already stymied by high transportation costs.
Ghazarian insisted, however, that local exporters will not face financial ruin as there is an alternative transport route for shipping cargo to Russia. “We are used to working through [Black Sea] ports,” he said. “Just now I got an order from one of our juice exporters to make a cargo shipment from [the Georgian port of] Poti to [Russia’s] Novorossiysk.”
“We have been working in this regime for 13 years,” he added.