By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Hundreds of angry traders again gathered at Armenia’s main border crossing with Georgia on Wednesday to protest against the closure of a local market stemming from a joint Georgian-Armenian ban on cross-border commerce.
The border villages of Bagratashen, Armenia and Sadakhlo, Georgia have long been the scene of brisk trade that was the main source of revenue for tens of thousands of people in the two countries as well as Azerbaijan.
The Armenian and Georgian governments say it also fueled large-scale smuggling of goods across the region. The authorities in Tbilisi shut down the Sadakhlo market last January. Trading activity in the area continued until the Armenian customs enforced a similar ban at Bagratashen late last week.
The move sparked angry protests by local residents that blocked traffic through the main Armenian highway leading to the Georgian border for several hours before being dispersed by police early on Monday. The traders, many of them women, gathered there two days later in another attempt force the authorities to lift the ban.
“They say the market is illegal but everyone has legal documents and pays taxes,” one of the protesters, Susanna Petrosian, told RFE/RL from the scene. “We have to work, we have to live. There are thousands of us.”
“Police from across the region have been deployed here,” she said. “Everyone is waiting for the governor [of the northern Tavush province.]”
The governor, Armen Ghularian, assured the protesters later in the day that the authorities will allow them to open a new market in another location near Bagratashen.
But some protesters remained unconvinced. “We can’t believe the governor’s words,” one of them, Amalia Adamian, said. “He has broken his promises before.”
Karen Beglarian, a senior official at the State Customs Committee in Yerevan, made it clear that a new market can operate only outside the “customs zone,” something which would presumably complicate commercial exchange with Georgian and Azerbaijani traders from across the frontier. Beglarian insisted that the unpopular measure is needed for curbing illegal imports of food and consumer goods which he said often fail to meet quality standards. He also cited “unsanitary conditions” at the Bagratashen market.