By Astghik Bedevian
Armenian companies trading with Russia said on Tuesday that they are already incurring losses as a result of Moscow’s decision to impose a transport blockade on Georgia in retaliation for the arrest of its Tbilisi-based military officers accused of espionage.
The Russian government suspended all land, sea, and postal links with Georgia on Monday despite the release and repatriation of the four officers who allegedly worked for Russia’s GRU military intelligence. It also threatened to ban cash remittances from hundreds of thousands of Georgians working in Russia.
The extraordinary move, criticized by the European Union, further complicated Moscow’s already tense relationship with the pro-Western administration of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. It could also seriously hamper Armenian exports to and imports from Russia. Those account for a considerable part of Armenia’s external trade.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian downplayed the blockade’s effects on Armenia, arguing that the Russians had already closed their main land border crossing with Georgia in June and that Armenian companies can continue to ship cargos to Russia via Ukraine. However, the owners of some of those companies were far less sanguine, saying that they are already counting the possible cost of the Russian blockade.
Ashot Baghdasarian, chief executive of the Kilikia beer and soft drinks company, said a batch of its products bound for Russia was left stranded in a Georgian Black Sea port following the suspension of a regular Georgian-Russian ferry service. Kilikia is also unable to import Russian raw materials used for the packaging of its natural juices, he said.
“I have information that our cargos were stopped at the border yesterday,” Baghdasarian told RFE/RL. “This is a very big problem for businessmen.” The businessman, who is also a parliament deputy from the governing Republican Party (HHK), urged the Armenian government to help sort out the problem.
The government seems reluctant to raise the issue with the Russian side for the time being. “We have not yet received an official notification from the Russian side on restrictions placed on shipments of our goods.” the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Vladimir Karapetian, said.
Great Valley, a major Armenian brandy firm heavily oriented towards the Russian market, has also seen its exports grind to a halt. “There is an option of shipping things by air, something which we have done in the past,” its owner Tigran Arzakantsian told RFE/RL. “But that is very expensive. We are now examining ways of making shipments via Iran.”
Arzakantsian also owns a textile factory in his native town of Gavar that exports most of its production to Russia.
Other Armenian exporters said they have so far been unaffected by the escalating Russian-Georgian crisis. Arsen Ghazarian of the Apaven cargo company said it continued to successfully ferry freight to Russia on Tuesday. MAP, another major liquor manufacturer, likewise reported non transportation problems.
“Only the shipment of Georgian cargos has been suspended,” the MAP chairman, Alik Petrosian, told RFE/RL. “So our cargos keep going to [the Georgian port of] Poti and then proceeding to Russia.”
But Petrosian too was worried about the situation. “Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow,” he explained. “Everyone understands what a serious blow to our economy could suffer.”
Armenian exports to Russia, dominated alcoholic drinks and agricultural products, were already dealt a severe blow with the closure last June of the main Russian-Georgian border crossing. Armenian leaders tried unsuccessfully to get the Russians to reopen the Upper Lars crossing. This prompted renewed complaints by Armenian politicians and commentators that Russian ignores the interests of Armenia, its main regional ally, in its dealings with Georgia.
Russian officials have denied any political motives behind the closure of Upper Lars, saying that the “temporary” measure was necessary for repairing roads and customs facilities on the Russian side of the mountainous frontier.
Despite stepping up its economic and diplomatic blockade of Georgia, Moscow has not cut off its vital natural gas supplies to Georgia and on to Armenia, something which would have even more severe consequences for both South Caucasus states.