By Anna Saghabalian and Emil Danielyan
Russia has promised to reopen soon its main border crossing with Georgia and upgrade a new Black Sea ferry link in order to enable a further major increase in its trade with Armenian, a senior Armenian diplomat said late Thursday.
“They are promising to reopen the Upper Lars crossing in 2008,” said Armen Smbatian, the Armenian ambassador to Russia. He said Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian received such assurances from his newly appointed Russian counterpart, Viktor Zubkov, during a visit to Moscow earlier this week.
The Russian government shut down the Upper Lars crossing, which serves as Armenia’s sole overland conduit to the former Soviet Union and Europe, in June 2006, citing the need to conduct repairs on its border guard and customs facilities there. The move coincided with an upsurge in Russian-Georgian relations that led Moscow to impose a transport blockade on Georgia.
Armenian government officials and lawmakers have unsuccessfully lobbied their Russian counterparts to reopen the border crossing located on the Caucasus mountain range. They have argued that it is Armenian export-oriented companies have been hit hardest by its closure.
Nonetheless, those companies seem to have quickly adapted to the Russian blockade of Armenia’s western neighbor, with Armenian exports to Russia more than doubling in the first five months of this year. Official statistics show Russian-Armenian trade surging by 64 percent year on year to $225 million in January-May 2007. Armenian officials say its full-year volume is on course to reach $700 million this year.
Sarkisian and Zubkov said after their talks on Tuesday that the two governments agreed to help ensure that Russian-Armenian trade passes the $1 billion mark next year. Sarkisian instructed his ministers on Thursday to closely work with their Russian counterparts in trying to meet this target.
Much of the bilateral commercial exchange has until now been carried out through a rail-ferry link between the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti and Ukraine’s Ilyichevsk. A similar ferry service, designed to primarily cater for Armenia, was launched last April between Poti and the Russian port of Port-Kavkaz. It is still not functioning regularly, though.
While in Moscow, Sarkisian discussed with Zubkov and other Russian officials ways of boosting cargo turnover through the Poti-Port-Kavkaz link.
“The most important thing for us is the rail-ferry service,” Smbatian told reporters in Yerevan. “There is only one [ferry boat] operating it right now. We must make sure that there is a second one. They are promising that a second one will be operational starting from 2008.”