By Karine Kalantarian
Russia’s intensifying military campaign against Georgia has reportedly paralyzed commercial traffic through two Black Sea ports handling the bulk of cargos shipped to and from Armenia, threatening to cut off the country from the outside world.
In a related development, the Armenian national gas distribution company said on Monday that Georgia has abruptly reduced the volume of Russian natural gas shipped to Armenia via Georgian territory. "There has been a reduction of gas delivered to Armenia from Russia via Georgia," ArmRosGazprom spokeswoman Shushan Sardarian told AFP news agency. She said a 30-percent supply reduction occurred with no advance warning.
At least one of the Georgian ports, Poti, has been targeted by Russian warplanes bombing military and civilian targets across Georgia following the outbreak of all-out fighting in South Ossetia. Armenia has long been heavily reliant on its rail-ferry services with the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Ilyichevsk and Russia’s Port-Kavkaz.
According to Vladimir Badalian, a government-linked parliamentarian co-chairing an Armenian-Georgian business association, both Poti and the other Georgian port, Batumi, are standing idle now because of the worsening security situation in the country. “Because the work of the ports ground to a halt, a fairly large numbers of goods are piling up there,” he told RFE/RL on Monday.
He said the military confrontation has also left 160 rail cars laden with goods bound for Armenia stranded in Port-Kavkaz. “Work is underway to transport those cargos to Poti,” he said without elaboration.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gegham Gharibjanian likewise assured journalists in Yerevan that Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian is personally dealing with the problem. He gave no details, though.
“Right now the Georgian ports of Batumi and Poti do not accept freight,” Railvneshtrans, a Russian company operating the Poti-Port-Kavkaz service, said in a statement cited by the Regnum news agency.
Regnum also quoted the executive director of the Armenian shipping company Trans-Alliance, Sarkis Martirosian, as saying that it is unable to move its goods out of Poti. He said authorities in the western Georgian city promised to allow their transportation “in the coming days” and to restore the ferry link with Ukraine “soon.”
The normal functioning of the port could be further complicated by the reported seizure by Russian troops of a nearby Georgian military base. Citing the Georgian Defense Ministry, the Associated Press news agency reported that Russian armored vehicles rolled into the base in Senaki, a town about 30 kilometers (20 miles) inland from Poti, later on Monday.
Armenia’s rail communication with Georgia appears to have not been affected yet by the unprecedented fighting. “There has been no change in the train schedule and trains from Yerevan to Tbilisi and Batumi continue to run as planned,” Susanna Tonoyan, a spokesman for the Armenian Ministry of Transport and Communications, told RFE/RL. “Another train will leave Yerevan for Batumi this evening,” she said.
No disruptions were also reported in international flights to and from Yerevan, many of which are carried out via Georgian airspace. According to Norayr Beluyan, chief executive of the national airline Armavia, the fighting and the Russian air strikes have so far forced no changes in the carrier’s flight schedule. “The air routes we are using are very safe,” Beluyan told RFE/RL. Armavia checks with Georgia’s civil aviation authority before every flight, he said.
A spokeswoman for the Armenian government’s Civil Aviation Department said several overnight flights from European cities to Tbilisi were diverted to Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport.