By Ruben Meloyan
Contradicting statements by Armenian diplomats and cargo firms, Transport and Communications Minister Gurgen Sargsian insisted on Tuesday that the Russian-Georgian military conflict has not disrupted Armenia’s main supply lines running across Georgia.
The assurances came amid growing signs of fuel shortages in the country. Some gasoline stations in Yerevan restricted sales of petrol, while others shut altogether. Fuel was reportedly in even shorter supply outside the capital.
Sargsian attributed this to an emerging “panic” among motorists who he said do not expect a quick end to the fighting in Georgia and are therefore anxious to stock up with fuel. “There are no grounds for panic,” he said. “We have sufficient stocks of fuel, and fuel imports are continuing. We have no rail cars filled fuel which have not reached Armenia.”
Fuel and the vast majority of other commodities reach the country via the Georgian Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti. Russian warplanes have bombed Poti and other civilian and military targets across Georgia in recent days. According to some media reports, the air strikes disrupted Georgia’s rail-ferry services with Russia and Ukraine that process most of the goods shipped to and from Armenia.
Sargsian claimed, however, that both the ports and the ferry links have remained operational since last Friday’s outbreak of vicious fighting in South Ossetia that spilled over into Georgia proper. “We have no information about any problems,” he told a news conference. “Everything is normal. Georgian roads are not dangerous, and the railway [leading to Armenia] is absolutely safe.”
According to Sargsian, 60 rail cars laden with wheat and other basic goods rolled into Armenia overnight and 18 others are on the way. “Cargo shipments by rail are being carried out as planned,” the minister said. “The railway did not stop for a single minute. It has continued to operate, carrying both people and cargos.”
However, Armenia’s ambassador to Georgia, Hrach Silvanian, painted a different picture. “As a result of the bomb raids, there have arisen difficulties in the work of the port of Poti, which have reflected negatively on cargo shipments,” he said in written answers to questions from RFE/RL.
Silvanian also reported “certain disruptions” in Batumi partly related to concerns about the safety of freight transportation. The Armenian embassy in Tbilisi is taking “all possible steps to overcome the mentioned obstacles,” he said.
Gagik Aghajanian, executive director of the cargo firm Apaven, said the Poti port has stood idle “for three or four days,” resulting in a backlog of 250 cargo containers bound for Armenia. “Normally Armenia receives 55-60 containers a day,” he explained.
That Russia’s military operations in Georgia have seriously complicated Armenia’s transport communication with the rest of the world was also asserted by the country’s largest fuel importer, Flash. “There were disruptions in our supplies for the past four or five days as no cargos were transported from Georgia,” Mushegh Elchian, the company’s deputy director, told RFE/RL.
But Elchian said the situation seems to be improving now. “We received ten rail cars of petrol overnight, while other companies imported large quantities of diesel fuel. But still we have a fairly large volume of fuel stocked in the Batumi terminal.”
Elchian blamed the difficulties for his company’s extraordinary decision to introduce petrol rationing. He said Flash’s filling stations across Armenia were instructed on Monday to pump petrol only into car tanks and rebuff motorists with fuel canisters.