Armenia officially launched on Friday the construction of a new checkpoint at its border with Georgia as part of a $80 million modernization program which is mostly financed by the European Union and aimed at facilitating cross-border travel and commerce.
President Serzh Sarkisian, other senior Armenian officials and EU diplomats in Yerevan attended a ground-breaking ceremony at the main Armenian-Georgian border crossing near Bagratashen village.
A French construction company was contracted to build within the next two years a new and much bigger passport control and customs facility there meeting European standards. Similar checkpoints are also due to be built at the two other Armenian-Georgian border crossings in the coming years.
It is expected that the new facilities will be electronically connected to the Georgian checkpoints across the frontier that have already undergone significant modernization in recent years. An agreement signed by the Armenian and Georgian governments last January envisages joint customs administration at the border between the two neighboring states. It is meant to significantly facilitate cross-border commercial operations.
The three border checkpoints process nearly two-thirds of goods shipped to and from Armenia.
The EU is financing the unfolding construction through a 15 million-euro ($20 million) grant provided by its executive body, the European Commission, and a 30.3 million-euro loan extended to Armenia by the European Investment Bank, a commercial institution owned by EU member states. Another loan worth over 10 million euros has been allocated by the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
The border project went ahead despite the Armenian government’s unexpected decision to join a Russian-led customs union, which precluded the planned creation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU.
“The EU isn’t turning its back to Armenia,” Traian Hristea, the head of the EU Delegation in Yerevan, told reporters at Bagratashen. Hristea said the EU is ready to keep up cooperation with the country in different areas. But he cautioned that the authorities in Yerevan should now propose ways of ensuring that ties with the EU that “do not contradict the new commitments of Armenia vis-à-vis the customs union.”
Officials also said on Friday that the planned entry into the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan will not put the brakes on ongoing reforms of the Armenian customs service supported by the United States through its Agency for International Development (USAID).
“The United States and Armenia’s friends and partners want to continue to work with Armenia,” U.S. Ambassador John Heffern told journalists in Yerevan during a USAID-sponsored seminar on customs reforms. Heffern argued that as a member of the World Trade Organization Armenia has to ensure that its customs rules and practices meet international standards.
Vakhtang Mirumian, a deputy head of the State Revenue Committee (SRC) also attending the discussion, insisted that Armenia can simultaneously harmonize its trade legislation with EU and customs union norms. “I see no contradiction,” he said. “If we look at Customs Union legislation and compare it with EU legislation we will see that the differences in terms of administrative procedures are not big.”