By Hrach Melkumian
Russia will keep its border with Georgia closed for at least another month despite the controversial measure’s negative impact on the Armenian economy, Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin said on Thursday. But he assured Armenian leaders that Moscow could again briefly reopen a key border crossing to let Armenia-bound cargo pass through it.
The issue dominated Levitin’s talks in Yerevan with President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian as well as a regular meeting of Russian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. He co-chaired it with Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
Speaking at a news conference, Levitin repeated Russia’s explanation that the closure of the Georgian and Azerbaijani borders was needed to “step up the fight against terrorism” practiced by Chechen separatists. “Relevant measures are being taken [at the border],” he said. “They will take approximately 30 or 40 days.”
“But if a similar number of vehicles pile up, especially if there are again buses with passengers among them, we will decide to let them through,” he added, referring to Sunday’s brief reopening of the Russian-Georgian border crossing at Verkhny Lars.
The move, which followed telephone talks between Kocharian and Russian President Vladimir Putin, allowed hundreds of Armenian trucks, buses and cars stranded on Russian territory for more than a month to cross into Georgia and reach Armenia. The Armenian government is understood to be seeking a permanent free passage through the Russian checkpoints.
Levitin indicated that Moscow is still not prepared for such a solution when he said that he discussed in Yerevan an alternative Russian-Armenia trade route that would pass through the Caspian Sea and Iran. “Experts say that it will be cheaper and faster than the Verkhny Lars [road],” he said.
Sarkisian, for his part, said that “intensive work” is underway to reactivate a ferry service between Georgian and Russian Black Sea ports. The link is currently not operational for what officials say are technical reasons, further aggravating Armenia’s transport woes.
Another issue discussed by the two sides was Russian threats to ban Armenian-based airlines from its airspace for their outstanding debts for the use of that airspace and airport services. The sanctions, which also concerned several other ex-Soviet states, were due to take effect on October 1, but their enforcement was postponed pending Levitin’s talks in Yerevan.
Levitin said the Russian-Armenian commission agreed to “ascertain the amount of the debts” at its next meeting scheduled for December. In the meantime, he added, the Russian airspace will remain open to Armenian commercial aircraft.
The Armenian side estimates those debts at almost $2.7 million, saying that they were incurred by the now bankrupt carriers, notably the state-run Armenian Airlines. The Russians, however, say they are also owed $5 million by operating Armenian companies.
(Photolur photo: Levitin, left, and Sarkisian speaking at the joint news conference.)