By Karine Kalantarian
Armenian government officials and businessmen said on Monday that they are looking forward to the impending launch of a Russian-Georgian ferry link that will effectively restore Armenia’s rail communication with Russia disrupted more than a decade ago.
A relevant agreement was due to be signed in Tbilisi by Russia’s Transport Minister Igor Levitin and Georgia’s Minister of Economic Development Alexi Alexishvili later in the day. The planned regular service between the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti and Russia’s Port Kavkaz is designed for cargos shipped in train cars. It is expected to become operational by the end of this month.
Senior officials from Armenia and Azerbaijan were also in the Georgian capital to discuss final preparations for the launch of the service. Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian, who headed the Armenian delegation, was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as welcoming the Russian-Georgian agreement.
Armenian businessmen involved in external trade were also confident about its positive impact on landlocked Armenia’s economy. “It will have considerable effects on the cost of goods shipped from Armenia to Russia and vice versa,” Arsen Ghazarian, chairman of the Armenian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, told RFE/RL in Yerevan. He said the high transportation costs in Russian-Armenian trade could go down by 30 percent as a result.
Ferries capable of carrying heavy train cars have until now operated between Poti and Ukrainian and Bulgarian ports. Armenia has relied on them heavily in its commercial exchange with the rest of the world.
The Armenian government has long been pushing for the opening of the Poti-Kavkaz service and has financially contributed to the scheme. Among the costs involved was the purchase of a ferryboat that can carry up to 28 rail during a single journey. The service is expected to operate twice a week.
“The volume of our cargo turnover [with Russia] is great,” said Vladimir Badalian, co-chairman of the Armenian-Georgian Business Association. “According to our calculations, we need four or even more ferries.”
But Ghazarian disagreed. “I don’t think there is a need for a second ferry right now,” he said. “What we need is that the existing ferry operates at full capacity in both directions so that we have a reasonable transportation cost.”
Levitin’s trip to Tbilisi, the second in two months, is also likely to have involved discussions on ways of reopening direct rail communication between Russia and Georgia that used to run through the breakaway region of Abkhazia. Speaking to reporters in Moscow on December 28, Levitin sounded upbeat about the possibility of doing that as early as this year. He said he believes that it is now possible to restore the rail link, once vital for the Armenian economy, before a full resolution of the Abkhaz conflict.