By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The ethnic Armenian members of Georgia's parliament urged Armenia on Thursday to abolish prohibitive charges levied from Georgian vehicles entering its territory, saying the move would facilitate contacts between the two neighbors.
The five lawmakers led by Van Bayburt, a leader of the Armenian community in Tbilisi, said the Georgian government has already scrapped similar tariffs for Armenian vehicles and expects Yerevan to follow suit.
The road tolls worth $50 per car or truck, a large sum by both Armenian and Georgian standards, are one of the factors that have hampered commercial and individual traffic between the two countries since the Soviet collapse. The Georgian side unilaterally abolished them on January 1 at the request of Georgian businesspeople promoting closer economic ties with Armenia.
It is still not clear why the Armenian authorities have been slow in reciprocating the move, especially given the fact that most Georgian citizens traveling to Armenia are ethnic Armenians.
“That issue is being discussed in accordance with the president’s instructions and I think it will find a positive solution soon,” Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian said on Thursday.
Armenian officials have praised the administration of President Mikhail Saakashvili for thoroughly repairing the main Georgian highway leading to the Armenian border. They also admit that Saakashvili’s dramatic overhaul of Georgia’s formerly corrupt traffic police all but put an end to the extortion of bribes from Armenian motorists.
Bayburt was speaking to reporters in Yerevan where he and his Georgian-Armenian colleagues arrived at the invitation of parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. He said they discussed road tariffs and other issues relating to cross-border travel with Baghdasarian and other Armenian officials.
The situation in the Armenian-populated areas in southern Georgia was also high on the agenda of their talks. One of them, the Tsalka district, has been particularly restive in recent years with clashes periodically reported between local Armenians and Greeks and Georgians.
Tbilisi deployed interior troops in the area last year in a bid to keep the situation under control. However, tensions there rose again late last month after Georgian soldiers shot and wounded an Armenian youth in still uncertain circumstances.
The incident sparked protests in Tsalka and even Armenia where a group of nationalist students protested outside the Georgian embassy in Yerevan. The protesters linked it to the situation in Georgia’s main Armenian-populated region, Javakheti.
Bayburt, who is affiliated with Georgia’s largest governing party, disapproved of the protest. “People don’t know geography,” he said. “They should know that the Tsalka district is not part of Javakheti. It is wrong to politicize everything.”
Meanwhile, speaker Baghdasarian was quoted by his press service as telling the visiting Georgian-Armenian deputies that he and his Georgian counterpart Nino Burjanadze will soon jointly visit Javakheti to assess progress in stated government efforts to alleviate the region’s serious socioeconomic problems. Those problems may be further aggravated by the upcoming closure of a local Russian military base, the area’s single largest employer.
Saakashvili on Monday again sought to allay the Javakheti Armenians’ concerns, announcing that the economically depressed and largely agricultural region will become the principal supplier of foodstuffs to the Georgian military. “Today, together with the Georgian defense minister, we have decided that all 20,000 military personnel of the Georgian armed forces … will be fully supplied with agricultural produce by residents of [the Javakheti districts of] Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda,” Saakashvili said in a speech in Tbilisi.
“We will buy this produce in Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki, so that none of our citizens of Armenian origin or any person living there has any concerns about the loss of income because the Georgian state is growing stronger in the area and foreign influence is weakening,” he added.