By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Scores of angry subsistence traders blocked Armenia’s main border crossing with Georgia for several hours early Monday to protest against the closure of a famous local market that has long been used by them for cross-border commerce with Georgians and Azerbaijanis.
Witnesses told RFE/RL that the extraordinary protest at the Bagratashen border post began on Sunday evening and ended at dawn after police intervention. A spokeswoman for the Armenian customs, Nelly Manucharian, confirmed that several dozen police used force to disperse the crowd of at least 100 people.
Bagratashen and the nearby Georgian village of Sadakhlo, mainly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis, have been the center of brisk trade between thousands of people from the three South Caucasus states ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its command economy. Commercial activity there continued even during the wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere in the region, with Armenians and Azerbaijanis from both Georgia and Azerbaijani doing business with each other despite their bitter ethnic dispute.
The markets were a key source of revenue for many residents of Bagratashen village and thousands of small traders from across Armenia. They would mainly buy and resell cheap Chinese and Turkish clothing that was often smuggled into Georgia via Azerbaijan. The Sadakhlo market has been closed since the beginning of this year, following a crackdown on smuggling and customs corruption announced by the Georgian authorities.
According to Manucharian, the Armenian authorities followed suit and banned trade on the Armenian side of the frontier in April “at the initiative of the Georgian side.” She told RFE/RL that local traders defied the ban and illegally opened another market elsewhere in Bagratashen. They blocked traffic through the Armenian-Georgian border checkpoint after the authorities closed that market as well, she said.
“People have for years lived off that market. They closed it without any notice and banned everyone from selling things there,” one of the protesters, who identified herself as Emma, said. “Nobody has clearly explained to us why the market was closed.”
But Armen Ghularian, governor of the northern Tavush region that includes Bagratashen, claimed the opposite. “They received an explanation from appropriate services and returned home,” he told RFE/RL by phone, portraying the controversial trading ban as an anti-smuggling measure.