Armenia’s government is scrambling to open alternative trade routes to Russia following last week’s massive mudslide in Georgia that blocked the sole functioning crossing on the Russian-Georgian border.
The June 23 calamity washed away a nearly one-kilometer-long Georgian section of the road near the Upper Lars crossing heavily used for cargo shipments between Armenia and Russia. Hundreds of Armenian and other trucks were left stranded on either side of the mountainous checkpoint.
Many individual Armenian travelers have also been stuck there for the past week. Armenia’s Deputy Prime Minister Vache Gabrielian said on Thursday that 96 of them were flown to Yerevan overnight on board a Russian Emergency Situations Ministry plane. Another 120 Armenians will be evacuated later in the day, Gabrielian said during a weekly cabinet meeting in Yerevan.
The mudslide occurred during a busy season for exporters of Armenian agricultural products, notably apricots, to Russia, their main market abroad.
Armenia’s largest cargo company, Spayka, rushed to reroute some of the perishable food exports with an emergency ferry service between Georgian and Russian Black Sea ports launched earlier this week. Another cargo firm, Apaven, cautioned on Wednesday that the ferries have a limited capacity and will increase transportation costs by 30 percent.
In Gabrielian’s words, at least 50 trucks bound for Armenia remain stuck in the Russian North Caucasus.
Transport and Communications Minister Gagik Beglarian revealed, meanwhile, that Yerevan has asked Tbilisi and Moscow to allow Armenian commercial trucks to use another Russian-Georgian road passing through Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia. The road has been closed since the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
“Right now there is a possibility [of rerouting cargo shipments] through South Ossetia,” Beglarian told reporters after the cabinet meeting. “The road is in a good condition. Negotiations are underway with the two states.”
“A lot doesn’t depend on Armenia, but we are negotiating so that the Georgian and Russian sides agree to let us use that road temporarily,” he said.
Beglarian also said relevant Georgian authorities have assured Yerevan that the blockage on the Georgian side of Upper Lars caused by the mudslide will be cleared within two weeks.
Apaven’s chief executive, Arsen Ghazarian, warned, however, that the Upper Lars crossing could remain closed for a month.
According to government data, Armenian exports to Russia nearly doubled in the first four months of this year. Fresh fruits and vegetables accounted for a large part of those exports.