Georgia has agreed to open new transport corridors that will be used by Armenia for commercial cargo shipments to and from Russia, Prime Minister Karen Karapetian said during an official visit to Tbilisi on Friday.
The bulk of trade between Russia and Armenia is currently carried out through the sole Russian-Georgian border crossing at Upper Lars. Traffic along that mountainous road is frequently blocked by blizzards in winter months.
Hundreds of Armenian trucks were left stranded there for over two weeks due to heavy snowfalls in December. The Upper Lars road was also closed for more than a month this summer following a massive mudslide.
In addition, Armenian truck drivers frequently complain about long lines and slow service on the Russian side of the border.
Shortly after visiting Moscow late last month, Karapetian instructed the Armenian Ministry of Transport and Communications to submit by March 1 proposals on alternative Russian-Armenian trade routes passing through Georgia.
Senior Russian and Georgian diplomats reported significant progress towards the launch of such transport links after a fresh round of talks held in Prague on February 7. They said Russia and Georgia are close to reviving a 2011 agreement meant to enable them to maintain commercial ties in the absence of diplomatic relations.
The Russian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, told the Moscow daily “Kommersant” that Georgia is now ready to reopen two highways that connect it to Russia via the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said the two sides will hire a Swiss company to operate customs checkpoints to be set up on the administrative boundaries of the two territories that have been recognized by Russia as independent states.
“Kommersant” said the compromise arrangement would allow Moscow to avoid formally recognizing Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “As soon as we solve all remaining issues, we will start the implementation [of the agreement,]” it quoted Karasin as saying. “We only need to take the final, most difficult step.”
The issue was reportedly high on the agenda of Karapetian’s talks with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili held on Thursday. Speaking to reporters the following day, the Armenian premier said: “If you are interested in whether there will be an alternative to the Lars road, then I can assure you that yes, there will be.”
“We will talk about other things later on, I won’t go into details for now,” he added, according to the Sputnik news agency. “We reached agreements on both the Lars issue and the energy corridor.”
Neither prime minister made explicit mention of the matter at a news briefing that followed their talks in Tbilisi. Kvirikashvili said Karapetian presented him with “very interesting proposals” on expanding Georgian-Armenian economic ties.
Despite the disruptions at Upper Lars, Russian-Armenian trade rose by 15 percent to almost $1.4 billion last year, solidifying Russia’s status as Armenia’s number one trading partner. According to official Armenian statistics, that growth was driven by a 51 percent surge in Armenian exports to Russia.