Train-ferry service between Russian and Georgian Black Sea ports is becoming a more attractive route for Russian-Armenian trade, Armenia’s government and Russian-managed rail network insisted on Thursday.
They said that Georgia has significantly lowered its transit fees for Armenian cargos shipped to and from Poti, one of its two main ports, by rail.
Transport and Communications Minister Vahan Martirosian referred to Poti’s train-ferry link to Russia’s Port-Kavkaz as a “real alternative” to the Russian-Georgian border crossing at Upper Lars which processes the bulk of Armenia’s cargo traffic with Russia.
A mountainous road passing through Upper Lars is frequently closed due to blizzards and landslides, causing Armenian companies serious losses. Hundreds of Armenian trucks were left stranded there for over two weeks as recently as in December.
Visiting Tbilisi last week, Prime Minister Karen Karapetian said Georgia has agreed to create a viable “alternative to the Lars road.” He did not elaborate.
The remarks fueled speculation that the Georgian government might be ready to allow renewed cargo traffic through Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia bordering Russia. In that regard, Georgian opposition politicians expressed concern at the possible reopening of a Russian-Georgian railway running across Abkhazia.
Karapetian on Wednesday denied discussing such a possibility with his Georgian counterpart, Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
“Let’s not focus only on the Abkhaz railway or the South Ossetia road,” Martirosian told reporters. “Train ferry is also an alternative, a real alternative.”
Martirosian said that the Black Sea service has become less expensive and more regular. He also announced that the Georgian national railway has agreed to a “big discount” for Armenian importers and exporters using it for freight shipments.
Armenia’s rail network, called the South Caucasus Railway (SCR), confirmed this in a statement. It said that the Georgian railways fees have been reduced by an average of 30 percent.
The SRC, which is run by Russia’s state-run railway company RZhD, said it has also convinced the Poti-Port-Kavkaz ferry operator to agree to similar price reductions for their service. Armenia imported the first consignment of goods -- combine harvesters and other agricultural machinery -- under the new tariffs earlier this week, added its statement.
Vahagn Khachatrian, an economist affiliated with the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), called into question the alternative trade route promoted by the government, saying that it will still be more expensive and longer than the Upper Lars Crossing. Khachatrian also suggested that the unresolved conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia will continue to hamper the launch of transport corridors through those territories.
Despite the problems 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.