Georgia: Russian Border Opening Plan Under Scrutiny

Mixed motives seen in proposed move to end three-year frontier closure.

Georgia: Russian Border Opening Plan Under Scrutiny

Mixed motives seen in proposed move to end three-year frontier closure.

Thursday, 26 November, 2009
There are fears in Georgia that the government’s readiness to re-open the country’s border with Russia may undermine national security, but officials in neighbouring Armenia – which previously relied on the crossing point for much of its export trade – are delighted.

The Upper Lars checkpoint, which is known as Kazbegi in Georgia, is the only place where trucks can cross between Georgia and Russia without passing through Abkhazia or South Ossetia, disputed territories which Russia recognised as independent from Tbilisi last year. It was closed in 2006 by Russia and has remained blocked ever since.

Its status has been a sensitive barometer of relations between Georgia and Russia, which fought a war last year. Moscow closed it for “repairs” three years ago after Georgia announced it had arrested a group of spies and diplomatic ties were all but frozen. Moscow declared the repairs finished in May this year, but the checkpoint did not re-open.

Georgia held an opening ceremony in September, having restored the facilities on its side with the help of American money, but the checkpoint remained closed.

“There is an opinion that if it is opened this will create a risk of Russian aggression against Georgia, but if that happens, it isn’t important if the checkpoint is officially open or not,” said Georgian foreign minister Grigol Vashadze.

On November 13, President Mikhail Saakashvili called an expanded sitting of the security council to discuss the checkpoint’s future. But he failed to convince some members of opposition parties invited to the council in an unusual step that showed the significance of the occasion.

“In the North Caucasus, there is violence, and the opening of the checkpoint could lead to armed groups crossing onto Georgian territory,” said Nika Laliashvili, a member of the parliament from the opposition Christian Democrat party.

Georgian officials were clear they were seeking to help their Armenian neighbours.

“We are trying to do all we can to protect the interests of Georgia, as well as Armenia,” said Eka Tkeshelashvili, secretary of the security council.

But some observers were less charitable, suggesting Georgia’s decision to re- open the border could be connected to the entente between Turkey and Armenia. Ankara and Yerevan moved closer to opening their own mutual frontier last month and, if the agreement they reached is ratified, that would give Armenia an alternative to the Georgian transit route.

Since Upper Lars has been closed, Armenian goods have been exported via the Georgian port of Poti, and analysts say the Turkish Black Sea ports of Samsun and Trabzon could provide a cheaper service to Armenian exporters.

Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies, said Georgia was worried it would lose its position as a significant player in the Caucasus because of the Armenian-Turkish peace process.

“In fact, the possible opening of the Armenia-Turkish border inherently threatens Georgia by further isolating and marginalising Georgia. Russia, at least in part, has supported Armenia-Turkish diplomacy for precisely this reason, and the end result is to weaken Armenia’s traditional reliance and dependence on Georgian territory as a key trade and transport route,” he said.

“The Georgian decision on the Upper Lars crossing point is also significant because it comes after…diplomatic talks between Georgian and Russian officials in Yerevan, as Armenia has carefully mediated a new round of high-level diplomacy.”

Even with the new Turkish route, the Upper Lars checkpoint will remain important to Armenia, although it is closed by snow in deepest winter. During the summer months, it is crucial for the export of agricultural production to the Russian market. Armenian farmers can send 25,000 tonnes of apricots to Russia if it is open, for example, but just 10-12,000 tonnes if it is closed.

Makar Araqelian, chairman of the Association of Transporters and Dispatchers of Armenia, said the checkpoint’s re-opening could prove a stimulus for the whole Armenian economy since the price of exports and imports could fall by as much as 30 per cent.

“Cargo transportation will increase for sure, but it is hard to say anything about the volume. Upper Lars mainly serves for transporting goods to Russia and Belarus, and a lot depends on demand in these two countries. In January to May, exports were almost non-existent. Now, there are some positive signs, but to re-create the volumes of 2006-7 any time soon is unrealistic,” he said.

Economically, therefore, there is no doubt the checkpoint’s re-opening would benefit all three countries, but Georgian analysts remain doubtful about the wisdom of the step. Political analyst Andro Barnov, for example, reminded Georgians that Eduard Kokoity, president of South Ossetia, had claimed parts of the area near the checkpoint for his government.

“Apart from the fact that it is a sensitive region, the separatists have already expressed their territorial demands on Kazbegi and the Truso gorge, places that adjoin Lars. With the opening of the border, the chance of saboteurs and provocations in this region will grow,” he said.

Dmitri Avaliani is a reporter for 24 Hours in Tbilisi. Samvel Avagian is a reporter for Capital business daily in Yerevan.
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