Armenia: A look at military transit alternatives to Georgia

14:42 - 01.05.11

Armenian analysts say Georgia's recent move to block a transit route
for Armenia-bound Russian military supplies did not come as a
surprise. But officials in Yerevan still aren't commenting on how
Russia and Armenia will get around the transit corridor's closure.

Under a five-year transit agreement, signed in March 2006, Russia used
a `corridor' via Georgia to ferry supplies to its military base in the
northern Armenian town of Gyumri. Since Georgia's 2008 war with
Russia, however, the agreement has existed only on paper, according to
Manana Manjgaladze, a spokesperson for Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili. On April 19, the Georgian parliament voted to annul the
deal, which was set to expire in November.

Over the past week Armenian officials have tended to downplay the
strategic value of the transit corridor. `The agreement about
suspending the transit will not affect Armenia's security,' asserted
security analyst Sergei Minasyan, deputy director of Yerevan's
Caucasus Institute think-tank. `This agreement did not operate
formally, and this was sort of a PR action.'

Nevertheless, the loss of the Georgian corridor would seem to create
significant logistical challenges in the way Russia resupplies the
Gyumri base. Armenia is blockaded to its west by Turkey, and to its
east by Azerbaijan. So with Georgia out of the picture, Iran is left
as the only country that could possibly handle overland freight
traffic into Armenia.

Minasyan noted that some supplies for the Gyumri base previously
arrived on Russian planes traversing Azerbaijani air space. It was his
belief, he added, that `this practice will continue.' Baku, he went on
to claim, would not dare defy Moscow. `Azerbaijan has never reacted,
and will hardly ever react ... to a Russian military base, a Russian
facility,' he said.

While Baku may appreciate Russia's strategic influence in the
Caucasus, Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly and vociferously
objected to Russia's recent 49-year lease on the Gyumri base.
Azerbaijani complaints about Gyumri have been accompanied by a
significant uptick in cease-fire violations over the past year. The
increase in violent incidents along the front-line prompted the
International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based think tank, to warn
that a fresh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia could erupt.
Such an atmosphere does not suggest any strong Azerbaijani tolerance
for Russian re-supply flights to Armenia.

Opinion concerning the viability of an Iranian supply route tends
toward skepticism. Iranian-Armenian economic and diplomatic ties are
strong. `Technically, this is possible to organize,' independent
political analyst Yervand Bozoyan said, referring to an Iranian
transit corridor.

But the costs of such a re-supply route are prohibitive. Security
analyst Richard Giragosian, director of Yerevan's Regional Studies
Center, noted that the Iranian route is `much longer' than the
Georgian corridor and constitutes `a very expensive and not very
reliable option.' In addition, Tehran has not given any public sign of
wanting to enter into a transit deal with Russia.

The Gyumri supply conundrum suggests that Armenia should pay more
attention to strategic planning, Giragosyan and Bozoyan agreed. `[T]he
lesson for Armenia at least is to be always planning and preparing for
various scenarios, in advance, and not after, a crisis or challenge,'
Giragosian said in an email interview.

Bozoyan pointed to what he described as Armenia's and Georgia's mutual
lack of attention. He suggested that had Yerevan devoted more
attention to bilateral relations with Tbilisi, the Georgian parliament
might have been more attuned the fact that closing the transit
corridor would adversely impact Armenia.

In the recent past, neither country has seen its national interests as
tightly aligned with that of its neighbor. Tbilisi, though, apparently
made some attempt to discuss the military transit issue with the
Armenian government before ditching the agreement. On the eve of the
Georgian parliament vote, Defense Minister Bachana Akhalaia traveled
to Yerevan at the invitation of Armenian Defense Minister Seyran
Ohanian. Official comments were limited to standard pledges about
cooperation and the peaceful resolution of regional conflicts.

Roughly a week later, on April 26, Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol
Vashadze followed in Akhalaia's wake, for talks with Foreign Minister
Edward Nalbandyan. In October 2010, Vashadze had strongly criticized
the Gyumri base for allegedly undermining any attempt to resolve
`problems in the South Caucasus in a peaceful and civilized way.'

Armenia's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on whether Nalbandyan
and Vashadze addressed this difference of opinion in their talks. It
instead referred to its official statement about
Yerevan's `strong relationship' with Georgia and the two sides'
agreement on the need for a peaceful resolution of Armenia's
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.

Minasyan noted that Armenian officials generally prefer not to speak
publicly about delicate topics that touch both on Yerevan's relations
with its one friendly neighbor in the Caucasus, Georgia, and on its
strategic alliance with that neighbor's enemy, Russia.
`Such issues are not being discussed openly,' he said.

By Marianna Grigoryan

From: A. Papazian