Oct 2, 2004

Stranded: Anti-terrorism reaction leaves Armenia disconnected from Russia

By Aris Ghazinyan
ArmeniaNow correspondent

Russia's reaction to terrorism in Beslan has caused problems for travelers
and cargo trying to reach Armenia from Russia by overland travel.
As part of its security tightening, Russia closed the border of North
Osetia, closing, too, the Lars check point, which is the only yes overland
connection for reaching Armenia via Georgia.
For centuries, Armenians have referred to the pass over the deep gorge of
the River Terek through the steep slopes of the Caucasus Mountains as the
"Alanian Gate" - so named for the Osetians, who are also known as Alanians.
It is strategically located on the so-called Georgian Military Road a 19th
century passageway connecting Vladikavkaz, Russia with Tbilisi, Georgia.
But since September 15, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered
Georgian connections cut off with North Osetia, Armenians such as driver
Armen Poghosyan - who has been stuck on the other side for 10 days - call
the crossing the "Alan Dead End".

(Borders are also closed at four check points leading to Azerbaijan,
canceling more than 20 bus routes between Russian and Azerbaijan.)
At the Lars-Kazbegy point cars are backed up for several kilometers,
including about 2,000 bound for Armenia.
"People spend nights in the open air," says Yerevan resident Gevorg
Gevorgyan, who managed to reach Yerevan on September 22, but only after
crossing the border on foot and hiring a taxi to Yerevan.
"Spending nights in the Lars gorge is always dangerous, let alone the
absence of basic sanitary needs," Gevorgyan says. He also said that a dead
body was found in the tunnel, suspected to be a murder victim.
And with desperation has come inflation.
"By September 20 a loaf of bread in Lars already cost half a dollar and it
is likely that today it costs more. Opportunists thrive at the border.
Taking advantage of the desperate situation of Armenians stuck there, local
taxi drivers, Georgians, offer really astronomical prices for their
The situation is creating problems for Armenian businesses that rely on
lorries to bring products from Russia.
"For more than a week my company has been expecting the arrival of 510
passenger cars and 6 trucks," say Armenia-Lada president Rafael
Shahmuradyan. "So far, they haven't been able to cross the Russian-Georgian
Tuesday, Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan said that a vehicle carrying fuel
for repair of Metsamor Power Plant has been stuck in the queue of traffic
for two days. Russian and Georgian border guards have tried to find the
vehicle but because of the long line and the narrow gorge, it has not yet
been located.
Margaryan said it is a serious problem for Armenia, but "its solution does
not depend on Armenia", adding that "problems which are of first priority
for Armenia can be of second priority for Russia".
Political analysts in Yerevan say they don't remember a time when an
Armenian prime minister has been critical of the Kremlin.
Meanwhile Georgia's Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania has demanded that the
border open, pointing out that "serious problems connected with closing the
border in this direction have arisen not only affecting of citizens of
Georgia, but Armenians as well."
Shahmuradyan says he has sought help from various government agencies in
Armenia, but without success.
The press office of the Government of Armenia said in this regard that
Yerevan has practically no levers of influence in the current situation.
"This is a matter of two sovereign states - Russia and Georgia," says the
head of the government's press service Mary Harutyunyan. "Armenia can only
assist in settling the tension, however the problem itself has to be solved
between those two states."
Monday, Armenia's Minister of Transport and Communication Andranik Manukyan
said that "negotiations are being held with the Russian side in order to
solve the problem." However, he didn't say anything more precise.
" . . . It is obvious that Moscow did not introduce any special sanctions
against Yerevan," says historian Vardan Khachaturyan, who specializes in
Armenian settlements in the South of Russia, "but, in fact, it is Armenia
that ended up isolated.
"Probably, proceeding from the general political situation in the region,
the Kremlin has to provide citizens of Armenia with a right for an unimpeded
crossing of the border. Let them have a more thorough checking but the
crossing has to be guaranteed. If you look at the problem deeper then it is
within the interests of Moscow itself. Moscow cannot afford to question the
factor of Armenian-Russian strategic partnership."
At present there is no known progress toward lightening Russian-Georgian
tensions. In fact, beginning today (October 1), Georgian planes are no
longer allowed to fly in Russian airspace.