Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria told the parliament foreign-relations committee on March 4 that Azerbaijan has no reason to be apprehensive over the reopening of the Zemo/Verkhny Lars border crossing between Georgia and Russia, Caucasus Press reported.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov had expressed concern
the previous day that the reopening could facilitate the overland transport by Russia of arms to Armenia.
Visiting Tbilisi on March 3, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, inspected the border crossing.
U.S. Ambassador John Bass has expressed satisfaction at its reopening, which he termed "a positive step that will further the improvement of international relations and the economic status of the region's population."
The opposition Christian Democrat faction within the Georgian parliament called for a closed session of the country's Security Council to assess the increased threat posed to Georgia by granting Russian citizens unimpeded entry to Georgia via Verkhny Lars. The population of the surrounding mountain district of Qazbegi fears that Russia is already planning
"a new intervention" in Georgia with the aim of enabling Ossetians who fled South Ossetia prior to the collapse of the USSR to return to their homes.
Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian confirmed
on March 2 reports that Armenia played a key role in mediating the talks between Russia and Georgia that led to the reopening of Verkhny Lars. Verkhny Lars served as Armenia's sole overland route to the former Soviet Union and Europe until it was summarily closed by the Russian authorities in June 2006, at the height of a Russian-Georgian spy scandal.
With Russian-Georgian trade having steadily declined over the past decade, the Upper Lars closure primarily hit trading companies shipping goods to and from Armenia. Armenian exporters of agricultural produce were particularly reliant on the crossing. They had to reroute their deliveries through the more expensive and time-consuming rail-ferry services between Georgia and Russia and Ukraine.
Arsen Ghazarian, chairman of the Armenian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, predicted on March 1 that the reopening of the Russian-Georgian border will boost exports of Armenian fruit and vegetables, starting this year. He said it would reduce exporters' transportation costs by at least 25 percent.
According to Ghazarian, who also owns a cargo-shipment company, a single truck laden with agricultural products takes at least 23 days to reach Russia through the rail-ferry link. Going through Upper Lars will cut shipping time by half, he told journalists.
-- Liz Fuller, Kakha Mchedlidze, Tigran Avetisian, Sargis Harutyunyan