Russian blockade of S.Caucasus leaves Armenians fuming

Eurasianet, NY
Oct 19 2004

Emil Danielyan 10/18/04

Russia’s decision to close border-crossing points with Georgia and
Azerbaijan, purportedly to frustrate movements by Chechen militants,
has produced widespread discontent, even anger in Armenia – Moscow’s
long-time strategic ally in the Caucasus. Some in Yerevan suggest the
move may prompt a reassessment of Armenia’s special relationship with

Armenia – a landlocked country already squeezed by embargos enforced
by neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan – had depended heavily on a
trade route via Georgia to Russia, known as the Upper Lars Pass. The
Kremlin’s decision in September to close its border with Georgia has
added to Armenia’s isolation, severing one of its two overland export
routes to Russia. Armenian businesses dependent on trade with Russia
and other parts of the former Soviet Union are facing ruin.

Armenian leaders have pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin to
reconsider the border closure. Yerevan rejected a Russian proposal to
transport goods via South Ossetia, saying the route was impractical
due to the high level of tension in the region. [For background see
the Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin
indicated during talks with Armenian official on October 14 that the
Upper Lars Pass would remain closed for at least another month so
that Moscow can implement “anti-terrorist measures.” Levitin also
claimed that a trade route via Iran and the Caspian Sea was a cheaper
alternative for Armenia than sending goods to Russia via the Upper
Lars Pass.

The maximum Moscow could do, Levitin said, is to again reopen the
Upper Lars Pass for a few hours. This is what happened on October 10
when nearly 600 Armenian trucks, personal cars and buses stranded on
the mountain pass for a month were allowed to cross into Georgia and
proceed to Armenia.

Russian authorities ordered the closure of Georgian-Russian
checkpoint, including Upper Lars, immediately after the September 3
hostage tragedy in Beslan, North Ossetia. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive]. Russian officials insist that the Chechen
separatists have used Georgia and Azerbaijan as safe heavens to carry
out terrorist acts. [For additional information see the Eurasia
Insight archive]. Officials in Baku and Tbilisi strongly dispute the
Kremlin’s claim.

Armenian authorities have yet to offer an estimate of the financial
damage done to the Armenian economy. Officials have made
contradictory assessments, with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian
citing “serious consequences,” while Trade Minister Karen
Chshmaritian suggested that the direct damage was not substantial.

Whatever the true extent of the disruption, many in Armenia consider
Russia’s actions as unjustified. Vahan Hovannisian, a leader of the
Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a traditionally pro-Russian party
represented in Kocharian’s coalition cabinet, branded the border
closings as “hasty and not fully calculated.”

Opposition politicians have been even more outspoken in their
criticism of Moscow. “I am convinced that it [the border decision]
has nothing to do with terrorism,” said Vazgen Manukian, a former
prime minister. “This is simply political pressure on Georgia. That
Armenia is suffering from it doesn’t matter to Russia. It [Moscow]
will trample our national interests for the sake of its own

Such resentment is echoed by the Armenia’s politically diverse print
media, which has been unanimous in condemning Moscow’s policy. Many
Armenian political experts are warning that the Russians’ actions
risk alienating their main regional ally, which, they some go on to
note, has strengthened its ties with the West in recent months. “The
Russian-Armenian strategic relationship is called into question,”
declared Azg, an independent daily normally supportive of Russia.

The Russian-language newspaper Golos Armenii complained that Putin’s
administration was “measuring all Caucasians with the same

“There is a growing number of organizations in Armenia that are not
carriers of Armenians’ traditional pro-Russian orientation,” the
editorial continued. “And that is not only the result of the West’s
actions [to improve its relations with Armenia], but also Russian
steps leading nowhere.”

Some opinion polls appear to confirm that traditionally strong
Armenian-Russian ties are eroding. One survey last May — conducted
by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies
(ACNIS), an independent think-tank — found that almost two-thirds of
the 50 political and public-policy experts interviewed wanted Armenia
to join NATO within the next decade. In addition, most experts
identified Russia as the foreign power that “limits Armenia’s

An ACNIS survey in August, however, found that opinions among the
broader Armenian population remain strongly pro-Russian. Almost 90
percent of 2,000 respondents described Russia as a friendly nation.
Only 47 percent had the same perception of the United States.

The pro-Russian sentiment is deeply rooted in the Armenians’ sense of
insecurity, generated largely by decades of hostility between Armenia
and Turkey, and fueled by the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan
over Nagorno-Karabakh. [For additional information see the Eurasia
Insight archive]. A Karabakh settlement, though unlikely in the near
future, would presumably help ease Armenians’ siege mentality. The
pro-Western outlook of a growing number of intellectuals could also
reflect on public opinion over time.

Russian-Armenian relations have a strong socio-economic component.
Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of
Armenian citizens have moved to Russia in search of jobs. Their
regular cash remittances back to Armenia are a major source of income
for many families in the impoverished country.

At the same time, Russia’s share of Armenia’s external trade has
steadily declined over the past decade. Indeed, in 2004, the European
Union emerged as Armenia’s single largest trading partner. Official
figures for the first half of this year show the EU accounting for
over 40 percent of the country’s commercial exchange. Russia’s share
was less than 20 percent. A recent survey, conducted by the
independent Vox Populi polling organization, found that a majority of
Armenians would prefer to join the European Union, rather than remain
in the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States.

The closure of the Russian-Georgian border stands to accelerate the
decline in Russian-Armenian commercial ties. Some media commentaries
suggest that public attitudes in Armenia towards Russia may also
start shifting soon. As a commentator for the Azg daily stated in
early October; “If Russia really wants to stir up anti-Russian
sentiment among Armenia’s political circles and public in general, it
can continue this blockade.”