Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Georgian-Russian Border Crossing Requires Closer Scrutiny

Russian-Georgian-political-economic relations, especially eye-opening!!!

By Joni Simonshvili, Tbilisi Georgia

In late July I took time off to check out allegations of weapons from the Russian Federation crossing into Georgian territory for use in Armenia, and even perhaps for resale to Iran. Even though I live in Georgia, getting to see unforgettable scenery in the region and gaining a bit of insight into the "bigger picture" of Russian-Georgian-political-economic relations is especially eye-opening, for an old man.  

The timing for this article may be important as it comes on the day when Azerbaijan says three Armenian and two Azerbaijani soldiers have been killed in fighting on the flashpoint border of Azerbaijan's pro-Armenian breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, as provided by various media sources.  As always, the other side is guilty and nobody even starts a war.  It is said that the account providing by each of the conflicting sides has not been independently verified.

Kazbegi checkpoint (Georgia) - Upper Lars-Kazbegi (Russia) is the only official land checkpoint on the Georgian-Russian border, 38 km to the south from Vladikavkaz by the Georgian Military Highway. It was but a short tourist trip to the region of Kazbegi, at least initially.  The fact-finding trip started out with an impressive ride from Tbilisi, passing a water reservoir that supplies Tbilisi, the capital city, passing old churches, a ski resort, a side of hill encrusted with limestone, and finally to a town of Kazbegi, a border trading town situated on the road to Vladikavkaz, the gateway to Russia.

I don't know if many people are keeping up, and even if they have notice, but there has but there's been an uptick in the tempo of the tit-for-tat comments between Georgia and Russia recently. The new Russian general in charge of Russian security in Abkhazia & S. Ossetia taunting the Georgians saying they've given up on re-integration and are now focused solely on defending the rest of Georgia, and the Russian Deputy F.M. reinforcing what I was saying about the 6-point plan by going  on about people re-arming Georgia, and how there will never be an end to this situation while the Georgians are still a threat, and Medvedev  basically saying the same as we've been saying that he doesn't really have a beef with the Georgian people - just the current regime and, this weekend, he also made a surprise visit to Sokhumi. And Saakashvili - indoctrinator of children - calls Russians barbarians and Russia "the enemy" four times in a single article and also in just about every other chance he gets.

More in terms of logistics, and let now focus of how this weapons transports route has been much upgraded in recent years in terms of asphalt and new custom facilities – and much thanks must be given to the American people.  However, from what I understand from many disgruntled residents, the upgrade the road has not brought much relief for the locals. They were overly depended on the cross border trade with the Russian Federation for their employment. This also a crossing point for many quality food products.  Since 2006, however, this crossing has been closed; it was only reopened in March of 2010 under a cloud of political recriminations and questionable motivations.

Something more sinister

Many official reasons are noted – as aside from needed road and bridge repairs, and not all the justification is convincing.  Something more sinister is going on here. The real reason for opening it up may be more deeply rooted in power politics and economic expediency.  Moreover, he fate of this checkpoint is not isolated, and other cross border points with neighboring republics, and breakaway regions (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), have been closed too.

An Armenian tourism told me after returning to Tbilisi, "I think Kazbegi is definitely important for Armenia, although I do not know exactly what percentage of goods coming to Armenia goes through Poti (a blacksea port) and what actually transits through the Kazbegi crossing.  I believe Georgia also gets a benefit from opening the checkpoint, as it was reopened amid conversations on possible opening of Armenian-Turkish border – and  was viewed partially as a transit competitiveness measure - the Georgian authorities as far as I remember being quoted on Armenian TV as saying  that Georgia will not lower transit prices if border with Turkey opens. Armenian government has said on many occasions that Georgia's tariffs (fees) for transit of Armenian goods are much greater than the price found anywhere in the world."

As in the case of the Kazbegi region, locals were supplied with natural gas in better times, and this is reflected by the many greenhouses, most now are dilapidated and rusted out shells. It is intriguing to see that Georgians cannot produce a tomato or cucumber in the winter, and this is but a first impression, and it is a statement in itself. Being physically and economically close to Russia is also useful for area locals, and commerce is one of the best ways to bridge differences.  At that what you would think from a larger perspective.

However, I saw only Armenian and Ukrainian trucks crossing the border during my short visit, as relations are still soured between Georgia and the Russian Federation, at least on an official level.  One Armenian truck coming from Russia, after being custom cleared, was under escort of the Georgian police. How friendly?  I now have greater degree of insight as to the possible reason why the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs refused a US contactor, University of Chicago, permission to conduct road and cross border transit research at this border crossing, as it might prove too revealing.  However, the same permission was granted for all other international road border crossings.  No official explanation was given, only a blank refusal.

Let's speculate.

It would be curious to know what was inside this and other trucks, especially as this is an important crossing point for Armenia, and Armenian borders Iran.  I could only speculate the worst and from an Armenian website I learned about Gagik Aghajanyan, Executive Director of National Cargo Services Company Apaven, dismissing any allegations of illicit goods passing the border during a press conference held earlier this year.

Quoting, "earlier Georgian experts said that the opening of the Upper Lars Kazbegi checkpoint on the Russian-Georgian border is beneficial neither for Georgia nor for Armenia but rather for Russia to supply weaponry to its military base in Armenia's second-largest town of Gyumri." 

The only official viewpoint has been represented by Georgia's ambassador to Armenia, as quoted in the Armenian press. Naturally there might be some real concerns as to the utility of the Upper Lars Kazbeki checkpoint, and is the transit more beneficial for Georgia or Armenia. The title of one article in Armenian was that "We-should-politicize-the-operation-of-the-Upper-Lars-Checkpoint." It is highly possible that it could be closed down should it serve a third purpose.

His comments are worrying, and because Georgia has long been recognized as a transit point for illegal trade and relations between its neighbors are tensed.  I would think that it would be in the direct interest of Western law enforcement and intelligence services to understand such possible conduits.  Aside from possible 'other purposes', the dire state of cross border trade with Georgia can be easily seen by an empty trade terminal in Kabegi that had once been overflowing with petty traders.  

I would not be surprised if Russia does indeed transfer arms through it. It is not illegal, of course as the Russians and Armenians have an official deal when it comes to Russian military bases in Armenia.  The road, which connects Armenia with Russia via transiting Georgia, is of strategic interest. It is even called the Georgian military highway dating back hundreds of years. It was the land conduit for the Russian army to the region.  However, in a blink of the eye, and during periods of inclement weather, border crossing can be shut tight.

This road the most viable land route for transporting goods to Russia from Armenia, and serves as an alternative to the combined transport: Armenia ––Georgian Port (Poti/Batumi) ––Russia or Ukraine-Russia link. The checkpoint is supposedly supplied with super-contemporary technology, which scans the whole cargo and the Georgian side will not permit transportation of weapons for Gyumri military base through this border. It is interesting to note that the Georgian opposition takes exception, questions why the border is open for Armenian but not for Georgian goods. Some go as far to say that questions "it's only Russia that needs the opening of Kazbeki-Upper Lars checkpoint.

But what is Georgia's concern: that, en route, those possible weapons might suddenly be used in Tbilisi? Or, even an invasion might take place, and with a Southern front this time. I suspect that either of those would be possibilities from a Georgian perspective, especially giving what is going-on in Javakhk (Samtskhe-Javakheti), an region of Georgia inhabited by many ethnic Armenians.

The Georgian Parliamentary minority Christian-Democratic Movement has been especially vocal. There is no shortage of recriminations on their part, the opening of the crossing has described as being "against Georgia's state interests," claims MP Nika Laliashvili of the CDM.  He is often quoted in the Georgian mass media. He is good spokesperson, having worked in State Security Agencies in a position of public relations, and was actively involved with PR related to the Pankisi gorge some years ago in a PR position.

Nika has said on several occasions that the Kazbeki region might now share the same fate as Akhalgori, part of what was South Ossetian under Georgian control before the war of August 2008, and how the Akhalgori region is now illegally incorporated into the breakaway region of South Ossetia. This breakaway region of Georgia is recognized by a handful of countries.  The spokesperson for the Christian Democrats points to opportunities for Russian and its agents to stir local ethnic tensions among Ossetians living in the Kazbeki region.  Let's just take such comments at face value for now and continue with a look at the larger picture of things.

The next best border link, for the sake of discussion, would be for Georgia and Russia to negotiate for the reopening of a Abkhazian railway and road link, and for any such 'deal' to be somehow connected to the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia within the confirms of legally unified  Georgian State. However, that may be difficult in today's popular rhetoric and would not be opportune for many in the US State Department.  The post 2008 Georgian-Russian war over South Ossetia has left many open wounds and hard scars.  It has also provided the grounds to continue business as usual with a weak Georgian state and a government that is totally depended on Washington for its economic and political survival, especially for members of the government.

In short, it is going difficult to rectify open borders with the current level of recriminations between both Georgia and the Russian Federation, and especially considering that Georgian is playing a double game with its friendly relations with Iran.  It's also difficult to ignore the unbridled antagonism which the government of Georgia seems to persist in showing towards their northern neighbor, and how this border does not appear to benefit Georgia, at least officially.

All war and poor relations with your closely neighbor and largest potential trading partner is a bad thing - and dwelling on the past is certainly no way to build for the future. Russia is far from perfect - no country is, but there is no point in arguing and shouting all the time when closer ties with Russia could lead to an improved business climate and economic development.  It is clear that Georgia may not become either a Dubai or Singapore anytime soon. But it should keep hoping and try to get its act together.

 I remember listening to a BBC special on the economic problems of Dubai, and how "Dubai does not need investors but investors need Dubai", and to make a comparison, and who needs the Kazbeki checkpoint?

 As for now, it is difficult to understand the official benefit to Georgia. However, if relations would improve, there could also be a flood of tourists and businessmen heading south with pockets full of money.  In the meantime, however, we may not understand who really benefits from the Kazbeki checkpoint.

The rest of the story

And finally when all is said and done, to be honest - I've read much of what I written twice now - I'm not sure what the article is trying to say. For the native it is a bit disjointed, even for me, and confusing trying to figure out what the point of it is. I think recent events, and a shooting war getting ready to start between Azerbaijan and Armenian, which many have heard about – especially with the influx of Afghan, former Taliban fighters into Azerbaijan to backstop Azeri forces.

 I think it would be better if my speculations were framed in the context of how Upper Lars would come into the spotlight if Iran got attacked, and if the Russians decided to supply Iran - this would be their major land route, although we don't know what they may already have in Armenia which they could move to Iran, or whether they have some munitions or equipment in Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) which they would just roll down through Armenia because, in the event of an attack on Iran, all hell would break loose and the Russians  could care less about Georgia.

 It would merely be "in the way" but Georgia would have a job removing the Russians if a real shooting war broke out. However, the trim and lean reorganized Red army would secure their supply route the same way they rolled Georgian police cars out of the way in Gori back in 2008 - and you know how long these conflicts can be made to drag on for - if it suits someone, especially since other wars are winding down and new conflicts are needed to keep the Merchants of Death in business and their erstwhile sponsors, who are now trying to distance themselves from what has been a flourishing trade. 

Does this article suggesting that weapons ARE coming through the checkpoint? Yes, as it would make sense for the Russians to have a stockpile of weapons in Armenia, and I'm sure the Armenians would allow it if they cut a deal with Russia over the situation with Azerbaijan, being ready, just in case,  and being ready to react when the Azeri side reacts or makes the first move. Much firepower is already on  hand for both defensive and offensive  purposes, and thanks to the cooperation of the power ministers of in Georgia, and who says that there has been any downturn in the business climate, especially in terms of the trade in weapons.


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