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 Minasian, 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.
Minasian 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 resupply 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 Yerevand Bozoian said, referring to an Iranian transit corridor.
But the costs of such a resupply 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, Giragosian and Bozoian 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.
Bozoian 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 Nalbandian. 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 Nalbandian and Vashadze addressed this difference of opinion in their talks. It instead referred EurasiaNet.org 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.
Minasian 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.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.