As winter is upon us, the Upper Lars checkpoint in neighboring Georgia - the only land road linking Armenia to Russia - is susceptible to repeated shutdowns.
For Armenia, a landlocked country with no access to the sea, this strategic Georgian transport corridor is considered a lifeline; the majority of Armenia’s passenger and cargo transportation travel through this route.
Lars is also the only land road linking Armenia to the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The lion’s share of trade turnover between EEU countries and Armenia goes through Lars and according to different data, 80 percent of Armenian cargo transportation passes through the Mtskheta-Stepantsminda-Lars motorway.
Armen Pambukhchyan, Acting Deputy Minister of Transport, Communication and Information Technologies says that Lars is a corridor of “first necessity” for Armenia. “We are keen to making sure it is stable, because if Lars closes down, it will heavily impact our economy and the profitability of cargo transportation,” he explains.
For Armenian producers and exporters, Lars is often used as a road to reach the European market as well, making it Armenia’s main window to the world. Raffi Mkhchyan, the President of the Union of Exporters of Armenia, says, “I myself am a businessman and export quite often. Recently, I exported goods to Belgium through Lars. A Belarussian freight picked up my goods from Yerevan and went to Belarus through Russia, after which my goods entered Europe.”
Armenian cargo transporters prefer Lars over maritime shipping and transportation through Georgia’s Poti port because it is cheaper and shorter.
When Upper Lars is passable, cargo can reach Russia in four days. Since Armenia has no other alternative road to Lars, its passenger and cargo transportation has increased exponentially.
According to statistics, cargo transportation in Armenia is increasing. The majority of it comprising automobile transportation.
Meanwhile, the growing trade turnover and the increase in trucks are creating new problems to the already unstable Lars checkpoint. This has led to queues sometimes reaching over several kilometers.
Originally, Lars’ transport capacity never intended to sustain such large amounts of cargo transportation. Years ago, the Abkhazian railroad and other alternative routes existed.
Russia’s Federal North Caucasian Customs Services has announced that, according to data from the first half of 2018, the number of cargo transportation through Lars has increased by 40 percent compared to the first half of 2017, passenger cars has increased by 20 percent and individual passengers by 30 percent.
According to regulations, the Lars checkpoint should serve a maximum 400 transport vehicles daily. This includes 200 light passenger cars, 170 trucks, 30 buses and about 4000 individuals. However, during the summer of 2018 alone, Upper Lars served 2,100 light passenger cars, 600 trucks, 45 buses and more than 8,500 individuals.
Lars and Tourism
One of Armenia’s main problems in the tourism industry is its accessibility to the global market. In order for Armenia to become competitive in the tourism market, it is important for it to have available transport access, as well as easier border crossings.
Russia is one of Armenia’s most important markets in terms of incoming tourists. However, the two countries don’t share a border.
Mekhak Apresyan, an expert on tourism in Armenia, former head of the Tourism Committee at the RA Ministry of Economic Development and Investment, and presently president of the Armenian Tourism Federation NGO, states, “Two out of Armenia’s four land borders are closed. This is why we consider the Lars checkpoint very important. In terms of tourism, it’s very important for Lars to be passable and maintain its transport capacity quota in order avoid queues and to work in a stable fashion.” In the past several years there’s been a trend of more tourists coming in from Russia, specifically from Krasnodar and Russian regions near the Georgian border. These Russian tourists are coming to Armenia through land, and their numbers are increasing yearly.
According to data from the Statistical Committee of Armenia, in 2017, 3,400,000 people visited Armenia, which is an 18.5 percent increase from 2016. In 2017 alone, 584,000 Russian citizens visited Armenia, which is a 28 percent increase from 2016.
From January to September of 2018, Armenia saw 2,700,000 visitors - an 8.3 percent increase from the number of visitors from January to September of 2017. Of those visitors, 525,000 were Russian citizens - a 17.3 percent increase from the number of Russian visitors during the same months of 2017.
From all the visitors during January to September of 2018, 1,930,000 came to Armenia via air (Zvartnots and Gyumri Airports), and 1,607,000 came through land (Georgian and Iranian border checkpoints). Nearly 65 percent of Russian visitors come to Armenia through air and 35 percent come through land (the numbers for 2017 and 2018 are almost the same for this).
This 35 percent of Russian tourists visiting through land is not a small number according to Apresyan. If the border crossing was more accessible, that number would increase. He believes that those Russian tourists mainly cross the Stepantsminda-Lars road and later the Bagratashen checkpoint in Armenia.
In terms of tourism development, Lars plays an important role for Georgia as well. Russia is an important market for Georgia’s tourism industry. Starting in 2011, Russian citizens were able to enter Georgia without a visa. Since then the number of Russian visitors has risen year by year.
According to the Georgian National Tourism Administration, during the first nine months of 2018, 1,305,400 Russian citizens visited Georgia, which is a 22.9 percent increase from the first nine months of 2017.
In 2017, Georgia had 7,554,000 visitors and it aims to increase that number to 8.5 million by the end of 2018. For the most part, visitors come to Georgia by land. From January to October of 2018, 4,596,9000 people visited Georgia through land (which is a 9.1 percent increase from the same time frame from the previous year), and 1,573,189 visitors (23.1 percent) through air.
In terms of border crossings with Georgia, the top place goes to Tbilisi International Airport (1,221,067 visitors), followed by Sarpi (border crossing with Turkey, 1,154,681 visitors), Kazbegi (border crossing with Russia, 1,016,342 visitors), the Red Bridge (border crossing with Azerbaijan, 930,978 visitors) and Sadakhlo (border crossing with Armenia, 882,459 visitors).
Maya Sidamonidze, an expert on Georgian tourism and former head of the Georgian National Tourism Administration says, “I believe that a portion of Georgia’s visitors who are coming from Russia and other countries would also want to see neighboring Armenia. Hence, we can say that those visiting Georgia are potential tourists for Armenia, and vice versa. However, it’s difficult to accurately calculate this. I believe that the two counties need to cooperate in this area.”
Every year, on average 1500-2000 more people cross Upper Lars. On a daily basis, in the summer of 2016, 10,000 people were crossing the checkpoint, in the summer of 2017, 12,000 people were crossing, and in the summer of 2018, 13,000 people were crossing.
Many tourists enjoy travelling through this scenic mountainous road. In 1891, Russian writer Maksim Gorky backpacked through this area on foot. He wrote about his journey, saying, “The amazing nature of the Caucasus is what turned me, this wanderer, into a writer.” This amazing nature also inspired writers like Pushkin, Lermontov and Chekhov.
However, many people avoid using this road the second time around due to constant traffic and other problems at the Lars checkpoint.
Lars is Vital, but not Stable
The only land road connecting Armenia to Russia goes through dangerous mountain passes and is constantly prone to natural disasters. During the winter months, Lars closes down because of snow and snow storms, and during the rest of the year it closes down because of floods and landslides.
Literature from ancient times mentions this significant military road in Georgia. In the 11-13th centuries, this road was considered a vital trading route with neighboring counties.
Lars was further developed in the 18th century with the improvement of Russian-Georgian relations. In 1783, the Treaty of Georgievsk was signed which led to serious further advancements. In those years, there was a constant need to sign military treaties for numerous reasons. For instance, there had been conversations in 1799, that during the reign of Catherine II, the military force sent from Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi under the command of General Lazarev took a treacherous 36 days.
Even today, the geographical conditions and the local relief of Lars frequently cause an accumulation of hundreds of trucks for hours and sometimes even days, thus leaving Armenian exporters and drivers unpleasantly surprised during fruit export season.
The President of the Union of Exporters of Armenia, Raffi Mkhchyan says, “Lars is an unstable, hopeless and unpredictable road. We suffer at Lars; every businessman and driver is left degraded. How many dollars are wasted on this road?”
It’s difficult to say how much Armenia’s economy has suffered from the constant closing of the Lars checkpoint.
In 2008, during the Russia-Georgia War all of Armenia’s exporting roads were blocked through Georgia. In that year alone, the country lost over a half a billion dollars. According to economist Tatul Manaseryan, during the war, Armenia’s price fluctuations passed beyond 20-25 percent.
There is a Need for an Alternative Road to Lars
Lars is considered vital for Armenia, however there is a need for an alternative road. This issue is on the Armenian government’s agenda.
Discussions are regularly held around several alternative roads that go through Georgia. Aleko Kvakhadze, a Georgian expert on the Caucasus, thinks there are several alternatives to Lars; these are the road that crosses the border with Chechnya, near the Dusheti Municipality of Georgia, the Kagheti-Daghstan road, as well as the road going through the Raja region of South Ossetia, which is not under Georgian control. “These roads, however require a large investment to renovate. Even if the required investments were made, some of the renovations would never happen due to political reasons,” he explains.
As for the reopening of the Abkhazian railroad, the present Georgian ruling party brought this to the negotiation table after its victory in the 2012 parliamentary elections. The railroad linked the country to Russia, however it stopped working 25 year ago.
Paata Zakareishvili, a conflict expert and then State Minister for Reintegration, had stated that Russia, Georgia and Armenia could benefit from the railroad. This would have led to growth of trade turnover between these countries and strengthened Georgia’s geopolitical significance.
However, it seems discussions around this issue have died down after the adoption of the Law on Occupied Territories by Georgia at the end of the August War in 2008. According to this law, international trade with Abkhazia and South Ossetia were banned.
Today, the most reasonable arrangement is considered the application of the 2011 Agreement on Customs Monitoring of Cargoes which was the axis of the Russian-Georgian negotiations that were held within,the framework of the bilateral Abashidze-Kerasin talks (Georgia’s special Russia envoy Zurab Abashidze and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin). According to this agreement, the connecting road will go through Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This document gives Moscow and Tbilisi the opportunity to develop trade and transport relations through Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the absence of diplomatic relations, and at the same time bypassing the unresolved issue of the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Zakareishvili, who later resigned from his post as minister, says, “I would be happy if the treaty became a reality, however I don’t believe that it will happen.” He continues, “It’s unrealistic. Only the signatures on the document are real. Nothing will change beyond those signatures.”
Zakareishvili believes that there will be thousands of reasons as to why goods will not be transported through the above mentioned alternative roads. According to the former minister, one of the main issues, however, will continue to be the occupation of Georgian territory and the issue of removing Russian troops from Abkhazia and Tskhinvali.
Experts in Armenia also believe that an alternative road to Lars will be found only when Russian-Georgian relations are resolved.
This year, however, Georgia and Russia have seen progress in the agreement - a result of serious negotiations that started seven years ago. They have assured that they will reach concrete results in terms of opening trade corridors.
Official Tbilisi and Moscow have assured Yerevan about this as well.
Deputy Minister Pambukhchyan says, “Lars is a priority for us. However, taking into consideration the problems that arise there, we are looking into other alternative routes. Armenia pays great attention to Russian-Georgian negotiations. I’ve been informed that negotiations are ongoing and our Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also following up on this. At the Ministry of Transport we always discuss this issue with our colleagues.”
National elections in both Armenia and Georgia have now taken place and perhaps now, the two countries will once again continue actively discussing alternative routes. However, winter is upon us, and Lars has no other alternative.