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Controversy over Larsi checkpoint opening

By Messenger Staff
Friday, November 6
The Larsi checkpoint is currently the only place at which a Georgian-Russian land communication still exists, although it is not functioning at the moment. There were three such points initially, one at Psou on the Abkhazian segment of the Georgia-Russia border on the Black Sea coast and the other at the Roki Tunnel, the northern entrance of which officially belongs to Georgia but is now controlled by South Ossetian separatists. The Psou and Roki checkpoints have not been available for the Georgian Government for around 17-18 years. In 2006, Russia unilaterally closed the Russian side of the Larsi checkpoint, explaining that it needed to undertake reconstruction work there, although Georgian analysts are almost unanimous in believing that this was one of the many punitive steps taken by the Russian authorities to punish ‘disobedient’ Georgia. Ironically, Russia’s most devoted ally in the South Caucasus, Armenia, was also disadvantaged by this step as the Larsi checkpoint was also the only place cargo to and from Armenia could pass through.

Russia did not achieve its ends by punishing Georgia. It continued to embrace the West despite this action but Armenia lost out. Today, the issue of reopening this checkpoint is on the agenda. The Parliamentary opposition is concerned about this possibility, and is demanding that this issue be discussed at a Security Council session, but the authorities are mostly positive about it. The main point of controversy is whether it is appropriate to consider opening a checkpoint with a country with which Georgia has no diplomatic relations, which is occupying 1/5th of Georgia’s territory. Sceptics think that if the checkpoint is opened the Russian propaganda machine would call this a step in the normalisation of Georgia-Russia relations, and claim it is an indirect recognition by Georgia of Russia’s position in the dispute between the two countries, i.e. the “new reality” of two puppet regimes running what it calls “sovereign states” on Georgian territory. The Georgian leadership meanwhile tries to present the possible opening of the border as a humanitarian gesture, being undertaken out of concern for Armenia’s needs, although it has expressed no previous desire to work with the Russians for the sake of Armenia.

We currently have the ridiculous situation in which the Georgian Foreign Ministry says that it is not conducting negotiations with the Russian side but with the Armenian side, whereas the Armenians are negotiating with the Russians. Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze briefed journalists about this on November 2. Moscow declared its readiness to open the Larsi checkpoint back in May 2009, and Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze then expressed Georgia’s readiness to start negotiations on this topic. The Kremlin was not expecting this reaction. Logically Tbilisi should have refused to countenance negotiations, while the Russians would scream about Georgia’s inhumane treatment of its Armenian neighbours, but maybe Tbilisi was smarter than Moscow for once.

If the Larsi checkpoint is opened for Armenia’s sake this will automatically have positive side effects for Georgia too, because the vehicles loaded with goods will need to be serviced, so canteens, petrol stations, hotels and so on could revive along the Georgian Military Road. However the possibility poses a certain threat as well, as the Christian Democrats pointed out at the Parliamentary plenary session on November 3. MP Nika Laliashvili stated that North Caucasian unrest might be imported into Georgia. Former head of the Border Police Badri Bitsadze thinks that if the official structures do their jobs properly there will be no such threat, but that might be a big if.

A decision on reopening the checkpoint should be taken in the near future. Let us see what the consequences will be.