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Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi border crossing reopened

By Mzia Kupunia
Tuesday, March 2
The Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi border crossing point, the only official land connection between Georgia and Russia, reopened on Monday. The checkpoint had been closed since 2006, when the Russians closed it claiming they needed to reconstruct and modernise it. Both sides agreed to reopen the checkpoint following Armenian and Swiss-mediated negotiations last year.

Officials in Tbilisi assessed the opening of the checkpoint as a “positive precedent”. Speaking at the traditional Monday press briefing the Deputy Foreign Minister of Georgia, Nino Kalandadze, said that this is the first diplomatic agreement between Tbilisi and Moscow mediated by the Swiss side. “Armenian officials had asked us to do this several times and we tried to deal with the issue promptly,” she said.

Some politicians have criticized the decision to reopen the border crossing. The Parliamentary minority Christian-Democratic Movement has described it as "against Georgia’s state interests.” MP Nika Laliashvili of the CDM said that the Kazbegi region might now share the same fate as Akhalgori. “Russian regular troops might be deployed in this region as well,” he suggested.

Laliashvili accused the Georgian administration of misleading the population with their previous statements that the checkpoint would only be used for cargo transit. “In reality the decision also allows for the restoration of civilian movement across the border,” the MP said at a special press conference at Parliament on Monday. Laliashvili warned Government officials that four NGOs allegedly operate in North Ossetia funded by the Russian special services. These NGOs are disseminating “pseudo-historical” essays alleging that the Kazbegi region is an “integral part” of ancient Alania, and therefore by implication rightfully Ossetian territory. “The NGOs are actively trying to reach Kazbegi and arouse the Ossetian population,” Laliashvili said. He called on the Georgian authorities to ensure additional security guarantees in the region.

Nino Kalandadze responded to the CDM's claims by saying that opening the Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi border crossing does not create any threats for Georgia. Tbilisi will make no compromises in relation to Moscow until the process of Georgia’s de-occupation starts, she stated. “Theoretically threats can come from any border crossing point anywhere, however I state with full responsibility that the opening of the Zemo Larsi point poses no threat to either the people willing to cross the border nor the local population, because we are taking all possible security measures,” Kalandadze stated. “All people the border guards doubt will be strictly dealt with,” she added.

The Georgian side expects no economic profit from the opening of the crossing point with Russia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated. “The decision to open the Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi point has been made because we consider the interests of neighbouring Armenia, which has several times asked us to open this crossing point,” Kalandadze said. Some economic analysts have confirmed that Georgia will not gain any economic benefit from opening the land border. “I cannot assess the opening in political terms, but in economic terms I can say that we will not derive any benefit,” Davit Narmania said. “Under Georgian legislation, goods transit and road usage are both free of charge, so the state budget will get no direct profit from this,” Narmania suggested.

However political analyst Zurab Abashidze has not ruled out the possibility that Georgia might gain economic profit from the opening. “We can’t say that there is absolutely no economic interest in the move. At least the local population will gain something from it,” Abashidze told The Messenger. Although the Georgian Foreign Ministry has stated that this decision has only been made to help Armenia, the opening of the land border has some political significance for Georgia as well, the analyst noted. “In the current situation any step taken by both Tbilisi and Moscow gains a political meaning. We should not exaggerate the importance of it though,” Abashidze said. “This was a pragmatic step taken by the Georgian side, which can generally be assessed as a positive one,” he added.