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Georgian, Armenian and Russian analysts discuss Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi reopening

By Mzia Kupunia
Wednesday, March 10
Georgian, Armenian and Russian analysts and politicians discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the reopening of the Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi border checkpoint at a video conference at the RIA Novosti office on Tuesday. The checkpoint, the only official land connection between Russia and Georgia, opened on March 1 after Swiss-Armenian-mediated negotiations between Tbilisi and Moscow last year. The move provoked varied reactions among Georgian politicians and the analysts.

Russian analysts saw the reopening as a positive move. Aleksey Malishenko from the Carnegie Centre in Moscow said that “it is better than nothing”. “It is a step made towards the normalisation of Georgian-Russian relations. This is a fact. It is a small window opened, through which some oxygen is coming in. European politicians and experts have also assessed the reopening as positive,” Malishenko said. “Georgian-Russian relations are currently in such a position that the tendency for normalisation them should continue, otherwise it will be very bad," he added.

Russian political scientist Sergey Makedonov agreed that the reopening was positive but pointed out the problems which still existed at the border. “The window is open, however there are some problems, particularly with visa procedures; the other problem is that people are not allowed to cross the border on foot. Despite all the problems, the reopening of Larsi indicates that contacts at a humanitarian level are going on, despite the problem of undecided status [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia],” Makedonov suggested.

Armenian analyst and Director of the Caucasus Institute Alexander Iskanderyan downplayed the importance to Russian-Georgian relations of reopening the Larsi border crossing point. “I am less optimistic than my colleagues in Moscow. I do not think that the reopening of Larsi can make relations between Georgia and Russia any better. Both sides are firm about their positions: Georgia demands that Russia de-occupies its territories, while Russia does not consider doing this,” he noted. “Instead of a normalisation of the relations between Tbilisi and Moscow, I would rather call this move a transformation of the conflict: political problems remain, but the positions of the sides in the humanitarian and economic fields have become softer,” Iskanderyan added.

Georgia will not benefit from the reopened Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi border crossing point, Georgian opposition politician Giorgi Khaindrava stated. “Visa procedures are complicated to the extent that it is almost impossible to get one. The Russian market is closed for Georgian products, so considering all this I think Georgia does not profit from this move. This road has been opened just for Armenia and actually Georgia will get no benefit from it,” he noted.

Khaindrava warned about the possible use of the crossing point to supply the Russian military base in the Armenian town of Gyumri. “Georgian customs officers will not be able to check the cargo coming from Russia to Armenia. I am deeply convinced that most of this cargo will be e supplies for military base in Gyumri,” he said. The Armenian analysts denied Khaindrava’s claims. “I do not think any nuclear weapons will be carried through Larsi to Armenia. No serious consignment of cargo has crossed the border since the opening of the crossing point, which is actually natural,” Alexander Iskanderyan said.

Khaindrava accused the Georgian Government for doing “underground” deals. “I do not understand how the decision to reopen the checkpoint was made when both sides are scolding each other,” he said. “Georgian politicians always describe the Russian administration as an “occupier” and “aggressor”. I am sure this reopening is the result of underground games by Saakashvili,” Khaindrava added.

Opposition Christian-Democratic Movement MP Nika Laliashvili slammed the Georgian administration for creating a “permanent tension point” in the Kazbegi region. “If the sides want to make life easier for the citizens they should restart air flights between Tbilisi and Moscow,” he suggested.

Georgian officials have denied opposition claims that the opening of the Kazbegi-Zemo Larsi border crossing point will increase the threat to Georgia. Speaking at the Parliament's plenary session Vice Speaker Mikheil Machavariani said Georgia’s decision was “logical”. “All of this [the closing of the crossing point] happened as a result of Russia's policy. Considering our interests, the point was reopened. It would be inappropriate to reject this reopening,” the National Movement MP said, adding that when the Russian tanks are deployed 40 kilometres from Tbilisi Georgia cannot avoid facing threats from Russia by either opening or closing the border.