Armenia Sees Agreemen’s with Georgia Bulgaria As Chance to Restore Rail Links

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia’said Wednesday that an agreement with Georgia and Bulgaria on a regular ferry link across the Black Sea is an opportunity to restore its rail communication with the outside world–disrupted by numerous ethnic disputes in the Caucasus.

Transport Minister Yervand Zakarian said the agreement–reached with his Georgian and Bulgarian counterparts in Yerevan–may boost by 20 to 30 percent Armenia’s external cargo turnover in 1999. "There is a real chance for Armenia to reach Europe by railway," Zakarian announced at a joint news conference with the two ministers–Georgia’s Merab Adeishvili and Bulgaria’s Wilhelm Krause–following the signing of a trilateral memorandum. The document aims to facilitate the movement of freights between Europe and the Caucasus through a ferry link between the Georgian and Bulgarian Black Sea ports. "Bulgaria’s transport system is open to any country," Krause said.

The three ministers have said their joint efforts proceed within the framework of the European Union’s TRACECA project to develop a new transport corridor with Central Asia via the South Caucasus. The idea involves building and refurbishing road–rail and ferry links across the huge geographical area.

The unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has meant closed borders with Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey for Armenia. Another railway connecting Armenia to Russia through Georgia was severed in 1992 by the war in its breakaway republic of Abkhazia. Most of Armenia’s foreign trade is carried out through the Georgian ports of Batumi and Poti.

Armenia pays Georgia $13.5 per ton for the transit of goods through its territory. Their volume is expected to reach 1.75 million tons this year.

Meanwhile–Armenian officials said neighboring Iran also takes interest in joining the transport scheme. The trilateral meeting of the ministers was attended by Iranian diplomats on Tuesday. Yerevan has been actively pushing for the development of an overland trade route between the Black Sea and Persian Gulf–running across Armenia and Georgia.

The three transport ministers of Armenia also announced that they had agreed to facilitate the movement of freights through their territories–in line with the European Union’s project to revive the ancient Silk Road. Following talks in Yerevan–the ministers told RFE/RL they will sign a joint memorandum to develop rail and ferry links between Europe and the Caucasus on Wednesday.

"There is a real possibility of our rail carriages reaching Europe," Zakarian said. In his words–the rail communication is planned to be ensured by a stable ferry link between the Black Sea ports of Batumi (Georgia) and Varna (Bulgaria).

"For Armenia and Georgia–this a step towards Europe," Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said after a meeting with the transport chiefs from Georgia and Bulgaria.

Adeishvili said the three countries are cooperating within the framework of the EU’s TRACECA project to restore ancient trade routes linking Europe to Central Asia via the Caucasus. Cargo shipmen’s across the Black Sea–on which Armenia and Georgia are heavily dependent–are a key element of the ambitious project.

Most of Armenia’s foreign trade is carried out through the Georgian ports of Batumi and Poti. Details of the agreement are due to be made public on Wednesday.

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