YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia was grappling with its worst fuel shortages since the early 1990s on Monday despite the reported reopening of Georgia’s east-west railway that serves as the main supply line of the two South Caucasus states.
Armenia received late Monday the first trainload of wheat and other basic supplies since the August 16 explosion that downed a key rail bridge in central Georgia, all but cutting it off from the Georgian Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti. The train carried no petrol, leaving the landlocked country to rely on fuel brought in by more than 30 heavy trucks from the port terminals. Thousands of tons of petrol and diesel fuel have been stockpiled there and are awaiting delivery to Armenia.
According to the Ministry of Transport and Communications, another train carrying 10 rail cars of petrol was about to bypass on Tuesday afternoon the damaged section of Georgia’s east-west railway through a smaller and hitherto disused rail bridge prepared for temporary use. “Those ten cars of petrol should reach Armenia by tomorrow morning,” a ministry spokeswoman, Susanna Tonoyan, told RFE/RL.
A section of that railway close to the central Georgian town of Gori was damaged by a weekend fuel train explosion, which Georgian officials said was caused by a landmine. It occurred just over a week after another, powerful explosion downed a nearby rail bridge. Russia denied Georgian accusations that it was behind the attack.
The August 16 blast left the Armenian government scrambling to restore supplies of wheat, fuel and other basic commodities from the Georgian Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi which process more than 90 percent of Armenia’s external cargo turnover. The government sent a convoy of about 40 fuel trucks to collect gasoline stranded in the ports.
Meanwhile, petrol was barely available for sale in most filling stations in Yerevan. Queues of cars could be seen outside the few functioning stations, most of them belonging to large fuel importing companies. Some of them continued severe fuel rationing introduced at the weekend, while others did not sell fuel for cash, accepting only vouchers sold by those companies to privileged buyers.
Workers at filling stations blamed the crisis on a “panic” among motorists keen to stock up with unusually large amounts of petrol because of the continuing uncertainty in Georgia. “There are drivers who buy 60 liters of gasoline a day,” said Vagho Vanian, manager of a station owned by Flash, the country’s number one fuel importer. “Armenia’s are always quick to panic.”
“People are worried that there might be no petrol tomorrow,” said a seller at another station chain. “That’s why we don’t have enough of it; Sometimes when you start filling a car tank you see that it’s already almost full.”
“There will be lots of gasoline in town on August 29,” predicted another station worker.
Despite the shortages, the prices of various gasoline bran’s have remained virtually unchanged, hovering between 410 and 440 drams ($1.35-$1.45) per liter. The local market is tightly controlled by Flash and a handful of other firms owned by government-connected persons.
Ensuring continued imports of wheat and other basic foodstuffs has been the Armenian government’s main priority so far. Tonoyan said most of the rail cars that have already entered or are on the way to the country are loaded with wheat.
Officials said on Monday that the convoy returned to Armenia at the weekend with more than 500 tons of petrol. The government does not plan to send more heavy vehicles to Georgia in view of the renewed rail communication, they said.
Meanwhile, the situation with fuel supplies only deteriorated, with the vast majority of filling stations in Yerevan resorting to severe fuel rationing on Sunday. They stopped selling petrol altogether the next morning. Only holders of prepaid corporate vouchers issued by the country’s largest station chains could buy a limited amount of petrol on Monday.
“We have run out of gas and are selling it only to company cars. This is all the information I have at this point,” said a worker at one filling station besieged by angry motorists.
“The war is in Georgia, but it’s Armenia that is in crisis,” one of them complained. “They keep saying that petrol is coming and there are no problems. But there is a problem.”
“Even in the most remote Georgian village there is no petrol shortage,” said another driver. “Why? Because there are many petrol importers in Georgia but only three of them in this country.”
The cargo company Apaven, which was assigned by the government to organize the emergency fuel imports, downplayed the crisis. “The [Georgian] railway has begun functioning at a fraction of its capacity,” Apaven’s executive director, Gagik Aghajanian, told RFE/RL. “But even that is enough. If there is any deficit, I think it will be eliminated shortly.”
Aghajanian referred to the start of rail traffic through a smaller, disused rail bridge which Georgia, helped by Armenia and Azerbaijan, has prepared for use until the damaged bridge is repaired.
According to the Armenian Ministry of Transport and Communications, the August 16 blast left a total of 178 rail cars, 108 of them loaded with wheat, stranded on Georgian railway sections west of Gori. “In all likelihood, 35 cars loaded with wheat will head to Armenia today,” Tonoyan told RFE/RL.
“Besides, we have a lot of freight in the ports of Poti and Batumi awaiting shipment,” she said. “In particular, in Poti there are two ships carrying 6,700 tons of wheat and 93 rails cars of other goods. In Batumi, we have 2,500 tons of wheat, ten cars of petrol and another one thousand tons of petrol.”
Tonoyan added that the government has also organized “intensive” fuel and wheat supplies from neighboring Iran. More than 400 tons of flour have already bee imported to Armenia through Iranian territory, she said.