Friday, 5 September 2008

So this is the Georgian border

The Georgian-Russian conflict and the fall out for Armenia was a recurring theme during our three day visit to Yerevan. Borders and relations with neighbouring countries are a pretty hot topic for Armenians. Their tiny landlocked country backs onto Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia - as you can imagine that means Armenia's foreign policy is a balancing act between friends and foes.

The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed and completely sealed off, roads and rails lead nowhere - well, with the exception of smuggling and illegal trade of course. Then there's Georgia - 70 % of Armenia's imports transit through this northern neighbour. But obviously the conflict has had disastrous economic consequences for Armenia - for 20 days the rail and road links from the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti to Yerevan were closed. Fuel ran out in Yerevan, food supplies were severely shortened, most of the trade was rerouted through the Persian Gulf and Iran.

Armenia is now walking a very thin line trying to stay neutral and juggling interests between its strategic ally Russia, its natural partner Georgia and southern neighbour Iran. Then there's the EU and the US to take into consideration. Washington is heavily lobbied by the big Armenian diaspora in the US. As for Brussels, the majority of Armenians, especially young ones, would like to join Club Europe in some not too distant future.

How's all that for a diplomatic challenge?

We asked Arman Kirakosyan, Armenia's Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, what the official position towards the conflict in Georgia was. Surprisingly he replied: "There is none."

Well, maybe diplomacy is not that difficult after all. I wonder what his boss thinks.


To see a little practical foreign policy in action, we were squeezed into a minibus and dispatched to the Georgian-Armenian border. Now, I had my doubts as to what exactly we would be able to see there and what the whole point of this excursion was. And as it turned out I was not wrong.

Under the strict observance of a customs official who had joined us from Yerevan, meticulously filming our every move, we had a chat with the guy in charge of the check point. Sure, he said, there were long queues to enter Armenia when the conflict erupted and Russian troops were moving closer to Tbilisi. Thousands of Georgians, as well as expats were fleeing the country. But the Armenian customs and immigration officials were, as he proudly announced to us, always well prepared, and the situation was back to normal within a few days. As you can imagine the group 15 journalists was less than impressed with such a, let's say, "textbook" official response.

Eager for more concrete info, we assaulted the border crossing with our cameras - very much to the dismay of our border chief who quickly called us back and summarily imposed a PHOTO BAN. So next we pursued anyone crossing the border.

It must have been a pretty funny sight. 15 journos representing 15 different EU countries hunting for any snippet of information, a good quote, or something that would have made this 7 hour drive worth our while. Even a Georgian Khachapuri would have been welcomed.

But I guess we lingered around long enough and made the local chief feel important with all these microphones and recording devices poked at him. Whatever it was, he suddenly had a change of heart and said it's OK to take photos. So, out came the cameras again, and this time we were more like a group of Japanese tourists taking souvenir shots from an exotic location. Perhaps he also felt a little guilty as next thing we were treated to a round of beers! So much for rules and regulations at the border.

Despite the Armenian hospitality, most of us were a bit frustrated to travel all this way and to not be able to cross the border and drive the remaining 70 kms to Tbilisi.

Nagorno Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in neighbouring Azerbijan, would also have been so much more interesting, but I guess that's what you have to deal with when you're on a press trip.

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