The snowfalls closed the roads, in particular all the transport corridors connecting Georgia to Russia. The Kobi-Gudauri section of the Jvari Gorge was closed due to avalanche risks, while the actual avalanche happened by the Roki tunnel on the occupied territories. Once again, the weather saw fit to influence the local political agenda, forcing people to actively discuss the need to provide humanitarian aid for those trapped in the snow siege- most of all for those in the occupied Tskhinvali region, which was left without the option to import food or other products for weeks. Markets in Tskhinvali, Java and Akhalgori were all but empty. Around 56 thousand people were left at the goodwill of the weather and the occupational regime: either the weather gets better and the avalanche by the Roki tunnel can be cleared, or the occupational regime will terminate the quarantine established at the so-called border of occupied Akhalgori in order to “protect locals from the Swine Flu,” which has seen cases popping up throughout Georgia.
Aleko Elisashvili, leader of the Civil Movement, was the first to react to the Tskhinvali situation, calling for the government to send a humanitarian convoy. His initiative was supported by Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, who called for the de facto government to accept humanitarian aid from Georgia. Tskhinvali rejected the offer, saying: “We went through the war, the blockade and endured. We will endure this crisis too.” What fueled this optimism is unknown, but it could have been enhanced by the fact that the de facto leader Anatoly Bibilov was on vacation in Moscow, and so unaffected by the discomforts of the avalanche. Despite his luck, people were standing by the Roki tunnel and in Akhalgori for days, demanding the right to get to Tbilisi or Vladikavkaz to seek medical aid.
Apart from the humanitarian aspect, the weather seems to be influencing a few other political nuances. Georgia was recently visited by the newly elected Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan. The meeting in Bolnisi was held while Armenian trucks, loaded with goods, had to stop at the Larsi checkpoint and wait for the roads to open. Media and analytical circles thought the visit to be connected with discussing the transit of Armenian goods, especially when the agreement signed with Russia is ready and could be activated. Said agreement suggests the opening and movement of transit corridors through the occupied Abhkazian and Tskhinvali regions. But it seems the preliminary forecasts were mistaken, because, although the Armenian and Georgian PMs did discuss transit, it was not about going through Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, but from Iran via Armenia to Batumi.
Media outlet Echo Kavkaza wrote that the European Union is ready to allocate EUR 780 million if the parties present a mutual Armenian-Georgian application for this project. An anonymous source suggested that apart from a budget for the construction of the highway, the project will also cover a few side roads leading to it and checkpoints at the Iranian-Armenian border. The idea of building a road from Armenia to Batumi is nothing new, though, and Official Yerevan was asking for permission to build it from Jvakheti as early as 1917, during the times of the Transcaucasian Sejm. President Saakashvili held negotiations with the predecessor of PM Pashinyan, but without results. A preliminary agreement has only been made about the mutual rehabilitation of Goderdzi Gorge, and it seems that Yerevan only just realized that Goderdzi Gorge is just as risky in terms of avalanches as Jvari, and came to recall this century-old project.
As for the issue of opening the border corridors from Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, Georgian Dream remains silent. Even if the border terminals and Swiss observers are there, this doesn’t mean that cargo will start moving via Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. Who would carry out border passport control for one? Who would collect the taxes? And one more thing, we have an active Law on Occupied Territories, which restricts the transit or any economic activity on the non-controlled territories. So, will Armenian businessmen need to get a special permit from the Georgian government to move their cargo through the un-controlled territories?
Some think no-one will demand a change of government just because it allows the transit of goods, and while the Georgian Dream has two more years before the parliamentary elections of 2020, the economic benefits gained during this period could outweigh the existing political nuances.
By Zaza Jgarkava