YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — The governments of Armenia and Georgia formalized on Wednesday their plans to build a new bridge on the border between the two countries in an effort to facilitate bilateral trade and travel.
Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Armenian Transport Minister Gagik Beglarian signed a corresponding agreement in Yerevan after a session of a Georgian-Armenian economic task force. The agreement was finalized during Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian’s visit to Tbilisi earlier this month.
The new “Friendship Bridge” is to be built over the Debed river flowing through the main Georgian-Armenian border crossing. It currently has a single narrow bridge constructed in Soviet times.
A statement on the agreement released by Abrahamian’s press office said nothing about the dates and cost of the construction or sources of funding for it.
Abrahamian, who was present at the signing ceremony, first announced plans for the new bridge when he met with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili in Yerevan in August. He effectively linked the project with the ongoing reconstruction and expansion of border facilities on the Armenian side of the Bagratashen-Sadakhlo crossing. It is mostly financed by the European Union.
Abrahamian and Kvirikashvili held separate talks after the ceremony. The Armenian government statement cited the two men as stressing the need to increase bilateral trade.
Earlier in the day, a Georgian-Armenian “working group” on economic cooperation explored ways of doing that at a meeting that was co-chaired by Kvirikashvili and Armenian Economy Minister Karen Chshmaritian. It also discussed trade-related implications of Armenia’s accession to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Georgia’s Association Agreement with the EU.
The EEU membership, effective from January, requires the Armenian government to gradually adopt significantly higher duties that are collected by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan from goods imported from third countries. Many expected that this would lead to the abolition of a free trade regime existing between Georgia and Armenia. However, a senior Armenian diplomat announced late last month that Yerevan will not scrap the Georgian-Armenia free trade deal after joining the Russian-led bloc.
Chshmaritian implicitly confirmed this at a joint news conference with Kvirikashvili. “Maintaining the free trade regime is beneficial for both Armenia and Georgia,” he said. “As you just heard, the Georgian side is also seeking to maintain that regime.”
Kvirikasvhili, who is also Georgia’s minister of economy and sustainable development, sounded more ambiguous on that score. “I think that we will have a transitional period of several years before agreeing on new trade regimes,” he said.
Kvirikashvili also spoke of a “positive dynamic” in Georgian-Armenian trade, saying that it reached $450 million in the first ten months of this year.
According to Armenia’s National Statistical Service, the volume of bilateral commerce stood at only $126 million in January-October 2014, however.
It was not clear if the figure cited by the Georgian vice-premier included transit fees levied by Georgia from Armenian exports and imports. More than two-thirds of Armenia’s foreign trade is carried out through Georgian territory.