Russia : The Georgian Revenue Service, responsible for customs and tariffs at Georgia’s borders, reports that the Russian customs checkpoint at Upper/Verkhny Lars, just north of Kazbegi is operating at reduced capacity with half the normal number of cargo trucks being processed daily. The Revenue Service emphasizes that the delays are caused solely by issues on the Russian side of the border and that everything on the Georgian side is running smoothly.
The Revenue Service released a statement saying, “We are already working on a limited basis for the sixth day, as the Russian side does not pass vehicles in the quantities it can. As a rule, 500-600 trucks pass through the border a day, but now no more than 250. The reason is associated with the tourist season, as for the Russian customs the priority is to service citizens and cars.”
The delays are causing problems throughout the region as the narrow, high mountain pass is a major regional transit point for ground transportation. Armenian trucks are particularly heavily affected, as Russia is Armenia’s main trading partner and all ground cargo moving between the two countries must pass through this checkpoint. Armenian media outlets are reporting that 1,500 trucks with agricultural products from Armenia are currently stuck at the Russian-Georgian border – as many as 600 cargo trucks have accumulated on the Georgian side.
Russian news outlet Mir24 reports that there are hundreds of passenger vehicles stuck on the Russian side of the border in a traffic jam of at least 3 km. Despite efforts to address the situation, it is taking cars an average of 3-4 hours to cross the border into Georgia. At the height of summer holidays, with thousands of Russian tourists heading to Georgia’s popular warm weather destinations, the situation is particularly problematic. Each summer, Russia is among the top five countries whose citizens visit Georgia, according to statistics from the National Tourism Administration. From January-March 2018, 233,100 Russians visited Georgia – up 25% from the same period last year.
Russian sources blame the delays on engineering and technical work, including preparation for plans to expand access roads to the checkpoint on the Russian side and equipment upgrades. Mir24 quotes Sergei Trotsko, head of the North Ossetian Customs, saying “Both us, RosGranStroy, and the Border Guard Service will take measures to ensure that, despite the engineering and technical works, the checkpoint functions, and passenger and cargo flow is not affected.”
There is some unclarity over the actual cause of the customs delays. According to the Ministry of Transport of Armenia, the problems are caused by the introduction of a new pass system in Russia, which allows drivers to pre-book a border crossing slot. A third possibility is capacity. Deputy head of the Transport Department of the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Information Technologies of Armenia, David Melkonyan, told the Novosti Armenia news agency that the only explanation for the situation is seasonality and the capacity of the checkpoint. According to Melkonyan, “The design capacity of the customs post of Upper Lars is limited by natural features, usually on any given day there are 70-80 units of cargo, 200 units of passenger transport and 40 buses, as well as 4,000 individuals. However, over the past few days, the flow of freight transport has reached 200 vehicles, and individuals – 10,000. The accumulation of trucks is due to the fact that priority is given to cars.”
He adds that nothing can be done to alleviate the backup other than to open an alternate route, and that “negotiations are being conducted with both the Georgian and Russian sides.