Abkhazian railway - road to nowhere?
22/11/2012 14:42
Simon Kiladze

Price of the question: pros and cons

Of proposals for improvement of Russian-Georgian relations voiced among the Georgian public, the biggest attention was grabbed by the question of the possible restoration of the Zugdidi-Ochamchire section of the Georgian Railway that links the two neighbouring states – Georgia and Russia (the Ochamchire-Gagra section is already restored and operates), which has not only local regional transit but also geopolitical and geo-economic importance too. First, through this railway (i.e. Transcaucasian railway) Russia, just like during the Soviet times, is connected with Armenia and Iran. And Armenia that is blockaded by Turkey and Azerbaijan from the east and the west would restore rail links with Russia, Ukraine and in general, European states.

Therefore, as any more or less innovative plan, the project to restore the railway appears to have both supporters and opponents.

Azerbaijan: statements with a touch of threat

In terms of transport links with Russia (and in general, with the outside world) and compared to Armenia, Azerbaijan is a positively better position. Baku is directly linked to Moscow through railway that passes across the territory of Dagestan, and given this, our Caspian neighbours do not care about the problem of communication - as they say, they have it "in the bag".

At that, it was clear from the outset that the initiative of Paata Zakareishvili would cause a negative reaction from Azerbaijan (since Baku and Yerevan are at war with each other) that might fear that Russian weapons might be delivered to Armenia through the railway. And though the Azerbaijani official authorities have remained silent a warning message was sent across by the political elite, namely several members of the Azerbaijan legislative body Mili-Mejlis, closely associated with the authorities immediately voiced their negative attitude to this initiative. And this points to the fact that silence is not always a sign of consent. Although it should be noted that it is possible that the Azerbaijani authorities refrained from official statements on the grounds that, first, at this stage they are confident in lack of any prospect of restoration of movement on the Abkhazian section of the Georgian railway, and, most importantly, they do not want to rush, and probably do not want to create problems in the relations with the new government of Georgia. And therefore they are waiting for further steps in this regard.

Armenia: alternative with a prospect

Over the years resumption of operation of the Abkhazian section of the Georgian railway has been a dream of Georgia’s southern neighbour. On an official or unofficial level Yerevan has always been trying to get this issue on the agenda of talks of any level, but without success. In search of an alternative communication Armenia has been eyeing Iran, but it was obvious that transit through Georgia is still more favourable for Yerevan. To date, Armenia has more or less managed to organize the import-export issue. Trade and communication with Russia is done via the Georgian Military Road (through the Larsi checkpoint), as well as ports of Georgia. We can say that the railway is no longer of such strategic importance to Armenia as before, though, of course, Yerevan still welcomes possible resumption of the railway movement on this section of the railway and believes that resumption of operation of the shortest road to Russia will reduce the price of its transit cargo. By the way, in contrast to Azerbaijan, the Armenian leadership through the statement of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian has officially stated its positive attitude to this question.

Russia as an "observer"

For Russia, resumption of railway movement on the Abkhazian section of the Georgian railway could theoretically be beneficial. It will be easier for Moscow to provide its military base in Gyumri with both purely military cargo and cargo of dual purpose. In addition, it could deliver similar products to Iran too. But this is only in theory. In practice, there is a different picture altogether. Georgia will not allow transit of military cargo through its territory. Since it, first and foremost, will be detrimental to Georgia’s interests, to say nothing of a negative reaction from its Western partners and allies.

At present, despite the limited communication, Russia more or less manages to ensure delivery of weapons to its military base in Gyumri through Iran and Central Asia. At that, Moscow is well aware that even in case of deterioration of the situation in Iran, it would not be able to use Georgian territory to transport troops and military equipment. Thus, suggestions of foreign experts that taking advantage of the situation in Iran Russia will try to "launch a second war against Georgia" are less convincing.

Perhaps that is why Russia does not show significant activization in the matter of resumption of the railway. For Moscow most acceptable thing would be increase in efficiency of the transport corridor North-South. Also, it is clear that confrontation between Azerbaijan and Georgia because of the railroad is more profitable for Moscow as it would complicate operation of the oil and gas pipeline (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum) and implementation of other Western energy projects, for example, construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline ...

Abkhazian separatists: first recognition, then railway

The de facto government of Sukhumi has repeatedly stated that it will not have relationship with Georgia until the eye Tbilisi officially recognizes the independence of Abkhazia. According to some experts, the restoration of the railway in the eastern direction (from Ochamchire to Enguri and Zugdidi) does not have any significant importance for Abkhazia, since Sukhumi receives all it needs from Russia (trough operation of the Sukhumi-Leselidze section of the railway). In addition, the Abkhazian separatists are not interested in the return of internally displaced persons and refugees that might follow the restoration of the railway movement. There is one more thing that complicates the resumption of the railway movement of this section of the railway. Currently, practically the entire railway infrastructure in Ochamchire and , especially in the Gali district is destroyed - rails, catenary, railroad tracks, bridges, buildings, stations – everything is destroyed ... As it was noted a couple of days ago at the Russian-Abkhazian business forum the restoration of the railway from Ochamchire to Enguri (more precisely, its construction) will take at least two years. Of course, a large investment will be needed there too.

It is interesting that some Russian political analysts believe that the restoration of the railway is not good for Abkhazians. As they claim, in economic terms, the Abkhazians do not need the railroad that leads to Georgia. Their arguments are that the Abkhazian economy is almost non-existent, and that it is entirely focused on Russia; Abkhazia does not have a product that can be exported to Georgia; in Abkhazia there are no qualified railroad workers; there are no opportunities for rehabilitation and operation of the railway.

Georgia: negative and positive

Let's put the question directly: how important and necessary is operation of the railway for Georgia?

If we approach the issue in an optimistic way, it is clear that the restoration of the railway infrastructure and railway movement on the territory of Abkhazia is considered one of the factors contributing to not only improvement of the Georgian-Russian relations, but also the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Russia asks practical steps of Georgia, and Georgia offers specific projects. Things that were unacceptable for us before are acceptable today. The move by the Georgian side is part of the compromise proposals, and it can bring a positive result, supporters of the project say.

Theoretically, Georgia has a full right to decide the matter of the railway on its own, without taking into account positions of its neighbours. But since almost all problems in the Caucasus are more or less related to the neighbouring countries, Tbilisi, whether we like it or not, is limited in decision making to a certain degree.

Restoration of the Abkhazian section of the Georgian railway is essentially a positive intention, since implementation of this project will be beneficial to development of the region. Transcaucasian Railway will return its former functions; the railway will again link Georgia with Russia, Ukraine and Europe in general. Theoretically it may also promote integration of breakaway Abkhazia into Georgia. It may be possible to implement the Moldovan precedent in Georgia - today, after six years of forced break, trains from Chisinau to Ukraine and Russia move again through the territory of Transnistria. Although we should also note that it is necessary to examine what benefits the restoration of the railway has brought to the integration process in Moldova, that is, whether the railway movement promoted rapprochement of the central government and the separatists.

At that, along with the positive theoretical results the restoration of the railway may result in practical negative results: deterioration of the Azerbaijani-Georgian relations will affect Tbilisi more negatively than Baku, and if we add to this the negative reaction of Turkey, not a very pleasant prospect awaits us...

As we have noted the restoration of railway movement in the eastern direction is unacceptable for the Abkhazian separatists. Almost identical position is expressed by Russia too.

Thus, if the Georgian government still decides to discuss this issue and make a decision, they should do a comprehensive study of all aspects and consider all possible favourable and not so much results; they should calculate all possible scenarios of the process, develop forms and methods of responding to negative events. Only this way we will be able to more or less avoid the negative and consolidate the positive.

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