Abkhazian railway - way out of impasse
12/12/2012 14:29
Levan Kiknadze
Experts' club

For a long time passions that flared up around initiatives of Paata Zakareishvili regarding the conflict regions continued to run high in Georgia. Despite mixed reactions to the approach of the new Georgian State Minister for Reintegration to settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian problem, it should be recognized that he seeks to bring the settlement process out of stagnation, get it out of impasse. The Club of Experts has already published an opinion regarding the part of the initiatives of Zakareishvili, which concerns the opening of the railway through Abkhazia. But we decided to return to this topic after publication of article "Balancing competing interests" in the Abkhazian newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda.

In this article, the Russian political analyst Sergei Markedonov says that there is nothing new in Zakareishvili’s initiative on the Abkhazian section of the railway, and he recalls March 2003 - when President Vladimir Putin and Eduard Shevardnadze signed an agreement in Sochi (Abkhazian Prime Minister Gennady Gagulia was also present). As Markedonov concludes, "restoration of railway communication was seen as a major challenge not only by Georgia, but Russia as well. And even with the coming to power of Mikhail Saakashvili, the idea was not shelved. On the contrary, it was even evolved, but the subsequent "unfreezing" of the two ethno-political conflicts and "hot August" of 2008 made the subject politically irrelevant. "

Markedonov’s articles on Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian topics show that the author is not only quite familiar with the events that took place in the relationship of these people in the last period, but with their historic past as well. Despite our critical view, we cannot underestimate regular attempts of political analyst to find ways to conflict resolution. Whether we like his point of view or not, the fact remains that sometimes Markedonov voices interesting thoughts and tries somehow to maintain objectivity - though not always successfully. The main thing is that he expresses his opinion directly, without hints.

This time, on the pages of Abkhazian opposition newspaper, Markedonov does not talk about the prospects of resumption of the Georgian-Abkhazian relations, but one can read between the lines that he does not consider settlement of this problem to be a hopeless task. Thus, it is unlikely he did not know why, and how often the question of restoration of the railway in Abkhazia was arisen, what prevented realization of this idea, and who was interested in "unfreezing" of conflicts at the "right" time - at least in instigation of "hot August” 2008. Markedonov knows all this and that’s why he is not expressing his views fully. Which is understandable, since he is a Russian political scientist. One cannot ask of him to be a patriot of Georgia.

In the process of conflict resolution the idea to open the rail transit through Abkhazia have become urgent and appeared on the agenda at different times, with different periodicity. For example, this issue was raised by Aslan Abashidze in the last years of the Eduard Shevardnadze government. By that time, the Kremlin saw Abashidze as Shevardnadze’s alternative and since "Adjara factor" alone was not enough for his election bets were made on raising authority of the head of Adjara among refugees from Abkhazia.

Abashidze was assigned the function of mediator in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. In addition, and it is very important, the person of Abashidze made it easy for Russia to conduct negotiations in favour of their interests. And that’s why the issue of restoration of the railway was just thrown as bait. According to operational information gathered at the time by the Ministry of State Security of Abkhazia, it was just planned to restore the Leselidze-Ochamchire segment of the Abkhazian section of the Georgian railway.

This gave Russia the opportunity to deliver military cargo deep into Abkhazia, and had nothing to do with the restoration of rail transit to Armenia. It had nothing to do with this because with the opening of the transit traffic Russia was to be faced with the unwanted possibility - restoration of train movement opened the way for establishment of contacts between people living on both sides of the dividing line, beginning of the Georgian-Abkhazian cooperation in various fields, etc. Ultimately, all this would have been a major advance in the resolution of the conflict - which, naturally, was not in the interests of Moscow.

As we know, the chairman of the Supreme Council of Abkhazia Tamaz Nadareishvili managed to exclude Aslan Abashidze from the negotiation process and the issue of restoration of the Abkhazian section of the railway was removed from the agenda. In this situation the pressure from the Armenian side for the restoration of transit stopped suspiciously.

In 2004, after the Rose Revolution, as a result of the activity of Yerevan talks about restoring the railway through Abkhazia regained relevance both in Moscow and in the West. They were under the control of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia. Bilateral Georgian-Abkhazian working groups in different directions were established, which were staffed by experts in the fields of energy, railway and security. Front of reconstruction works was determined and their funding, according to officially drawn up protocol was undertaken by the Russian railways. After Sukhumi, working meetings continued in Tbilisi. Simultaneously, to carry out works, Russian railway troops began arriving to Abkhazia.

It should be noted that the working group meetings in Sukhumi and Tbilisi were held with unprecedented goodwill. almost all issues were discussed - from creation of appropriate living conditions for professionals involved in the restoration works, and including their personal safety (from the Georgian side security team was led by the author of this article). But then, all of a sudden, the situation changed. Meetings of the Georgian-Abkhazian working group were ceased. And this time Russian railway troops in Abkhazia continued to work and rebuild the railway segment of Leselidze-Ochamchire.

Thus, the Georgian side was automatically eliminated from the process. And requests to restore the remaining and the most damaged section of the railway –the Ochamchire-Enguri (Zugdidi) segment, without which it was impossible to implement the Russian-Armenian transit died down again, and completely stopped afterwards.

It should be noted that this period was a rare exception for the entire post-war period, when trust appeared between the parties - that gave hope for constructive talks and convergence of interests. The heads of the negotiating process from the Georgian side were Irakli Alasania and Goga Khaindrava, and from the Abkhazian side - Sergey Shamba.

I am sure that the issue of the restoration of railway segment of Zugdidi-Gali in its content and relevance should be considered as a step forward in the process of normalizing relations between Georgians and Abkhazians - one of the important parts of the problem and beginning of its resolution. As for speculations about regional security and other - for example, expected complication of relations with the neighbouring country and many other sometimes artificially created topics – they must end and the interests of Georgia should be put forward.

Since now the people of Georgia have entrusted their future to Georgian Dream coalition, it is hoped that if the question of restoration of the rail transit through Abkhazia appears on the agenda the current Georgian government will come to agreement about this issue with neighbouring countries - since the issue concerns our friends too to some extent.

As for the attitude of Abkhazian experts and politicians towards this initiative, they should not object and protest, but give a good thought to the danger of Abkhazia’s long stay in impasse - and only then make conclusions. I am confident that pragmatic part of the Abkhazian public will welcome the idea of restoration of the railway movement. But their position, and it is only natural, is not reflected in "independent" Abkhazian media. And this “independent” media provides a tribune to people poisoned by the separatist ideology, people that are gripped by panic and fear - as in any initiative of the Georgian side they see our commitment to restoration of centuries-old Georgian-Abkhazian relations and return of Georgians to their homes.

But they should not be surprised. It can not be otherwise. I wrote during the previous government, and I repeat now: "De facto regimes and their Moscow masters should not even think that the next government of Georgia would reconcile with the loss of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, as any Georgian leader that shows such approach to the problem will be declared a traitor to the Georgian people. After all, patience of refugees is not unlimited either. Thank God that hope of returning to their homes has not faded away in them. But if this hope vanishes, many of them are willing to use all means to get back what they have lost. Therefore, statements of the separatists that the return of refugees is out of the question are a pathetic attempt of wishful thinking. No matter how often they repeat this, not only they will fail to slow down our desire to return to Abkhazia but on the contrary, by continuing in the same vein, they are making this desire even more focused and aggressive. "

Unfortunately, current Abkhazian leader Alexander Ankvab too continues to walk the old route. "We will not return anyone to Abkhazia. This is the issue of security for Abkhazia ", - he said, not in the least bothered by the fact that such irresponsible words clearly contradict the universally recognized fundamental human rights.

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