Abandoned railway, Abkhazia.
15.11.2012. One of the closest associates of Georgia’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, State Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili, has unveiled the government’s idea to unblock the railway link that connected Russia with the South Caucasus republics in Soviet times. Mr. Zakareishvili stated that this question had not been discussed officially by the government yet, but “preliminary consultations between members of the cabinet of ministers had taken place.”
The state minister’s statement appears to be an important message for Moscow by Ivanishvili that is signaling readiness to take into account Moscow’s interests in the region. This initiative comes from the package of “friendly gestures” that the new Georgian authorities devised to soften tensions in the relations with the neighboring country.
Ivanishvili’s decision to renounce the Georgian boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi also comes from the same package. President Mikhail Saakashvili insists on boycotting the Sochi Olympics. Many observers in Tbilisi reckon that by rescinding the Olympics boycott, the government disavows the parliament’s decision on May 20, 2011 to recognize the events of the 19th century in the Northwestern Caucasus as the “Circassian Genocide.” Many Circassian organizations called for a boycott of the Olympic Games that will take place on the Red Meadow (Krasnaya Polyana), which has symbolic meaning for the Circassian people as the site of the final battle of the Russo-Circassian war.
Apart from that, Prime Minister Ivanishvili, having confirmed the impossibility of resuming diplomatic relations with Russia “until the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is over,” still appointed Zurab Abashidze as his representative for Georgian-Russian affairs. Abashidze was Georgia’s ambassador to Russia in 1998–2004 and is considered to be one of the most pro-Russian diplomats in Georgia. Former Georgian representative to the UN, Irakly Alasania, became the minister of defense. Alasania was the only Georgian politician that the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov met in person after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008.
Will the Georgian authorities be able to implement the plan to restore a railway connection with Russia? Moscow and Yerevan have demanded that Tbilisi restore the railway link, which was cut on August 14, 1992, the very first day of the war in Abkhazia. However, the Georgian leadership under both Presidents Eduard Shevardnadze and Saakashvili tied the reopening of the railway with the issue of the Georgian refugees’ ability to return to Abkhazia. This issue became the main cause of a ruined agreement between Shevardnadze and Putin in the spring of 2003, during the leaders’ meeting in Sochi. Zakareishvili now states that he seeks “to depoliticize” this issue and stop tying economic and transportation topics with political and humanitarian ones. Georgian refugees’ leaders have lashed out at him for this. Former vice-speaker of the parliament of Georgia, Paata Davitaia, called the position of the state minister for reintegration “defeatist.”
The second problem with the reopening of the railway is the projected negative reaction of Azerbaijan. Restoration of the direct railway link between Russia and Armenia via Abkhazian and Georgian territory will decrease Armenia’s isolation and boost its positions in the Karabakh conflict. Public figures close to the Azerbaijani authorities have already signaled that Baku could review its position on Georgian territorial integrity if Tbilisi continues its “double dealings.” Additionally, Azerbaijan is worried that the resumption of the Trans-Caucasian railway connection might have a negative impact on the construction of the railway that will soon connect Baku, Tbilisi, Akhalkalaki, Kars and Istanbul. Furthermore, Ivanishvili’s government will have to take into account that the Azerbaijani state energy company SOCAR is a monopolistic supplier of natural gas to Georgia and holds a key role in the country’s petroleum market. After warnings from Azeri politicians and experts, Prime Minister Ivanishivili personally visited the local office of SOCAR in Georgia to express his respect for the Azerbaijani state company and reaffirm his commitment to the previously reached agreements.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that other important geopolitical players in the region are in no hurry to express their opinion about the reopening of the railway link. Both Moscow and Yerevan have kept silent on the issue. The de-facto authorities in Sukhumi have also not commented on the initiative. Yet, Abkhazia’s stance on the issue has probably not changed since the Shevardnadze-Putin meeting in Sochi in 2003. The Abkhazian de-facto authorities were not happy with the idea of restoring the railway link, since they feared it would lead to the return of Georgian refugees. Therefore, while agreeing to allow passage of goods via their territory, they have invariably been opposed to the resumption of passenger traffic. In fact, Abkhazia’s sector of the railway has never been well-suited for accommodating any significant cargo traffic. During Soviet times it was used mainly for ferrying passengers, while cargo traffic from Russia to the South Caucasus, including Armenia, was routed via Azerbaijan.
Ivanishivili’s government cannot provide an answer to another question as well—how will Georgia’s economy benefit from the railway’s unblocking without an end to the unofficial Russian embargo on Georgian goods to Russia? Will Moscow agree to allow in Georgian imports in exchange for the railway reopening, or will the Kremlin require even more concessions from Tbilisi, for example Georgia’s accession into the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan?
It appears that talks about these issues will start only after Moscow reacts in some way to Tbilisi’s “historic initiative” of the resumption of the railroad connection. This sector of railway has remained in absolute neglect for the past 20 years—it has been devastated by looting and natural decay. The railway will certainly need significant investments, even if all political obstacles are successfully removed. Therefore, the question of “who is going to pay” will remain topical even after resolution of political problems surrounding the question.
* The Jamestown Foundation is a Washington, D.C.-based institute for research and analysis, founded in 1984