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Abkhazian Railway: New Challenges

Tuesday, October 29
On September 11, 2013, the Russian Duma adopted a package of decisions with regard to Syria, where the main resolution was to supply Iran with military weapons and ammunition in the event of a U.S. Military strike against Syria. With this gesture, Russia openly revealed its support for Assad's government, which receives much of its weapons from Iran.

The question then becomes: how, and in which ways, does Russia plan to implement its decision? In particular, how will it supply Iran with weapons?

Logically, the fastest, most cost-effective and economically viable way is through the Transcaucasian railway line, neglected since the Abkhazian war. In particular, its Ochamchire - Ingiri (Zugdidi) section requires rehabilitation.

A few days prior to the Duma’s resolution, on September 6, the Armenian News agency released a statement by Armenian National Security Council Secretary Arthur Baghdasaryan, who stated that "Armenia is actively negotiating with Abkhazia and Iran about the issue of the railway construction-rehabilitation process. Iran is ready to finance the costs of railway construction. There are active negotiations on this issue. Armenia has a strong interest in the opening of the railway line. Georgia and Russia are also parties having interests, and Abkhazia has agreed to open the railway line. Now we must continue the negotiation processes.”

Also on September 6, Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a response to the statement made by Baghdasaryan. Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze stated that “The issue of this railway is a very interesting topic that may lie within our sphere of interest. However, when negotiations about this issue began, we made it plain that the Georgian government will do nothing against its own interests, and that future developments will guide us in how to act. Any information you may have heard indicating that a permit has been issued by us, or that any agreement has been reached, is false."

Knowing that the Georgian government has denied the existence of any negotiations process in this regard, what could Baghdasaryan’s statement mean, that outran the decision made by Duma? Is this a random coincidence? Or is there a more far-reaching and deliberate motive behind this?

The issue of opening this railway line is not something new, but has been the subject of discussion since the close of the Abkhazian war.

At the press conferenceon July 3, 2013, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili talked about the recovery of Abkhazian railway line. He made it clear that rail traffic will be restored, where the Russian position will be a major factor, and that the rehabilitation process should be gradual. In fact, he repeated what he had said on January 17, on the meeting with President Serzh Sargsyan during his visit to Armenia, where he had also described Russia's position as a key factor. This had at that time given rise to talk in opposition parties of “impending dangers.” The Prime Minister’s statement was also criticized by President Saakashvili, who claimed that this process wouldl slow the integration process and help accelerate Russian expansion in the Caucasus.

But it must be said that comments of opposition and the President were politically motivated, since Saakashvili’s government also engaged in active negotiation for the restoration of railway, and it can be said that these negotiations were conducted unsuccessfully, since Russia managed to establish full control over the railway, which facilitated the Kremlin's military presence in Abkhazia.

Following Georgia’s parliamentary elections in October 2012 and approval of a new cabinet, the issue of restoration of the railway line came to the forefront once again.

In November 2012, the new Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili initiated the idea of restoration of the railway and road transit traffic, as presenting a step forward for conflict resolution.

Zakareishvili’s initiative was not new but an issue that had been raised by Aslan Abashidze during President Eduard Shevardnadze’s government. At the time, the Kremlin considered Abashidze as Shevardnadze's successor, and Abashidze assumed the role of mediator as a way to raise his rating with support of IDPs from Abkhazia.

Abashidze gave Russia the opportunity to defend its interests during the negotiation processes. The issue of restoration of the railway in Abkhazia as a topic for discussion was provided by Russian side. Restoration in this case meant the restoration of Leselidze – Ochamchire section, but not the whole traffic.

This enabled Russia to transport military goods in Abkhazia, and this process was not related to the issue of restoration of transit with Armenia. In fact, restoration of the whole line was not in the Russia’s interest, as in this case people of the disputed regions would be able to have contact with each other and this would be the serious step forward for conflict resolution.

At that time the chairman of the Supreme Council was Tamaz Nadareishvili, who managed to neutralize Abashidze and remove him from the processes, lately the issue of restoration of the railway was closed. Significantly, pressure from the Armenian side has ceased.

But soon after Saakashvili’s arrival to power in 2004, as a result of Armenia’s activity (and behind Armenia, there was Russia’s interests) the issue of restoration of railway reawakened. The process was under UN Observer mission’s control. Georgian-Abkhazian commission was created, restoration works defined, finances was guaranteed by Russian side and the process was officially registered on the basis of a special report. Russian railway troops began to move to Abkhazia but suddenly the process of negotiations was halted and only Leselidze-Ochamchire road was restored.

It should be noted that Saakashvili’s government was either unable or unwilling to accurately assess the situation. For all practical purposes, Russia reached its goal, strengthened its presence in Abkhazia, and restored the railway line that was acceptable for it.

As a result, Georgia was automatically removed from the issue of restoration of railway and the topic has been left open, with Ochamchire-Ingiri (Zugdidi) line still in need of restoration to ensure transit to Armenia.

Armenia has the greatest interest in this issue, as restoration of the railway is considered strategically important for Armenia, as the shortest and cheapest route to Russia. For Armenian business, transporting cargo to Russia currently costs 190 USD per ton, and would be much lower were use of the railway line restored. President Sargsyan has high hopes regarding this issue; he has had negotiations with Putin, who promised to consider this topic.

However, Azerbaijan’s interests also must be considered, as they do not share common satisfaction. Azerbaijani experts believe that this process may irritate Azerbaijan and this will have negative effect on the Azerbaijan–Georgia relationship. They think that restoration of this railway line will facilitate market movement in Armenia and as a result it becomes stronger, and this is the matter of concern for Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani experts believe Georgia would do well to remember that Azerbaijan is Georgia’s strategic partner who always supports Georgia on International arena, and that economic relations are another important part of this relationship, as Georgia receives natural gas with special tariffs and receives investments from Azerbaijani side. Georgian politicians should make no decisions without consultations with the Azerbaijani side.

However, it should also be remembered that in 1999 Azerbaijani government together with EU signed an agreement giving Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia responsibility to open the railway line. This means that Azerbaijan has signed the document according to which it has to facilitate restoration of railway line.

In addition, the Azerbaijani Government must accept the fact that this issue is related to Georgian–Russian relations, in which Azerbaijan does not have the right to interfere. Moreover, Georgia has not taken an international obligation about withdrawal of restoration of railway line, nor has Georgia made any promises to Azerbaijan about this issue.

Regardless, Georgia and Azerbaijan should remain strategic partners, and Azerbaijan should be interested in this, as Georgia is the only route for exporting oil and gas to Europe. In addition, Azerbaijani’s private sector has made significant investments in Georgia which they want to protect.

Russia, who has its military bases in Armenia, is also interested in this issue. It takes considerable resources for Russia to maintain these bases and provide logistical support. The issue of the rotation of military personal is another difficulty. Restoration of railway line will give Russia the opportunity to keep these bases and squadrons located near the Turkish border, with less expenditure.

Russia has more far-reaching ambitions. Several years ago, the Russian Railway bought the Armenian railway line and gave it old Soviet name “Transcaucasia Railway” (General Director Viktor Rebets). Russian Railway also controls Abkhazian railway lines, and has hopes that its restoration of the aforementioned railway line would give it access to control the “Georgian Railway.”

In fact, Russia could not only control railway transit in the South Caucasus but also have direct access to Iran and Islamic Republics, who have their own interests regarding the railway line issue.

There is an embargo imposed on Iran by the international community and in fact it is in isolation. With the restoration of this railway line, it would have access to its strategic partner Russia, with whom it actively cooperates in many fields including nuclear energy issues. At this stage, Russia is not able to supply Iran with radioactive substances, although there have been several attempts to do this by using Georgian territory. Restoration of the railway line would give Russia the potential to provide Iran such resources.

Certainly the railway, specifically the Abkhazia-Ingiri (Zugdidi) line, has great economic importance in terms of regional policy. But first of all it is an important step for normalizing Georgia-Russian relations- one of the requests of the western alliance partners. In addition, Prime Minister Ivanishvili and the prevailing government have recognized the Regional Policy as a priority in foreign relations.

When we speak of the issue of restoration of the railway line and its economic importance, we should bear in mind the risks that may accompany this process. However, these can be minimized or avoided if the existing government, unlike the previous one, is realistic about assessing the landscape and milieu including Russia as a key player.

Areas of risk that should be singled out as needing particular scrutiny include, first of all, that Georgia must not gave up “Georgian railway” in favour of Russia. On the contrary, Georgia must try to incorporate the Abkhazian railway into the Georgian railway line. Secondly, as the Abkhazian side lacks specialists, it is important to employ Georgian Specialists along with Russians. Thirdly, Russia must fulfil its obligation, taken on as a condition of membership in the World Trade Organization, and let Georgian customs officers on River Psou. Fourthly, Georgia must be alert to the categories of Russia cargos, to avoid further military ammunitions and arms movement in Armenia that would contribute to instability in the region, and be the violation of OSCE’s 1999 Istanbul decision. Finally and related, international organizations should monitor cargos to prevent delivery of uranium to Iran.
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