Wednesday, 03 May 2006

RESTORING THE GEORGIA-RUSSIA RAILWAY CONNECTION: GOOD OR BAD IDEA?

Published in Analytical Articles

By George Katcharava (5/3/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND:Twelve years after the beginning of the war in Abkhazia, the Georgian and Abkhazian leaderships began to discuss the restoration of the railway connection between Georgia and Russia through the territory of Abkhazia. This issue was first seriously raised during a meeting between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2003. Notwithstanding these high-level discussions, no official document was signed at the summit, though the results of discussions were stated in the presidents’ declarations.
BACKGROUND:Twelve years after the beginning of the war in Abkhazia, the Georgian and Abkhazian leaderships began to discuss the restoration of the railway connection between Georgia and Russia through the territory of Abkhazia. This issue was first seriously raised during a meeting between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2003. Notwithstanding these high-level discussions, no official document was signed at the summit, though the results of discussions were stated in the presidents’ declarations. After this event, working groups were formed and a discussion process slowly started. Yet only until a few moths ago, no progress was seen on this subject, or for that matter regarding the entire process of resolving the Abkhazia conflict. To the picture should be added the strong affirmation by the Russian government of its interests in regard to the conflict zone in Abkhazia in an manner unseen previously. In recent months, Russia has been exerting significant pressure on Georgia to restore the railroad connection via Abkhazia, and discussions on this issue have mounted. It remains unclear under which conditions and how Georgian government would implement this project; meanwhile, this prospect raises obvious advantages as well as disadvantages for Georgia’s statehood. For Russia, the restoration of the railroad connecting Russian and Georgia via Abkhazia would significantly decrease the cost of maintaining the existing military bases in Armenia, as well as providing an opportunity to establish direct transportation connections with Russia’s only ally in the region. Consequently, the restoration of the railroad connection between Russia and Armenia would increase Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus. In addition, the Armenian Ministry of Transportation is discussing, with Iranian and Russian representatives, the possibility of connecting this project with the existing railroad to Iran. In this case, the railroad project would strengthen the Russia-Armenia-Iran geopolitical axis. Given current developments regarding the Iranian nuclear program, the change of leadership in Tehran, and Russia’s ambivalent role in this dispute, such a development would not necessarily be in the west’s favor. For Georgia, the implementation of this project is controversial. On the one hand, the restoration of the railroad connection between Georgia and Russia would be economically beneficial for Georgia. It would decrease transportation costs between the two countries as well as to the markets of other former Soviet states. It would also create a favorable environment for the activation of the economic potential of the regions of Western Georgia, in the agricultural as well as in other spheres. Moreover, taking into account that Russia’s only Black Sea port at Novorossiysk freezes during winter, Russia would have the opportunity of using Georgia’s Poti and Batumi Ports. This would strengthen Georgia’s transit potential and generate additional revenues for the Georgian economy. It could also be a base for constructive negotiations regarding other problematic issues in Georgian–Russian relations, which are currently reaching a low point.

IMPLICATIONS: On the other hand, this scenario has political consequences that are less beneficial to Georgia. Firstly, following the completion of rehabilitation works on the railroad and taking into account the unstable the situation in Abkhazia Russia could deploy additional military contingents on the territory of Abkhazia, which would allow Russia to control all existing transport communications and the coastline of the entire territory of Abkhazia. Secondly, since there is currently a lack of qualified workers to fulfill railroad restoration tasks in Abkhazia, Russia will offer to deploy railway troops of the Russian Ministry of Defense in order to restore and subsequently to maintain this railroad – a scenario entirely unacceptable to Georgia. Once the railway connection is restored, the question of customs control will arise. How can Georgia control goods and tax them if Georgian border guards and customs officers are not able to monitor the Abkhazia section of the internationally recognized Georgia-Russia border? There is a very negative precedent in Moldova concerning the restoration of the railway connection through Transdnietria, another secessionist region in the post-Soviet space. Despite optimistic calculations that it would facilitate economic development and resolution of the conflict, the result was only increased smuggling and empowerment of the separatist regime. Besides these disadvantages to Georgia, the restoration of the railroad would have a positive effect on economic development of the separatist Abkhazian regime. Clearly, under these conditions of restored railroad connections, the problem of fueling the revival of Abkhazia’s tourist industry will be significantly reduced. Hence the separatist regime would have an opportunity to create certain conditions for the development of other spheres of its economy. Basically, this will facilitate the continuation of the status quo. The return of Georgian refugees to the entire territory of Abkhazia is a vitally important issue for Georgia. Yet the declaration concerning the restoration of the railroad has ben understood by Abkhaz separatists as a tradeoff following which refugees will have rights to return only to the southern Gali district of Abkhazia. On the other hand, the process of refugee return automatically implies the beginning of the process of restoration of Georgian jurisdiction on that territory. Therefore, the railroad restoration project is strongly connected with the issue of refugee return. To the Georgian government, the viability of this proposition depends on a change in the format of peacekeeping operations in the conflict zone: concretely, the internationalization of the peacekeeping operation, including the possibility European involvement, as well as the spreading of the operation to the inner parts of the conflict zone. Current developments show that these processes are far from the above-mentioned conditions. Russian “peacekeepers” together with de-facto separatist authorities have begun a process of registration of refugees that have already returned to the Gali district. The aim of the registration process is to prove the effectiveness of the peacekeeping operation, and to show that several thousand refugees have already returned to the Gali district, indicating the positive impact of the activities of Russian peacekeepers. Ironically, it also shows that Georgia, as a state, has little effect in these processes. In fact, the return of refugees was spontaneous and no security guaranties were provided for these destitute people. As a result, spontaneous returnees are suffering from human rights abuse and for most practical purposes compose a population without any enforceable rights.

CONCLUSIONS:The restoration of the railway connection between Georgia and Russia through the territory of Abkhazia is clearly not in the interests of Georgia under the conditions that the proposal is currently being discussed. In the light of current developments regarding Iran, it also fits badly with the interests of the West. By opening the railway connection with Russia, Georgia would loses a significant bargaining chip, while receiving nothing concrete in return. Given the current status of the Abkhazia dispute and Russia’s role in it, Georgia is not in a position to make gestures of good will. The only guarantee for the success of the process can come from the strengthening of Georgia’s statehood, supported by the West, primarily the United States, whose potential for involvement in the process of the settlement of the conflict in Abkhazia has not been utilized so far.

AUTHOR’S BIO: George Katcharava is an Edmund S. Muskie Fellow at the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver. Previously he served as a staff member of the National Security Council of Georgia.

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