The Abkhazia Railway


Questions Neither Raised Nor Answered

Discussing whether reopening the Abkhazia railway is good thing or not is a lot like asking “is a triangle good or not?” Depending on the context, it may be good or bad. The Bermuda Triangle, for example, is “bad” whilst the Sierpinski triangle is pretty. The answer to this question thus depends on what that triangle is used for and what effect can it have. That is how I view the issue of reopening the Abkhazia railway. To analyze whether or not the resumption of rail traffic via Abkhazia is good we must first ask: what consequences may this have for Georgia?

I believe that talks about reopening that railway are premature as the government is unprepared for a serious discussion of this issue. I also believe that our choice of partner to begin discussing this issue with was the incorrect one. This issue must be discussed with Moscow or with Sokhumi. It is also necessary of course to take into account the interests of Baku, Washington and Ankara. In this equation, Yerevan is only the end consumer and not a key actor. This is why when Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili chose his recent visit to Yerevan as the occasion to articulate the idea of resuming rail traffic he provoked such large-scale – and mainly negative – feedback.

One must first find out how the resumption of the Abkhazia railway will benefit Georgia. There is not a single piece of evidence that proves it will be economically advantageous for Georgia. What is more, quite a few economists estimate that the resumption of that railway line will not produce any notable economic effect because it will (a) inevitably lead to the decrease in cargo turnover via the Poti seaport; (b) in theory, divert cargo from the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway; and (c) raise discontent in Azerbaijan, which might negatively affect the Georgian-Azerbaijani partnership in the energy sphere. Although a detailed economic assessment has yet to be conducted, any such serious study must take into account these three issues. It must also be noted that were the Abkhaz railway project of geopolitical importance, were it to serve the strengthening of our transit potential, national security or energy independence, it may even be possible to totally disregard any economic disadvantage it has for the country. But reality of the situation is the absolute opposite. The economic, energy and even political independence of our country depends on those very infrastructure projects which bypass Russia and enhance the role of Georgia as a regional transit hub. The Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway project is precisely such a project. The Abkhazia railway cannot be regarded as such at all. Quite the opposite, reopening the Abkhazia section of the railway will increase our dependence on Russia.

With any economic benefit unclear, we must discuss other types of benefits. One such benefit would be so-called political dividends. If Georgia stands to receive any significant benefit in this area, the resumption of the railway may become a topic of serious discussion. To illustrate this point, this is why Georgia linked the issue of the return of refugees from Abkhazia with the reopening of this railway during those talks on this issue that took place before the August 2008 war. The thread of logic was as follows: “You (Moscow, Sokhumi) want to advance an issue (the resumption of the railway) outlined in the Sochi agreement of 2003, whilst we (Tbilisi) want to advance another issue (the return of refugees) outlined in that very same agreement.” It is also possible to raise some other issues and link them to the reopening of railway by applying the same logic – for instance, you will receive economic dividends from the railway, while we will receive other political dividends. There is nothing shameful in such bargaining. However, it is strange, to say the least, to hear the Georgian government declare that it wants to start dialogue on the resumption of rail traffic without declaring any precondition or making any political demand. I understand perfectly well that linking the issue of refugees to the railway would, at this stage, render even the commencement of negotiations totally impossible, but I cannot understand why other issues, for example, the resumption of free movement across the Enguri bridge, or allowing the international monitoring mission to enter Abkhazia are not being demanded; especially considering that the international monitoring component will be necessary in the event of a resumption of rail traffic.

Yet another reason why we may want to reopen the Abkhazia railway is the potential for positively transforming of our conflicts. But it is a little unclear why we have started our dialogue with the railway, such a big issue that can change the geopolitical picture in the region, and not with such requirements as allowing the free movement of people, resuming trade along the administrative border with Abkhazia, resuming the Tbilisi-Sokhumi bus route, or even reopening the Transcaucasian Highway via Tskhinvali. In the latter case, as the highway already exists, it could be used as a transit route (primarily for connecting Armenia with Russia) as soon as agreement on the issue is reached. The only thing that would need to be done would be to allow traffic via the village of Ergneti on the administrative border of the breakaway South Ossetia. That is why I am amazed that negotiations were started with such a large project as the railway, which in any case is doomed to be unsuccessful. By the way, several years ago, when we used to propose these smaller ideas to representatives of Sukhumi we often heard in reply that they were interested in the resumption of the railway. In response, we never flatly rejected the idea of reopening the railway, but we merely wanted them to fulfill some preconditions, including the free movement of people, the dignified and safe return of a segment of refugees, et cetera. In short, I believe that it will be impossible to successfully realize the idea of the railway at this stage. The idea is premature and a number of steps first need to be taken to make it ripe. The new government thinks that since they came to power, “everything has changed” and “they can start everything from a clean slate.” The reality, however, is different. True, the government in Tbilisi has changed, but the people in Moscow, Sokhumi and Tskhinvali are the same.

Nevertheless, if reopening the railway continues to become an issue of serious talks, it would be good for the government to have the answers to the following questions:

- What kind of cargo should this railway carry – military or only civil? I think only civil cargo can be acceptable. The shipment of military cargo, which will be in the interests of Moscow and Yerevan (and perhaps, Sokhumi too) must not be allowed to even make it onto the agenda. This will severely aggravate our relationship with Azerbaijan and will raise tensions in the region, in general. One must also bear in mind that any civil railway can, in the blink of an eye, be transformed into one capable of carrying tanks. I hope we will not go to war with Russia again, but the experience of the 1990s and 2008 has shown that the use of railways for military purposes is customary for Russia.

- Should this railway be used for freight alone or should it carry passengers as well? A cargo-only railway may have a marginal economic effect, but passenger transportation has the most important potential in terms of conflict resolution. The resumption of Tbilisi-Sokhumi or another route will be a major step towards regaining trust. In this case, however, other issues emerge such as the recognition of documents and, eventually, of the status of Abkhazia.

- What kind of rail traffic must be allowed across Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia? Will trains stop at stations or will there only be non-stop transit trains (as is the case, for example, on the Kaliningrad railway)? I think that any non-stop transit only movement through Georgia, or even the Abkhaz section, must be categorically unacceptable for us. If that is accepted, the railway will just be a classical Russia-Armenia railway which has no serious conflict transformation or economic potential.

- Who will ensure the safety of cargo in the territory of Abkhazia? We must bear in mind that we regard Abkhaz forces as illegal and Russian forces as occupiers. The only solution will be the use of international mechanisms. It is therefore surprising that, when speaking about the railway, no one has mentioned the importance of enhancing international involvement. This is one of the most important issues because hardly any trader would transport cargo via Abkhazia where the situation is uncontrollable and no internationally recognized body will assume the responsibility for the safety of shipments. To put it simply, if cargo gets damaged, where and from whom could one claim compensation? Certainly not from the Abkhaz government whose sovereignty is not recognized anywhere. One of the solutions could be to demand that international monitoring be conducted by, for instance, an OSCE or UN special mission. But if we do not start discussing this issue right away, we can hardly return to it later.

- Who reaches agreement on the railway and with whom? Will there be an agreement between the railways or between the countries? We do not recognize Abkhazia as an independent state, whilst their railway is owned by the Russian railways. Do we recognize the legitimacy of Russian railways in Abkhazia? In 2005 and 2006, an idea of setting up a Black Sea consortium was discussed with the involvement of representatives from the Abkhaz, Russian, Georgian and Armenian railways. Back then, the transfer of this issue into the private sphere seemed to be a means of resolving the issue. But that is no longer a solution as Abkhazia is occupied and Russia has recognized its independence. Any such forms of agreement risk directly leading to the acknowledgment of the status of Abkhazia.

- How will Azerbaijan benefit from this railway project? How will this project influence the Baku-Kars-Akhalkalaki railway and Azerbaijani-Georgian relations in general? Without having the answer to these questions, even mentioning the Abkhazia railway project seems to be unacceptable to me because we risk obtaining the worst possible result in diplomacy – harming ourselves with words before performing deeds.

- How will we resume railway traffic when the issues of free movement have not been settled yet? What documents will be used for movement on this railway? Where will customs checkpoints be stationed? These issues are directly linked to the status of Abkhazia. We are grossly mistaken if we think that the resumed railway will fall under our legal space. The maximum we can achieve in this situation is a status-neutral formula. But for this to be achieved, it must be first tested with Sokhumi and Moscow and a principled agreement on it secured before we may proceed with the implementation of greater ideas.

- How will this railway fit into the mechanism of customs administration and monitoring the trade in goods on the Georgia-Russia borders that was agreed with Russia as a condition for our approval of its membership to the World Trade Organization (WTO)? I am very interested to hear the answer to this question because this monitoring mechanism obliges Russia to place any cargo entering or leaving so-called trade corridors along the state border between Russia and Georgia and at the administrative borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia under international customs monitoring. This also includes cargo shipped by rail. In any case, we must demand that the railway is subordinated to the WTO monitoring mechanism. Otherwise, we will cast doubt on the already agreed trade corridors and will have to reinvent the wheel to monitor the Abkhazia railway.

All in all, in theory the resumption of the Abkhaz section of the railway may be advantageous, but I think that it is too premature to talk about that now. It is also unclear why we were the ones to initiate talks about this railway when other sides stand to gain more from it. Protection of own interests often starts with behind-the-scene negotiations and not with public statements. Would it not have been better to have started serious discussion of this topic within the format of the multilateral Geneva talks or the format of the bilateral talks recently established by the new Georgian government and only then make such a statement as the Georgian Prime Minister made during his visit to Yerevan? This article has more questions than answers. I pose these questions for the Georgian government to find correct answers that hopefully suit Georgia’s interests.



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