Can Tbilisi-Sukhumi-Moscow Railway Be Win-Win Project?
15 November, 2012
Can Tbilisi-Sukhumi-Moscow Railway Be Win-Win Project?

 

Restoration of Tbilisi-Sukhumi-Moscow railway seems a win-win project to the new Georgian government, although skeptics find the idea risky and hardly realistic. Advocates of the idea still believe the venture is worth of starting for economic tools are the proven solution of political feud.

New government of Georgia puts activation of Tbilisi-Sukhumi-Moscow railway on the agenda. This shortest railway connection between Tbilisi and Moscow has been cut for already 20 years since 1992, when Georgia declared an economic blockade to its

breakaway republic of Abkhazia, whose territory the railway passes.

 

Nevertheless, the issue of restoration of railway route to Abkhazia has been permanently popping up now and anon but came to no avail as  it was always tied with political provisions; particularly the repatriation of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who left Abkhazia during the conflict.

Economic blockade of Abkhazia was broken after Russia routed Georgia in a short-lived war in August of 2008, acknowledged independence of Georgian seceded republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and resumed economic relations with them. Political relations between Tbilisi and Moscow ceased. Trade was cut down much earlier, when the Kremlin imposed embargo on Georgian agricultural products in 2006.

However, after Russia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2011, the trade embargo with Georgia, already a WTO member, was automatically removed, because the WTO regulation prohibits any kind of trade restrictions between its member-states.

On the other hand, Georgia assumed obligations against the international community to find peaceful solutions with its breakaway regions as well as remove political tension with Russia. And economic projects are believed to be the best in this context.

The changed reality encouraged new government of Georgia to come out with the idea of resumed railway connection between Tbilisi and Moscow again but this time throw away all political chaff and stress on obvious economic benefits of the project.

“We should stop discussing the issue from the political point of view and discuss the problem in the economic aspect,” Paata Zakareishvili, Minister of Reintegration, said in his interview to Russian newspaper Commersant on November 2, 2012. “The railway between Sukhumi and Moscow is already operational and it is inadmissible to keep Abkhazia have economic ties with Russia alone.”

Georgian minister thinks of resuming both railway and vehicle transportation connection and expects the project will facilitate to the IDPs repatriation ultimately for the more Abkhazia will be included in mutual economic projects with Georgia the sooner the political conflict will be regulated. Moreover, new transportation route will increase geopolitical importance to Georgia that already is an important chain of the Silk Road transit corridor.

According to Ditrikh Muller, an economic and legal analyst with Georgian Investment Group, restoration of the shortest and cheaper route with Russia will unfold new transit perspectives to Georgia as well as ease life to Abkhazia and Russia. On the other hand Georgian entrepreneurs will have a shorter and cheaper access to Russian market that very likely will be reopened thanks to WTO rules. The Kremlin sends hopeful signals to this end.

“This railway route is cut out for already 20 years and what benefit did we get? Only problems. Abkhazia is no longer isolated thanks to Russia while Georgian cargos have to reach  Eastern Europe [including European part of the CIS] through double-treble expensive and complicated sea route across the Black Sea. Meantime railway transportation through Russia offers cheaper and smoother ramifications toward the said destinations. Georgian cargos to Russia also go by detours via ferry lines with Ukraine and Azerbaijani railway while the direct and shorter way lies right here on Abkhazia. This route will be very important to Georgian business when Russian market opens up,” Muller said disclosing benefits to Russia and Abkhazia too: Russia that owns Armenian railway but sends cargos through Black Sea ports of Ukraine and Georgia at the moment gets a direct and cheaper access to its strategic partner of Yerevan.

Free transportation between Sukhumi and Tbilisi may boost trade and bigger cargo turnover on this route that will bring more jobs and economic benefits to Abkhaz people with quite limited job options.

Paata Davitaia, a chairman of European Democrats political party, conceives Zakareishvili’s initiative as a political capitulation of Tbilisi against Sukhumi for the latter is never supposed to come on any concession unless Georgia recognizes independence of Abkhazia. Davitaia stresses to keep the situation frozen so as to leave legal mechanism to get seceded territories back whenever geopolitical situation changes favorably.

Zakareishvili believes the starting point in the railway project is Georgian-Russian relationships and if Russia finds the Georgian initiative beneficial it will persuade Abkhazia too. To glide over political mines imbedded in the issue [such as recognition of Abkhazia as a side], Zakareishvili thinks to bypass the state-to-state legal paper-work.

Muller agrees that the business contracts on company-to-company level between Georgian and Russian railways may regulate Tbilisi-Moscow railway operation thoroughly for Russia is the owner and operator of Abkhazian railway.

Soso Tsiskarishvili, an economic and political scientist, fears restoration of transportation routes without Abkhazian consent will make this transit corridor risky. Georgian forwarding companies, who generally greet adding new routes, appear wary too.

“It will be excellent if the route really comes functional but frankly I would think twice until start transporting cargos through Abkhazia,” Irakli Iashvili, Chairman of Supervisory Council of East Gate Group transportation company, told Georgian Journal.

Muller believes the alleged risks on Abkhazian railway passage are exaggerated and this route is no riskier than the railway trailing from Baku to Russia via Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya – all potential haunts for terrorists.

“Abkhazians are less supposed to destroy their own railway infrastructure that may bring economic profits and that connects with Yerevan. It is an open secret that Armenian population is quite big in Abkhazia who are interested in this railway connection with Yerevan,” He said.

Tbilisi did not make any official suggestion as of yet and holds the transportation project at the same level as Zakareishvili has elaborated.

At the first phase he thinks to restore the cargo transportation and then carrying the passengers may ensue. Russian media reprinted Zakarishvili’s interview in over 70 publications. However, official Moscow keeps silence.

 

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