Parallel Political Processes
24 January, 2013
Parallel Political Processes
Abkhazian Railway - Tricky Mixture of Risks and Benefits

Tbilisi appears ready to restore railway connection with its breakaway republic of Abkhazia and thus open up direct railway transportation to Russia and Armenia running through Abkhazia that was closed for two decades of economic blockade of the seceded region. Sector pundits approve the idea but advise Georgian government not to jump on the decision, for apart of obvious economic and political benefits, the idea poises tricky security risks. During his
visit in Yerevan on January 17, 2013, Georgian Premier Bidzina Ivanishvili reiterated the readiness of official Tbilisi to restore railway route Yerevan-Tbilisi-Sukhumi-Moscow, which used to connect Armenia and Russia through Georgia and was suspended for up to 20 years due to the territorial conflict between Tbilisi and Sukhumi.
During the mutual press conference together with his Armenian peer, Tigran Sargsyan, Georgian Premier answered the journalist inquiring about the future of Armenian-Georgian-Abkhazian railway, that restarting of that route was more than possible if there were not problems with Russia [since Georgia and Armenia have no problems to this end]. However he added that Georgia was trying to normalize links with Russia.
“I think putting the said railway into exploitation cannot be done soon due to our relations with Russia, however, works are going to this direction,” Ivanishvili said. Sargsyan informed that the issue is already put on agenda of the bilateral political talks and promised to do as much as possible to achieve success.
It is an open secret that Armenia, been isolated in the region due to its territorial conflict with its neighboring Azerbaijan, is extremely interested to have direct railway connection with its strategic partner Russia. As a matter of fact, on-land routes to Russia from Armenia pass Azerbaijan and Georgia; however, Azerbaijan closed borders after the Nagorno-Karabakhi war in 1990s, and its southerner neighbor Turkey, a strategic partner of Azerbaijan, also closed borders to Armenia to support Azerbaijan. And Georgia is the sole route for letting passage of about 70% of Armenia-bound cargo by land and sea transport at the moment: cargo goes from Russian port Novorossiysk to Georgian Black Sea ports Poti and Batumi and then they are forwarded to Armenia through Georgian Railway and vice versa. This makes cargo shipping between Armenia and Russia doubly expensive and complicated if we take into account that Russia has a military base in Giumri, Armenia, which calls for heavy-freight transportation that cannot be done by air. Direct railway transportation is much easier, convenient and cheaper but it is closed.
To bring the riotous region to its senses, Georgian government imposed an economic blockade on Abkhazia as of 1993. As a result, Abkhazia was completely isolated but the situation changed in the fall of 2008 when Russia, following its short-term war with Georgia in August of 2008, recognized sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway republic of Georgia. Political relationships between Georgia and Russia ceased. The Kremlin restored trade and transport communication with the seceded republics, rehabilitated Abkhazian railway and took it under long-term management, which Tbilisi condemned as a de-facto privatization act.
Consequently, Abkhazia is isolated only from Georgia that increases the political distance between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. On the other hand, Georgia assumed obligations against the international community to find peaceful solutions with its breakaway regions as well as overcome political tension with Russia. Economic projects like restoration of trade and railway transportation are believed to be the best approach in this context. The new ruling political coalition of Georgian Dream that defeated the National Movement on October 1, 2012, decided to open the controversial railway.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, finds this initiative to be anti-national. He assures that restoration of Georgian-Russian railway connection through Abkhazia meets interest of Russia alone aimed to impede cargo from the upcoming Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway expected to transport cargo from China and Middle Asia to Europe and scheduled to be put into operation by end of 2013. According to Saakashvili, it is a direct rival to Russian Trans-Siberia railway transporting cargos from the similar regions at the moment. On the other hand, restoration of Abkhazian railway makes legal occupation of Abkhazia, Saakashvili worries.
“Today when Russia already took over Abkhazian railway and Armenian railway based on agreements, opening of these ways would equal to legalization of occupation. Discussing of this project separately of the entire context is anti-national, anti-state, anti-Georgian move,” Saakashvili said on January 17 in response to Ivanishvili’s comment.
Georgian businessmen involved in transit and cargo shipping as well as economic analysts, find the Presidential statement incompetent: firstly the upcoming BTK railway has been largely criticized as unreasonable to Georgia as it takes away cargos from Georgian ports and road transport and undermines transit potential and geopolitical importance of Georgian Railway that was the non-alternative rail route within TRACECA (Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia) corridor running from Caspian to the Black Sea until BTK project. Secondly the political reality has already changed and Abkhazia is isolated no more.
“We are pressed for time; 20 years passed since we lost Abkhazia. Situation is aggravated, as the reality has changed since 2008 and if we wait another 20 years, it is enough to bring up a new generation that has no connection with Georgia and we may lose them altogether,” Demur Giorkhelidze, an economic advisor of Georgian Dream, said in the interview to Georgian Journal. “Restoration of the railway means that we are interested in relationship with Abkhazia and are not indifferent to their fate.”
Ditrikh Muller, co-founder of Georgian Investment Group, unlike Saakashvili, believes that reopening the old railway route connecting to eastern part of Europe through Russia will only enhance transit potential of the operational Georgian Railway and the more cargos will pass through it the more benefits all participant sides, including Abkhazians, will get. Georgia on the top of this gains political scores.
“The conflict may get mitigated after Georgian and Abkhazian people get closer once the railway comes operational,” he said.
Abkhazian de-facto government resists it but its tone is milder than before.
“Nobody asked me to discuss this issue. If there are any proposals they should become a subject of collective discussion,” Alexsandre Ankvab, de-facto President of Abkhazia, is reported as saying by Abkhaz media on January 20, 2013.
Muller plays down resistance of Abkhazian de-facto government that completely depends on Russian financing. He presumes that if Russia owning both Armenian and Abkhazian railways is really interested to make this route operational it will convince Abkhazian de-facto officials to give a consent.
Soso Archvadze, an economic analyst, fears that the issue includes plenty of tricky questions and latent shoals poising security threats.
“There are a wide range of questions that must be answered before the railway becomes operational like who will undertake the rehabilitation and infrastructure maintenance related costs, how the payments will be implemented within the conflicting region and incomes will be redistributed between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. Besides, we should remember that the conflict started in 90s under the excuse of protection of railway cargos and armed forced were deployed in Abkhazia to this end; that actually grew into armed conflict,” Archvadze said.
Archuadze warns that Russia already has six times more troops in Abkhazia per capita than in Russia and cargo protection should not lay ground to more enhancements of Russian troops there.
“Let’s hurry up but slowly,” he recommends.

Parallel Process

In PACE Speech Saakashvili Slams Govt

President Saakashvili addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg on January 21 and strongly criticized PM Bidzina Ivanishvili and his government on the one hand for, as he put it, “menacing” his UNM party which is now in the opposition and on the other hand for, what he called was, “de facto giving up” Georgia’s NATO aspiration.
In his speech and then during question and answer session with lawmakers from the Council of Europe member states, Saakashvili also slammed Russia for its “imperial ambitions” and occupation of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Saakashvili said that PM Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition was suffering from “winner-takes-it-all mentality” and accused the new government of applying “selective justice” and targeting former government officials, UNM lawmakers, local authorities, judiciary and media. He said that the new authorities were pursuing the “campaign to silence political opposition” and accused the government of attempts to get constitutional majority in the Parliament through “direct blackmails” against UNM lawmakers pressuring them to switch sides. He also accused the government of pressuring Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) and claimed that the government “pushed the director of GPB to resign”.
Saakashvili, however, also said that there was still room for “a fruitful cohabitation” and mentioned his five-point plan, which he offered to the new government in his New Year’s address to the nation as a basis for cooperation. 
“Nobody has the interest in the failure of the new government, because this failure would hurt the country in general. This is my solemn pledge, let us work together to improve what can be improved in our democracy,” he said.
Saakashvili said that recognition of October 1 parliamentary election results without delay was one of his best political decisions; he said that after the elections the Georgian Dream was able to form its government without any meddling from the President despite the fact that under the constitution he had power to prevent it; he suggested that as the President he tried to play the role of “a neutral arbiter.”
“Unfortunately some of the events that unfolded later [after the October elections] made this kind of neutral arbiter’s role much more difficult to enforce because very foundation of the constitutional system came under attack” by the Georgian Dream, Saakashvili said
‘De Facto Giving Up NATO Aspiration’

Saakashvili said that there were “alarming” signs of Georgia’s new government making a shift in country’s foreign policy.
He cited PM Ivanishvili’s remarks during the latter’s visit to Yerevan this month when he said that Armenia was “an example” for Georgia how it is possible to have good relations with both NATO and Russia.
“It’s important to understand: Georgia has chosen to pursue the NATO membership and Armenia, for its own reasons, did not,” Saakashvili said. “By what the PM said few days ago, unfortunately, changes whole things we’ve been saying for all these years – he de facto gave up Georgia’s NATO aspiration. That’s what it means [this] declaration [of PM Ivanishvili].”
“That’s not the Georgian people has voted for. I hope that we can get better explanation and correction of this very alarming declaration,” he added.
Saakashvili also said that PM’s statement in Yerevan, combined with his earlier remarks questioning economic viability of Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway (PM Ivanishvili also said the project was important and should be implemented) and at the same time promoting reopening of railway between Georgia and Russia via breakaway Abkhazia “means changing strategic orientation and basically disconnecting us with the European strategic lines.”
Saakashvili also said that releasing from jails as a result of amnesty people, who were convicted for spying for Russia under the previous authorities, “raises concerns too.”
During the question and answer session a Georgian Dream lawmaker Tedo Japaridze, who leads the Georgian delegation to PACE, asked the President: “Do you seriously think that current Georgian government is surrendering to Russia or saying no to our European aspirations? And if so, why and what are the facts on the ground?”
Saakashvili responded that his position on this issue was based on what he was hearing from the new government, including PM Ivanishvili.
“I’ve also heard that Georgia should stop [being] a problem in relations between the West and Russia – I fully agree with that, but the way you [referring to Georgian Dream] put it is that we should stop being a problem without problems being actually solved and if we stop being a problem without problems being actually solved it might also mean that Georgia might stop to exist as such,” Saakashvili said.
“So there are certain things that make us think that things are moving not in a right way… I hope I am wrong, I really hope I am,” he said.

‘Russia Should Get Rid of Imperial Ambitions’
When one Russian lawmaker asked Saakashvili that it was unclear for him why he was criticizing PM Ivanishvili for trying to find way out of deadlock in Russian-Georgian relations which was created under his presidency, Saakashvili responded in Russian: “You have one problem; when you speak about Russian-Georgian relations you see one map of Georgia and I see another one. With all due respect, you need eyeglasses to see a genuine map and I can see what actually is – the map of Georgia, which we have inherited and which is recognized by the international community.”
“No matter how much you run around the world and to Tuvalu [one of those few countries, which recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia], it won’t change [anything]. You can get recognition [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia] from Tuvalu and Nauru, but it won’t change anything including in this chamber [referring to PACE],”
“You know that there are number of countries [whose leaders] would not have even responded you in Russian, because they have allergy on the Russian language. I once told Putin that probably I am the last Georgian leader who can speak in Russian with him… I speak Russian much better than [Georgia’s] current Prime Minister; at least in this I was right,” Saakashvili said smiling.
He also said that Russia “bribed couple of small island-nations” like Nauru and Tuvalu” in order to get recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“The great nation of Russia, after long discussions with island-nation of Tuvalu, made big diplomatic breakthrough and finally somebody else recognized [Abkhazia],” Saakashvili said sarcastically and added looking in direction of the Russian delegation in the chamber: “Congratulations Russian friends, so great for you. But I think it’s really a shame frankly.”
“Russia should get rid of imperial ambitions,” he said. “Our borders lie on Psou [river in Abkhazia] and Roki tunnel [in South Ossetia] – that’s the only lesson in geography I want you to have from me.”
When another Russian lawmaker asked Saakashvili about “massive violations of human rights” in Georgia during his presidency, Saakashvili responded: “I am very happy that our Russian neighbors have suddenly taken a very keen interest of human rights, democracy and freedom of individuals.”
“I really hope that you will also practice it on daily basis in your wonderful, great country and of course we would very much welcome Russia that on daily basis it respects individuals and their rights,” Saakashvili added.
He said that Georgia had always listened very carefully to criticism from international organizations. “We always welcomed it; sometimes we agreed or disagreed with it, but we always listened to it,” Saakashvili said and added that Georgia became “the safest country in Europe – with five times less crime rate by the way then in Russia.”
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