The new Georgian government’s proposal to re-open rail communication with the Russian Federation via Abkhazia, which Tbilisi has described as a “confidence building” measure, would have far-reaching geopolitical consequences across the entire region, according to a Tbilisi commentator. And thus is unlikely.Among these, Tbilisi commentator Guram Sharia argues in an essay posted online this week, are an increase in Turkish influence in many parts of the Caucasus at Russia’s expense, an end to the isolation of Armenia and hence a reduction of pressure on Yerevan to settle the Karabakh dispute, and new tensions between Baku and Ankara for precisely that reason.
And Sharia suggests that it is an appreciation of these consequences in the capitals of the region rather that Moscow’s continuing antipathy to Tbilisi that will make it difficult for either the Russian Federation or the Georgian republic to make progress on this issue anytime soon.
The railroad connecting the South Caucasus with the Russian Federation via Abkhazia has not been operational since August 1992 when the Abkhaz blew up the tunnels and bridge on the Inguri River in order to block the advance of Georgian troops. Since that time, the rail line has functioned only between Sukhumi and Russia.
The closure cut off not only Georgia’s rail communications with the Russian Federation but also those of Armenia, which was forced to use sea or highway routes, Iran and Turkey. Not surprisingly, Georgians have often talked about re-opening this line, but such suggestions became rarer after 2006 when Moscow closed its market to Georgian goods, Sharia says.
After the August 2008 war, relations between Georgia and Russia broke down completely. Indeed, Tbilisi adopted a law, the commentator says, “according to which physical and legal persons without the permission of the Georgian country were prohibited from establishing any economic relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But after the recent parliamentary elections, the situation has begun to change. Bidzina Ivanishvili “and certain of his comrades in arms,” Sharia continues, “have begun to speak about a change of approach regarding the resolution of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian problems, and one of the measures” may be a change in Georgian law that would allow the railway to reopen.
Paata Zakareishvili, the new state minister for reintegration issues, has said that Tbilisi “intends to raise the question about the renewal of movement of goods via the Abkhaz railroad and also about the same along the central automobile highway.” Such proposals could help “restore confidence” between Tbilisi and Moscow.
“Any opening of communications is useful for all sides,” Zakareishvili declared. “The opening of rail and automobile roads is in the interests of all the peoples through whose territory they pass. Because of this, we from our side want to remove all obstacles,” especially since Tbilisi has no interest that Abkhazia will be drawn “only to the Russian Federation.”
“However,” Sharia says, “the issue is not as simple as the Georgian minister is seeking to present it.” On the one hand, re-opening the rail line could lead to actions that Sukhumi would view as de facto recognition of its independence by Tbilisi, something it very much wants but that no Georgian politician is prepared to countenance.
And on the other, it will change trade flows and hence influence among other players as well. Re-opening the Abkhaz line, especially after the establishment of a direct rail line between Georgia and Turkey will have serious consequences, increasing Turkish exports to the region, ending Armenia’s isolation and angering Azerbaijan, Georgia’s chief energy supplier.
The new Georgian government has not hidden the fact that it hopes to use economics to win the Abkhaz back, the commentator continues. Indeed, the re-opening of the line could lead to the intensification of “pro-Turkish, pro-Western and even pro-Georgian attitudes” among the Abkhaz, something Moscow certainly would view in a very negative light.
That consideration and also Moscow’s plans for the Sochi Olympiad in 2014 virtually guarantees that Russia will move slowly if at all on this issue, Sharia argues, unless and until the Russian government can secure more concessions from Georgia than are likely to be on offer anytime soon.
Armenia is another “participant” in all this, Sharia notes. “The opening of the railroad through Abkhazia to Russia would mean for Armenia the complete collapse of the transportation blockade in which Azerbaijan with the support of Turkey has kept it.” And that would cost Baku “an important lever” on Yerevan in talks about Karabakh.
Moreover, Azerbaijani unhappiness could lead Turkey to revisit the 2009 Zurich accords with Armenia, a step that could undermine Turkish-Azerbaijani relations and likely would lead Baku to try to keep Tbilisi from going forward by pointing to the energy it produces and that Georgia very much needs.
But the re-opening of the Abkhaz railroad, if and when it happens, could have even broader geopolitical consequences, Sharia says. “Turkey, having lost levers of pressure on Armenia and consequently part of its attractiveness for Turkey, might seek to compensate [for this] by increasing its political weight in Abkhazia and in the republics of the North Caucasus.”
And that in turn, the commentator says, could mark the beginning of the end of the status quo in the region and lead to changes in the political borders of “the entire Greater Caucasus, with the inevitable consequences flowing from that.”
This article was previously published here: Window on Eurasia – New Series.
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on religions and minorities in Eurasia. Now retired, he earlier served as special assistant for Soviet nationalities in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US Department of State, director of research at Radio Liberty, special advisor on Soviet Nationalities and Baltic Affairs at the US Department of State, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, director of communications at RFE/RL, and senior advisor to the director of the US International Broadcasting Bureau. Trained at Miami University and the University of Chicago, he is the editor of eight books on these issues, as well as more than 150 articles and chapters, and 1,000 opeds. He currently prepares articles for his blog www.windowoneurasia2.