Abhaz Uzel -- In early November last year, Georgia’s Minister for Reintegration Issues Paata Zakareishvili raised the question of restoring the rail communication with Russia via Abkhaz territory that was suspended in the early 1990s.
And although a month later the issue was removed from the agenda, the idea elicited widely differing reactions from politicians and analysts from the parties involved.
In the first instance, this initiative did not receive wide support in Georgia and was perceived negatively by many Georgian politicians, who rightly assumed that opening the railway could be seen as a betrayal of Georgia’s national interests. Moreover, the economic benefits mentioned by Mr. Zakareishvili were not immediately clear, as a rapprochement between Russia and Georgia in the immediate future is unlikely, and talks on abolishing the visa regime with Russia have not even started.
Even though Azerbaijan did not make any official statement about the possible restoration of railway communication between Georgia and Russia, many Azerbaijani experts and some politicians have expressed an extremely negative position with regard to this initiative. The prospect of ending Armenia’s isolation and as a result, of destabilizing the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, gave rise to misgivings, because it would then be possible to supply the 102nd Russian military base in Giumri via Georgia. Some Azerbaijani politicians went so far as to threaten Georgia openly in the event that the proposal was implemented.
For example, parliament deputy Musa Gasimli said that if that happens, Baku "could provide support to the separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia." Center for Political Innovations and Technologies Director Mubariz Ahmedoglu was even more categorical. In his opinion, "Georgia has turned into a promoter of the interests of certain Western forces that seek to slow down the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict." Only Armenia was unequivocally interested in the resumption of rail communication, but in conditions where most of the regional political actors were against it, Armenia could not count on the proposal being implemented. Obviously, in the absence of clear political and economic benefits, Georgia will not risk a deterioration of its relations with Azerbaijan, on which it is dependent for its oil, gas, and significant amounts of transit.
Although in the near future, the prospects for reopening of the railway are not realistic, the reaction to Zakareishvili’s initiative identified two interesting trends.
First, Georgia, which for the past 10 years has actively sought to break free of Russia’s influence, has in fact become a hostage of the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem that is openly interfering in the internal politics of the state. Commenting on Baku’s reaction, Zakareishvili said that "Georgia will never take a decision that could harm the strategic relationship between Georgia and Azerbaijan," thereby disavowing his own earlier statements and conceding Georgia’s dependence on the positions of Baku and Ankara. Consequently, it will be extremely difficult to change the status-quo in Russian-Georgian relations even if the Georgian leadership really wanted to, and there are as yet few indications that it does.
Second, Abkhazia’s very negative reaction to Mr. Zakareishvili’s initiative indicates a tendency toward isolationism in the Abkhaz society. The fears of the Abkhaz side that the proposal was politically motivated seem well-founded, but the obvious benefits to the republic from transit traffic cannot be denied. At a time when Abkhazia’s budget is made up of Russian subsidies, such a proposal should at least be studied in detail, if not accepted unequivocally. One cannot help concluding that any Georgian project aimed at breaking Abkhazia’s isolation would elicit the same reaction.
Given that the statements by Georgia’s Minister for Reintegration were in effect a trial balloon, and that Russia assumed the position of an observer, it is very likely that if Azerbaijan’s reaction had been different, the question of restarting rail traffic would not have been removed from the agenda.
This article was published by Abhaz Uzel and is translated from Russian.