The plans to build a road connecting Dagestan to Georgia have caused concern among experts outside Russia (see EDM, October 2). Following its moves in eastern Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, its war with Georgia in 2008 and other aggressive acts, every move by Russia near its borders is seen through the lens of potential military threats.
In his recent speech on how to contain the aggressive foreign policy behavior of the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin, Andrei Illarionov, the former advisor to the Russian president turned opponent, pointed to yet another threat developing near the Russian-Georgian border in Dagestan. “Currently, the Russian authorities are constructing the Avaro-Kakhetian highway from Makhachkala to Tbilisi at a fast pace—the construction work is carried out 24 hours a day, with no breaks,” Illarionov said. “The price of this project is estimated at $1.5 billion. The highway cuts across the Main Caucasus Ridge and on its southern end it enters into the valleys of the Alazan and Kura rivers, which is a strategically important place in the border area between Georgia and Azerbaijan and close to Tbilisi, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.” According to Illarionov, if the road is built according to the plan, Russian forces will able to invade Georgia quickly, establish a land corridor with Armenia, Russia’s ally in the South Caucasus, and cut off the Caspian and the Central Asian region, which is rich in energy resources, from international markets. The highway is expected to be completed by March 2015 (Echo.msk.ru, December 9).
The Dagestani part of the road project from Dagestan’s mountains to Georgia is 83 kilometers long. The entire length of the highway from Dagestan to Georgia is estimated to be 470 kilometers. The ruble equivalent of nearly $1 billion was initially earmarked for the project, but dropped to about $600 million after the rapid devaluation of the Russian currency. This is still a significant amount of money, equal to more than a third of Dagestan’s budget. Curiously, the project to build a highway from Chechnya to Georgia was frozen and was not resumed even after Moscow’s principal political foe in Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, lost the parliamentary elections in 2012 and left the country (Caucasianpolitics.ru, July 2).
Russian plans to build the Avaro-Kakhetian road date back at least to February 2008, when Vladimir Putin made a statement about connecting Dagestan to Georgia during a surprise visit to that North Caucasus republic. The Georgian government was alarmed by the statement, and rightly so, given that bilateral relations were quite strained, eventually leading to the brief August 2008 war, which deprived Georgia of its provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The issue of building a highway connecting Dagestan to Georgia is comprised of at least two stages. The Russian political leadership’s geopolitical thinking appears to prioritize this as a way to project influence in the South Caucasus. There is also genuine local interest in Dagestan to have better relations and economic cooperation with the neighboring country, especially given the fact that ethnic Dagestanis (Avars) reside on the Georgian side of the border. In fact, Dagestani businessman Magomed Kebedov built 55 kilometers of the road connecting Dagestan and Georgia back in the 1990s, but Moscow closed down the project in 1997 (Flnka.ru, December 7, 2013).
Moscow’s imperative in the North Caucasus has generally been to have political control over the local population, which is considered inherently disloyal. Therefore, connecting the North Caucasus to foreign territories is not seen by Moscow in general as a productive idea. However, Moscow may in fact regard Georgia as not entirely a foreign territory, but a territory that can be coerced into submission, if not conquered directly. The Russian government’s allotment of significant resources to build the road to Georgia under conditions of generally declining Russian state resources is a sign of the high importance this project has among decision makers in Moscow. Even an insurgent attack on road construction workers last September did not stop the government from pressing ahead with this project (Riadagestan.ru, September 26).
While Dagestan expects significant economic gains from this infrastructure project, the purpose of this highway is unlikely to provide material benefits for the North Caucasus republic (Mkala.mk.ru, October 31). For example, the republic has the longest road tunnel in Russia—the Gimry tunnel, which is over four kilometers long and connects the mountainous districts to the plains of Dagestan. Yet, the tunnel has been shut down for locals since September 2014 under the pretext of a counter-terrorist operation, causing significant losses for local businesses (see EDM, December 10). Dagestan’s economic interests are not among Moscow’s top priorities in the region.
Besides the direct security threat to Georgia, which might entail a Russian military incursion, the highway project also poses indirect threats. Ethnic Avars live on both sides of the Russian-Georgian border in Dagestan. If the road project is implemented, the Russian security services will have better opportunities to incite public disobedience campaigns and fuel civil unrest among the ethnic Avars who live in this part of Georgia. The transportation project is also likely to bring some material benefits, but they are barely part of Moscow’s calculations at this point.