Last week, officials from Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey met in Tbilisi to discuss further steps in the construction of another strategically important project in the South Caucasus, the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku (KATB) railway system.
The idea to build a railroad that would connect Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey was first discussed in the mid-1990s. But for a long time the project remained on hold until it resurfaced again in May 2005.
On May 25, during the ceremonial opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey revealed their plans to connect their railroads with Trans-European Networks (see EDM, June 7).
Most of the 258-kilometer long railway system, which starts in Kars (Turkey), runs through Akhalkalaki and Tbilisi (Georgia), and ends in Baku (Azerbaijan), is already in place. The only missing connection is a 98-kilometer portion from Kars to Tbilisi (68 kilometers in Turkey, 30 kilometers in Georgia). The estimated cost for this missing link ranges from $300 million to $500 million. At the moment, there is no railroad connection between Georgia and Turkey.
All three states view this project as a central component of the EU-proposed Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA) project that envisages a West-East transport corridor linking Europe with the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea states. It was one of the discussion topics during the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) meeting in Tirana, Albania, on November 22-24.
Speaking at the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to the UN, Yashar Aliyev, stated that the KATB railway project is an important part of the East-West transport corridor that “will be a guarantor of sustainable development and security in the South Caucasus and Eurasia as a whole” (BakuToday, November 18). He added that construction would begin in 2006 and would be completed in 2008.
The parties recently announced that a Turkish firm, Yuksel Domonik, would conduct a feasibility study of the project and present its findings to the Azerbaijani and Georgian governments by February 2006 (Prime-News, December 8). Another report indicated that a Japanese firm and the Asian Development Bank have already expressed their interest in financing the construction of the railroad (Caucaz, October 16).
Interstate projects in the South Caucasus, however, rarely come without controversy. The disputed part of the project is that it bypasses Armenia, and Yerevan is strongly opposed to the new rail line. Armenia proposes using the century-old Russian-built Kars-Gyumri (Armenia)-Tbilisi railroad, instead of constructing a new one.
However, the executive director of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations, Nargiz Abbaszade, told Jamestown, “The Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi railway has not been operational for over ten years [and] it won’t be able to accommodate cargo from Azerbaijan to Turkey as Armenia still occupies a bulk of Azerbaijan’s territory and the two countries are in a state of war.”
Yet, Armenia has tried to use diplomatic pressure through the strong Armenian lobby in the U.S. Congress and the Armenian community in Georgia to prevent the financing and potential construction of the project. During his visit to the United States in June, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian expressed his concern regarding the project to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
On July 20, the co-chairs of the Congressional Armenian Caucus, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI), introduced the “South Caucasus Integration and Open Railroads Act of 2005.” The bill was an attempt to block U.S. financing of “any rail connections or railway-related connections that do not traverse or connect with Armenia” (H.R. 3361).
The Armenian population of Georgia, which is concentrated along the railroad route, has also been active in the anti-railroad campaign. A representative of the Armenian community in the Javakheti region of Georgia, Vaagn Chakhalyan, expressed his dissatisfaction with the project and warned that Armenians would “actively prevent the [construction of this railroad] by all possible means” (Regnum, December 1). Local residents have already staged several rallies protesting closure of the Russian military base at Akhalkalaki and alleged discrimination against Armenians by the Georgian government (Regnum, December 12).
Despite all of the negative developments, however, the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku railroad project is likely to move forward. Its construction cost is relatively small and may not require U.S. funding at all. Some Georgian newspapers claim that the European Union has already promised to sponsor Georgia’s portion of the project (The Messenger, December 5).
Moreover, Yerevan’s ability to play the “ethnic card” against Tbilisi has its limits. Armenia’s only land connection with Russia runs through Georgia, and Armenia depends on Georgia’s transportation links, not vice versa. Tbilisi could easily isolate Yerevan if it feels vulnerable or threatened.
Besides linking the transportation networks of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey with Europe, the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku railroad would create an opportunity for the EU to increase its influence in the South Caucasus. The EU has already launched talks with Georgia under the European Neighborhood Policy initiative, and similar talks will soon begin with Armenia and Azerbaijan as well.