Planned Road From Dagestan to Georgia—Road of Friendship, or of War?
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 174
Someone looking at a map of the Caucasus would be surprised to see that only three transportation links cut across the Main Caucasus Ridge connecting the North and South Caucasus. This was not always the case. Prior to the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus in the middle of the 19th century, all the ethnic groups that bordered Georgia had roads that cut across the mountains to the south. Thus, for example, Chechnya had two corridors that connected Chechens to Georgia—a year-round road in the area of the Georgian highland village of Shatili and a seasonal one in the area of the Maisty community. During the Soviet period, almost all the roads that connected the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus were closed down. Out of many roads that for centuries connected the North Caucasus mountaineers to Georgia, the authorities left open only the Georgian military highway in the area of the Darial Gorge and along the Black Sea coast from Sochi to Sukhumi, plus a passage to Azerbaijan via Derbent. One of the abandoned roads capable of fully substituting for the existing two roads to Georgia is the Avaro-Kakhetian road. Russian interest in this road has surfaced on multiple occasions over the past 150 years (flnka.ru, December 7, 2013). For Russia, it is the only alternative to the Georgian military highway for dispatching ground forces to the South Caucasus if needed.
After President Vladimir Putin visited the 33rd Separate Motorized Mountainous Brigade in the Dagestani mountain village of Botlikh in February 2008 (1tv.ru, February 4, 2008), people openly started talking about the need to build—or more accurately rebuild—the historical road from Dagestan to Georgia. During this visit, which took place six months prior to the August 2008 war with Georgia , Vladimir Putin was primarily interested in whether military equipment could be sent across the ridge, and he was reassured that tanks would be able to cross the border (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 6, 2008). However, the base in Botlikh, which cost nearly $500 million, was shut down in 2011 and shifted 708 kilometers to the west, to the city of Maikop, Adygea (newsland.com, November 11, 2011).
Multiple reasons exist for closing down the base, including tense relations with the locals, who were deprived of land that is so scarce in the mountains to begin with (reporter-ufo.ru, November 21, 2005). The lack of a shooting range for military exercises was another reason to shut down the base in the Dagestani mountains. In neighboring Chechnya, the leadership spoke vehemently against plans for military training fields there because they were concerned about the Argun historical-architectural and natural museum-reserve that is the site of Chechen architectural artifacts from the 10th to 14th centuries (newsru.com, June 21, 2008).
After the Russian military base was relocated from the mountains of Dagestan, it seemed that Moscow no longer had plans to build a new road to Georgia. Dagestanis themselves started discussing the construction of a road to Georgia as a way to improve economic relations with the neighboring country. The emphasis changed from the military realm to the economic. After Mikheil Saakashvili left the political arena, the new Georgian government started to seek closer relations with Russia. The Russian government again became interested in including Georgia in its political and economic sphere of influence. In the summer of 2014, Dagestani leader Ramazan Abdulatipov once more raised the issue of building the Avaro-Kakhetian road in the mountains of Dagestan (mkala.mk.ru, July 10).
A decision was made to build the road to the border with Georgia as an alternative to the other two routes connecting Russia with this South Caucasus country. The Dagestani leadership regards this project as crucially important—the connection to Georgia does not simply shorten the distance between Makhachkala and Tbilisi, but also opens the Georgian market to Dagestani produce and provides a developmental boost to the economically deprived mountainous areas of Dagestan (chernovik.net, July 1). The cost of the entire project is estimated at 30 billion rubles ($730 million). This is almost double the price of the Russian military base that was abandoned in Botlikh after just seven years of use.
However, this is only one side of the story. For some reason, the Russians do not consider it important to ask the Georgian side about the road construction project. Georgians have regarded the project as a security threat from the very beginning (shax-dag.ru, February 17, 2008). Georgia’s new leadership has not expressed its view of this project, while the country’s northern neighbor appears to be deciding purely on its own where to build a highway leading to Georgia (rg.ru, July 2, 2014).
The armed Islamic resistance of Dagestan is yet another, unofficial participant in the project. The militants have a negative opinion of the road. The insurgents expressed their attitude about the road to Georgia on September 26, when five armed militants approached construction workers who were working on the Avaro-Kakhetian road, demanding that they halt their work. The incident took place on the road near the village of Khebda in Dagestan’s Shamil district. The attackers tied up four workers and explained to them that this military road was being built exclusively for the military needs of the Russians. After that they burned four trailers that the construction workers were using to store their clothes, tools and other belongings. The rebels took the workers of Mostootryad-99 OJSC to the village of Kosob, where they locked them up in a building and propped up the door with stones. The workers managed to escape later without any assistance (riadagestan.ru, September 26). Thus, the rebels are apparently against the construction of the road, while they themselves make use of the corridor, in contravention of the authorities of both countries.
Thus it can be assumed that the militants will create further obstacles to building yet another border checkpoint in the mountains of Dagestan and to the influx of additional forces of the Federal Security Service, police and customs service. However, it is unlikely that this will deter Dagestani authorities, who appear to be building the road for the Russian military under the pretext of economic development. This allows Dagestan to receive money from the Russian federal budget. Whether this road will become a road of friendship or a road of war will only become clear over the next several years, but whatever its outcome it will have a key strategic impact on the transportation nexus between the North and South Caucasus and could become another avenue of threat for Russia against Georgia.