On July 7, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and Ambassador Zurab Abashidze, the special envoy of the Georgian prime minister for relations with Russia, held a special meeting in Prague. One of the topics of the meeting was further development of transport coordination between the two countries, though Tbilisi broke off diplomatic relations with Moscow since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. Furthermore, the talks in Prague took place against the backdrop of Russia’s military maneuvers in the occupied territories of Georgia—Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see EDM, July 10).
After the talks between Zurab Abashidze and Grigory Karasin, Russian media outlets in Tbilisi reported that the construction of the road from the Russian Republic of Dagestan to Georgia has accelerated (Sputnik-Georgia, July 12). Moscow has been pressuring Tbilisi for a long time to open the Vladikavkaz-Gori-Yerevan highway through occupied South Ossetia and the Sochi-Sukhumi-Tbilisi-Yerevan railway via Abkhazia. These transportation lines are important for Armenia as well as for supplying the Russian military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri.
But since the Georgian leadership is cautious about all projects involving the occupied territories, Russian politicians and diplomats have repeatedly proposed a third road, bypassing Abkhazia and South Ossetia—from Dagestan to eastern Georgia: Makhachkala-Beshta-Akhalsofeli-Kvareli-Tbilisi-Yerevan. This road is most often called Avar-Kakheti, by the name of Georgia’s eastern region of Kakheti and the Dagestani region populated by ethnic Avars (Kavkazr.com, January 13).
Zurab Abashidze claims that Grigory Karasin “did not raise the topic of the road from Dagestan to Georgia” during the meeting in Prague (Author’s interview, July 20). However, the Georgian and Russian media both have reported about large-scale works unfolding in Dagestan (Sputnik-Georgia, July 12). And these works are financed by Moscow. Local authorities in Dagestan have never concealed the fact that the road is being built not only to the border with Georgia, but will also continue through Georgian territory (Inance.ru, August 30, 2016). Thus, the historic Beshta-Akhalsofeli road is apparently going to be restored. From Akhalsofeli, it is not far to the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi: only 155 kilometers (km) (Toponavi.com).
Mamuka Areshidze, the head of the Tbilisi-based Center for Regional Research, said that to bring the road from the Dagestani village of Beshta to the Georgian border, Russia would need to build 25 bridges and five tunnels. “It is clear that the central government of Russia is especially interested in the construction of this road. Finance is allocated from the state budget of the Russian Federation. Even if we do not talk about direct military risks, the road from Dagestan to Kakheti is a big threat if only because there will be an influx of Dagestani population to Georgia, giving Moscow the opportunity to provoke conflicts” (Author’s interview, July 21).
In Armenia, the Avar-Kakheti road project is considered as an alternative to the Yerevan-Tbilisi-Kazbegi-Vladikavkaz-Moscow route. The latter was historically called the Georgian Military Road, but it often becomes impassable due to snowfalls and landslides. The Avar-Kakheti road may prove to be more stable. Armenian expert Johnny Melikyan believes that it is necessary to develop the road through Georgia to Dagestan, since it can then connect with the North-South road, potentially linking Russia, Georgia and Armenia with Iran. In addition, the Avar-Kakheti road will provide Armenia with a stable route to deliver goods to Russia (NewsArmenia, June 27, 2016).
But in Georgia it is still remembered that shortly before the Russian aggression in 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally visited Dagestan and announced the construction of another road that runs toward the plateau located 40 km from the village of Bezhta (Inance.ru, August 30, 2016). “Putin stood at the site of the construction of the road and asked: ‘This is a new road to Georgia. Are the tanks going to pass or not?’”—Mamuka Areshidze reminded. According to him, the Iskander missile (SS-26) that exploded on August 12, 2008 in the Georgian city of Gori and killed dozens of people was launched from Dagestan (Author’s interview, July 21; Human Rights Watch, April 14, 2009).
The editor-in-chief of the military-analytical magazine Arsenali, Irakli Aladashvili, stressed that the joint construction of any new roads with the “state-aggressor” poses a great danger. “Russia already has two ways for a new aggression against Georgia: from Abkhazia and through South Ossetia. But it wants to get a third road for an urgent transfer of troops from Dagestan to eastern Georgia,” Irakli Aladashvili said. The expert argues that, before building new communications with Moscow, it is necessary to return to Georgia its occupied territories and regulate relations with Russia on the basis of the withdrawal of Russian occupation troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Author’s interview, July 21).
The opposition is particularly upset by the Georgian Dream party election promise to the ethnic Avars and other residents of the villages of Saruso and Satskhene that it is an imperative for the government to build the Avar-Kakheti road in order to provide for stronger links between the Avars in Georgia and their relatives in Dagestan (Rustavi2, July 21). “The Georgian Dream party wanted to get their votes in the election and took a risk for the country’s independence,” pointed out Nugzar Tsiklauri, one of the leaders of the United National Movement opposition party (Author’s interview, June 7, 2017).
While the Georgian authorities do not confirm reports about the construction of a new road from Russia to Georgia, Russia has many levers to put pressure on Tbilisi—not only military, but also economic. Over the past five years, Russia has become Georgia’s second largest trading partner (after Turkey). Russia leads the import of Georgian products, including wine and mineral water (Geostat). Moscow has repeatedly hinted that it can close this channel and threaten Georgia’s economic, social and financial stability. By restoring economic ties with Russia in full, starting in 2013, the Georgian Dream party may find itself trapped by Moscow.