The prospects of reopening the Georgian-Abkhaz railway line seem to be improving. The issue has been the subject of discussions at various high-profile meetings in recent months. The Georgian government has significantly softened its initial tough stance on the issue. Reopening the railway branch between Georgia and Abkhazia was one of the central topics at the June 15 summit of CIS railway CEOs in Tbilisi, although the issue was not officially on the agenda.
Experts estimate that the full restoration of the Abkhaz railway branch will cost at least $100 million. Ararat Khrimian, chief of the Armenian railway company, said that Armenia would definitely participate in this venture if the Georgia and Russian governments reach an agreement. The blockade of this railway branch costs Armenia’s state budget about $500 million annually.
As early as April, Tbilisi showed a willingness to reconsider its opposition to reopening the Abkhaz portion of the railway, when Georgian parliamentary chair Nino Burjanadze told her Armenian counterpart, Artur Bagdasarian, that Tbilisi has “changed its position over restoration of a railway link via Abkhazia and is ready to discuss this issue if concrete progress is made in resolving the [Abkhaz] conflict” (Resonance, Civil Georgia, April 29).
The Georgian government is showing a moderate optimism. “We should not create euphoria around this issue, since there are still many unresolved problems, particularly with regard to the safe repatriation of refugees,” said Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli. He admitted to having discussed the issue with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov, during his visit in Tbilisi on June 3. “Georgia’s former government was against the reopening of the railway, while the new government has a positive approach to this issue,” he added. If the Abkhaz portion is restored, the Trans-Caucasus Railway will again operate along more than 2,300 kilometers (Civil Georgia, June 16). The railway line connects Armenia and Georgian Black Sea ports with central Russia. This would likely revitalize the region’s faded economy. However, all stakeholders are wondering who will be the biggest winner.
It appears that Tbilisi still seeks unilateral advantages from this venture. “We are ready to start rehabilitation work, and sooner or later the railway has to be opened. Georgia must have an advantage from this venture in the first turn,” Davit Onoprishvili, chief of the Georgian railway, declared (24 Saati, June 16).
On June 15, the Georgian, Russian, and Abkhaz delegations met in Moscow to discuss reopening the rail connection and returning refugees to Gali district, although no concrete documents have been signed. The self-styled president of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, said reopening the rail communication via Abkhazia “is advantageous for Russia, Abkhazia, Armenia, and Georgia” (Apsynpress, Caucasus Press, June 15). Yesterday, Sergei Shamba, the foreign minister of the Abkhaz separatist government, said that the organized return of refugees to Gali could possibly begin in September (Caucasus Press, June 16).
Meanwhile, Leonid Lakerbaya, deputy prime minister of Abkhazia, conceded the need to quickly restore the railway line, but added that the Abkhaz leadership has to discuss the issue with the Abkhaz public and other governmental bodies (24 Saati, June 16).
The railway is scheduled to be discussed at a July 1 meeting in the office of the UN special envoy in Gali district. This meeting of Georgian, Russian, and Abkhaz specialists will focus on technical and financial issues related to the restoration of the railway. “This meeting will help us to define our further plans,” said Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolutions Giorgi Khaindrava.
Georgian analysts have different views about the issue. “We have to separate politics and economics,” says Sandro Tvalchrelidze, who is against linking the railway project with the repatriation of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia, as Tbilisi demanded several months ago. Other analysts, however, are less optimistic and argue that reopening the railway link would be less productive without a concurrent solution of the refugee issue. There are also numerous technical problems, including guaranteeing the safety of cargo and the installation of customs points. (Tbilisi likely wants to install them at the Russo-Abkhaz border and not on the Enguri River, which could serve as a provisional demarcation line between Georgia and breakaway Abkhazia). These analysts argue that under no circumstances should Georgia separate the issues of railway and repatriation issues. “It turns out that the Georgian side is doing something for the welfare of Abkhazia, but what is Abkhazia doing for Georgia?” asked analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze (Resonance, June 16).
However, the Abkhaz leadership remains distrustful of Georgia’s apparent desire to resolve the Abkhaz conflict by non-violent means. Nugzar Ashuba, chair of the Abkhaz parliament, complained at a June 15 meeting with a British delegation headed by Special Representative to South Caucasus Brian Fall that Georgia was not interested in stability and strengthening Abkhazia. He said that the National Bank of Georgia’s appeal to the Central Bank of Russia to close all accounts in related Abkhazian commercial banks revealed their true intention. The accounts have reportedly been closed (Caucasus Press, June 16).
The perception that Tbilisi harbors a grudge against Abkhazia appears to still dominate the Abkhaz political sphere. Any inconsistency in Georgian policies toward Abkhazia only serves to further this perception.