For the first time in eleven years, the entire rail line between Moscow and Sukhumi, the capital of Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia, resumed operation on September 10. Gennady Fadeyev, chief of the state-run Russian Railway Company, participated in the ceremony, giving it an air of official endorsement. The renewed transportation link has triggered a new wave of tension between Moscow and Tbilisi, but Fadeyev publicly dismissed Georgia’s protests.
The Russian Foreign Ministry believes that nothing extraordinary has happened and that this development falls within the framework of existing Russian-Georgian accords. “The railway has to be maintained in a functioning and safe condition after the launch of a Sochi-Sukhumi suburban train service in December 2002. The main thing is that all this is in accordance with the Sochi accords reached at the Russian-Georgian summit with the participation of the Abkhaz side, in March 2003,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Boris Malakhov. In 2002 Moscow had explained that Russian commercial interests — but not the government — needed a limited railway connection between Abkhazia and the Russian town of Sochi.
On March 7, 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze signed an agreement in Sochi envisaging “synchronization” of two processes: the safe return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to Abkhazia’s Gali region and the resumption of the railway connection. The two presidents also agreed to set up two separate bilateral governmental commissions to work out these issues. However, the commissions failed to take off and, given the latest events, their failure has become more than clear.
The Georgian and Russian arguments are based on differing interpretations of the 2003 Sochi agreement. A statement issued by the Georgian Foreign Ministry says that Russia has violated the Commonwealth of Independent States’ agreement of January 19, 1996, which introduced economic sanctions against the secessionist Abkhazian leadership, and the Sochi agreement. Russia, meanwhile, denies these accusations and is trying to reinterpret the purpose of the agreement.
On September 10, the Georgian Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian Ambassador to Georgia, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, to deliver a protest over “a violation of Georgia’s sovereignty” and bilateral agreements. After the meeting Chkhikvishvili told reporters that a setback in the process of IDP return should not be used to justify the delay of another process, namely the resumption of railway connections. “The sides [Russia and Georgia] have also agreed earlier that it is not always necessary to synchronize these two processes — return of IDPs and resumption of railway connections — if there is a progress in one direction, we should not stop and should move further forward,” he stressed.
The Russian side claims that Tbilisi was notified about the restoration of the rail link and this is probably the truth. The Georgian State Minister for Conflict Settlement, Giorgi Khaindrava, who is on a visit to Moscow, told journalists that although Georgian authorities had done everything in their power to block the resumption of rail service between Abkhazia and Russia, ultimately they were unable to prevent it. He accused Russia of encouraging separatism in Abkhazia.
While Khaindrava dismissed the railway connection as a token gesture, freight had already begun the trip from Russia to Abkhazia. At the request of the Abkhaz separatist government, Russia has already dispatched tanker cars loaded with gas and other types of fuel. Russian officials insist that the railway service operates in “a normal manner” (rian.ru, September 14).
Georgia appears to have been deceived by Russia yet again, because Tbilisi has consistently sought to use the resumption of railway traffic through Abkhazia as a lever in political negotiations. Some experts even believed that this process might pull the problem out of its long deadlock. Now Georgian state agencies are calculating the possible political and economic losses that Georgia might incur from the restored railway link between Russia and Abkhazia.
The Georgian Department of Statistics has estimated that the amount of cargo expected to be transported in the coming months would at least triple the level of Abkhaz trade with Russia and, hence, further stabilize the Abkhaz secessionist leaders and strengthen their hand in any standoff with Tbilisi. Politically, the railway connection will draw Abkhazia more towards Russia and further from Georgia. In addition, as the rail connection comes on the eve of presidential elections in Abkhazia, it gives the Kremlin candidate, Raul Khajimba, a considerable boost in the race.
Some analysts say that Russia’s recent Abkhaz gambit is one more challenge to Georgia, and Tbilisi’s response should be as tangible and proportional to the Russian action as possible. However, the formulation and implementation of such a stiff reaction seems more than President Mikheil Saakashvili and his government can handle. One reason is that Georgia, which evidently lacks its own resources to regain Abkhazia, increasingly relies on assistance from the West and the United States, in particular. In reality, this assistance is limited to the unconditional recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity and mediation efforts, which require Georgia to seek a political resolution with Russia.
Speaking about Abkhazia at a special meeting with the exiled Abkhaz government on September 10, Saakashvili seemed to abandon the belligerent rhetoric he had used several months ago. “We do not intend to wage war against the Abkhaz. Everyone must realize this. . . . This is our main concept regarding Abkhazia and Georgia’s territorial integrity. . . . We will return to Abkhazia with love,” he said.
On September 14, for the first time in the history of the CIS summits, Russia invoked the right of veto and refused to discuss the railway issue. The Russian veto came after Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania filed a protest asking for discussions with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov.
(News.ru, Ekho Moskvy radio, NTV, Kavkasia Press, Civil Georgia, TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, TV-Mze, September 10; Resonance, September 11).