Suspending the construction of large infrastructure projects is one of the primary accusations that President Mikheil Saakashvili and his team make against the government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in the run up to the presidential elections scheduled for October 27. These projects would arguably not only impact Georgia’s transportation network and, but also have geopolitical significance.
In order to demonstrate Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s “malevolence” in reducing Georgia’s geopolitical attractiveness, the president often points to the government creating “artificial obstacles” to the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway. The BTK line will connect the railways of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey for the first time in history and have an annual freight capacity of 25 million tons.
The project, worth $600 million (Today’s Zaman, December 25, 2012), started in 2007 (https://www.president-az.com/article/en/1100/31), but the idea for the construction of such a railway route dates back to the 1990s, when Georgia and Azerbaijan began to implement other large-scale regional projects. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) and Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa oil pipelines, as well as the natural gas pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum (also known as the South Caucasus Pipeline) were among such endeavors. Many experts regard the rail link as the most important regional infrastructure project because it will connect the countries of the South Caucasus and the countries around the Caspian Sea with Europe through Turkey (Samuel Lussac, “The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railroad and Its Geopolitical Implications for the South Caucasus,” Caucasian Review of International Affairs, Vol. 2 (4), Autumn 2008). This connection will be the South Caucasus corridor’s most reliable and cheapest transport route, raising the status of Turkey to a transportation “hub” between Europe and Asia.
The President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, recently stated at a transportation and communication conference in Istanbul that the BTK rail link would “create a single transportation corridor from Beijing to London.” He argued, “Baku-Tbilisi-Kars is an element of the Great Silk Road project that is going to change the balance of world trade. We make every effort with our colleagues from Azerbaijan and Georgia to complete its construction in the nearest future” (https://www.georgianpress.ru/economicss/18874-prezident-turcii-baku-tbilisi-kars-izmenit-balans-torgovli-v-mire.html).
According to initial proposals, the first trains were expected to travel along the BTK railway by the end of 2013; all preconditions for that were in place. The project never had any problems with financing—Azerbaijan allotted a preferential credit for Georgia to build 30 kilometers of the railway from Akhalkalaki to Kartsakhi, on the border with Turkey. Azerbaijan also financed the construction of 178 kilometers of the railway from the Georgian town of Marabda to Akhalkalaki (https://www.railway.ge/?web=0&action=page&p_id=291&lang=rus). It was assumed that after the tunnel under the Bosphorus Strait opened, the BTK would become a link in a route connecting Europe and Asia (https://www.trend.az/capital/business/2181308.html). “It would have been very comfortable—to board the train and be in Paris or London in two days. However, the project encountered too many problems,” the rector of Georgia’s Diplomatic Academy, Iosif Tsintsadze, told Jamestown (Author’s interview, October 7). Tsintsadze noted that at the time of the Soviet Union, trains from Georgia to Europe travelled only through Russia.
Freight opportunities for goods from the Caspian region, including Azerbaijan and the Central Asian states, to Europe are even more important than passenger traffic along the BTK. But soon after the victory of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, the construction of the “great railway” or “project of the century,” as it was dubbed, started to encounter serious obstacles. Ivanishvili expressed doubts about the project, referring to the BTK’s possible negative impact on the Georgian Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi. “The project is very interesting, but at this point there are some economic issues. In particular, there is a danger that after Baku-Tbilisi-Kars starts functioning, the freight turnover on the ‘old’ railway of the country and in the Georgian ports will decrease,” he warned (https://www.yerkramas.org/2012/12/24/ivanishvili-proekt-baku-tbilisi-kars-snizit-gruzooborot-staroj-zhd-gruzii/). Experts immediately discerned the political underpinnings of Ivanishvili’s statement. “The construction of this railway is not beneficial for Russia, first of all, because [it would provide] the countries of the region [with] an independent outlet to the West,” Georgian economic expert Mikhail Tavkhelidze explained (Author’s interview, January 2013).
Since the election of the new Georgian government, the BTK railway has unexpectedly encountered a range of hurdles stalling its construction. Workers’ strikes protesting against the late payments of wages, as well as constant inspections and audits, have obstructed the construction efforts (https://www.regnum.ru/news/1696140.html). Finally, in August 2013, the head of the company Railway Marabda-Kartsakhi, Irakly Tsulaya, resigned and was replaced by Oleg Bachiashvili. The Georgian government did not explain the resignation, but it was clear the change was a belated reaction to the rising criticism from Baku and Ankara.
The completion of the BTK has been postponed first until 2014 and then until 2015, leading Saakashvili to accuse Ivanishvili of sabotaging the “project of the century.” Saakashivili had hoped to see the railway open before the end of his term in office in 2013. But the continual delays now mean that the BTK will likely not be completed in time to serve as a reverse-transit route for freight leaving Afghanistan, as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdraws from the country in 2014 (https://www.regnum.ru/news/1681094.html). The president of Georgia also accused Ivanishvili of lobbying for Moscow’s interests in discussing the reopening of the north-south railway from Georgia to Russia via Abkhazia (https://azerros.ru/analytics/7694-transportnaya-izolyaciya-armenii-mozhet-zavershitsya.html).
Further danger to the completion of the BTK project comes from possible protests by Armenians residing in the Georgian city of Akhalkalaki, the administrative center of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region where ethnic Armenians comprise a majority of the population. Yerevan is also not happy with the project, because it amplifies Armenia’s regional isolation and decreases the interest of Turkey and Azerbaijan to reopen the railway link that historically ran through Armenia (turtsia.ru, November 21, 2007). To prevent ethnic Armenians from becoming enlisted in a regional geopolitical struggle over the BTK, President Saakashvili insisted on the active participation of Armenians from Akhalkalaki in the construction of the railway. The Armenian participants of the project receive good salaries, while new schools, hospitals and roads have been built in the area within the framework of the railway construction project (https://www.trend.az/news/politics/2140848.html).
However, having visited the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti recently, Saakashvili lamented the fact that the new government had suspended the implementation of social and infrastructure programs in the area. This turn of events may provoke mass protests among the local population and create even more hurdles for the BTK project, which Saakashvili considers a premier accomplishment of his presidency since the “great railway” would finalize the detachment of Georgia and the South Caucasus from Russia (https://www.trend.az/news/politics/2140848.html).