While the May 25 opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline garnered considerable media interest, a second initiative has received less attention. On the sidelines of the BTC ceremony, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and Turkey’s President Akhmed Nedget Sezer announced the creation of the Kars international railway corridor, linking northeast Turkey, Tbilisi, and Baku. The project, roughly valued at $400-800 million, includes construction costs for the 258-kilometer long railway line. In Georgia the project needs a new 30-kilometer line between Kars and Akhalkalaki (in Javakheti region) and must restore the Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi railway section (Regnum, Media News, May 25).
Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey had signed a joint statement on the construction of the railway at the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 28. Georgian Economic Development Minister Alexi Alexishvili called the joint venture “an historic project of the century.” He declared, “We have agreed that the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi railway project will be implemented at an increased pace. A working group will be set up to work on specific details of the project.” All three countries will finance the project.
The railway project has already been registered for international tender and will be managed by a Georgian-Azeri-Turkish joint venture. Some analysts almost equate the importance of the railway project to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline (Regnum, April 8, May, 5, 20; Caucasus Press, December 29, 2004; Georgian Messenger, December 31, 2004).
The idea for the Kars railway was born eight years ago, when (then) Turkish President Suleiman Demirel arrived in Georgia on July 14, 1997, and talked with (then) Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze about building a railway from Kars to Akhalkalaki to “open a third frontier crossing between the two countries.” However, the idea subsequently stalled mostly for financial reasons.
The Kars-Akhalkalaki route is expected to fully replace the now inactive Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi line, which was the only rail route the USSR used to reach Turkey. Istanbul unilaterally halted traffic on this route after Armenian-Turkish relations deteriorated due to the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in Karabakh.
If the new trilateral project goes into effect, any country in the Caspian region will be able to transport cargo and passengers from Baku to Europe via Turkey. The Azerbaijani side appears to have far-reaching strategic goals for the railway. Nazir Azmamedov, spokesman for the Azerbaijani Transport Ministry, said Baku is extremely interested in seeing the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad built. “There are cases when the Batumi [Ajaria] port does not work and from this viewpoint Azerbaijan is interested in the construction of an additional railroad that would help transfer our goods to the Turkish ports,” he said.
Evidently the Georgian political leadership is pursuing its own strategic goals with regard to the railway. The rail line could boost economic activity in Javakheti region, develop local infrastructure, and contribute to the reintegration of the Armenia-oriented Javakheti region with Georgia. In addition, construction of the railway should speed up the Russian military pullout from Georgia. The functioning railway could relieve, to a certain extent, the severe social-economic problems for the Javakheti Armenian community, especially after closure of the Russian base. Saakashvili has underlined several times that full integration of Javakheti into Georgian state life is a compelling problem. He may consider the new railway to be a tool to address this problem.
Apart from the local goals, the Kars railway is expected to serve Georgia’s international interests, including strengthening Georgia’s status as a transit country, developing an strategic alliance with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and likely curbing Armenia’s regional ambitions, which Tbilisi has long considered a dangerous neighbor and the sole strategic ally of Russia in South Caucasus.
Some Russian and Armenian analysts argue that construction of the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway line plays into the hand of Georgia, because it actually “takes Armenia out of the international transport circuit” with all the ensuing economic and political consequences. Besides, they argue, launching a new railway would fundamentally change the whole regional transit structure, making Azerbaijan a major traffic hub (www.turkishpress.com, Turan, February 7; International Railway Journal; March 1; Novoe vremya, April 14; www.azg.am July 30, 2004).
According to the Armenian newspaper Hayots Ashkharh, “Armenia should take a wide range of urgent measures in order to prevent the construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railway that will link Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.” Furthermore, the paper argues, the “railway will strengthen Armenia’s dependence on Georgia” (Hayots Ashkharh, October 1, 2004).
The Kars-Akhalkalaki-Baku railway line promises other benefits for Georgia. According to analysts, the railway has the potential to attract freight, including oil, from Central Asia en route to Turkey by offering a further outlet to the sea. Caspian traders, for example, may want to deliver oil by rail directly to European buyers. They will obviously save money and time bypassing tanker routes. Georgia could thus offer two oil routes to Europe, by sea and by land, making the country an important element of the transport corridor linking Asia, the Caucasus, and Europe.
Some investments in the Kars-Akhalkalaki Railway are already pending. In 2002, China, which reportedly prefers this route to the Russian one to connect to Europe, showed a readiness to invest in the project and has submitted relevant plans to the Turkish government. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey have already applied the European Commission to include the new railway line in the TRACECA transport corridor.