What’s Behind Putin’s Plan for a Botlikh-Georgia Highway?

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 6

Translated from the Avar language, Botlikh means “a place where the army stopped.” On the Kremlin’s initiative, this small village in the Dagestani mountains and home to 10,397 ethnic Avars has been transformed into the key military stronghold on Russia’s southern border.

President Vladimir Putin summarized the results of his trip to the Caucasus during a press conference at the Kremlin on January 6, 2008. In February, he discussed the issues and accomplishments of his policies in the Caucasus over the last eight years while answering questions from journalists in Sochi. The full text of that exchange was published on the Kremlin’s website (Kremlin.ru, February 5).

Describing Botlikh’s problems, Putin spoke about social and economic issues, including unemployment. He said that the security situation in Botlikh is improving. “My first visit to Botlikh was in 1999,” he said. “I was talking to the military … and the battle was underway in the mountains, I could hear the shooting. Today, things are very different” (Kremlin.ru, February 5).

Putin cited the unprecedented reinforcement of the southern border as one of the accomplishments, saying that “the state border was outfitted with a completely new infrastructure, including 119 new facilities and 72 new posts equipped with the latest technology” (Kremlin.ru, February 5).

Despite the fact that President Putin did not cite security among the main problems of the Caucasus, he said that the goal of his trip to the Caucasus was to ensure the resolution of strategic military objectives. “What I did yesterday is the second stage of the task, the so-called troop coverage of the state border,” he said. However, as Putin explained, the Interior Ministry’s mountain brigades will not only provide troop coverage of the borders, but also pursue an active war against the surviving members of rebel bands, which according to President Putin, is an important step in the anti-terrorism fight (Kremlin.ru, February 5).

Along with Putin’s comments on the results of his Caucasus visit, Putin’s instructions to build a new high-quality highway to Botlikh capable of carrying heavy military equipment attracted the most media attention (Skavkaz.rfn.ru, February 5). The intriguing thing about this expensive project is that it will not only serve the needs of the Russian troops stationed in the mountains, but also provide a backup for the Transcaucasian highway connecting Russia and Georgia, which borders the Tsumadi district of Dagestan. The new road to Georgia will stretch 130 kilometers across Tsumadi and Botlikh districts and cost 3 billion rubles to build. Construction is scheduled to be completed by 2010.

The decision to build a Russian military base in Botlikh was made after Shamil Basaev’s incursion into Dagestan in 1999, after which the Kremlin identified the village as a strategic defense site. Construction began in 2005 and stopped on several occasions after the local populace protested against the project. The villagers went as far as demolishing the facilities under construction. The specifics of the agreement reached between the authorities and the locals were never made public; however, the construction costs of the Botlikh military base increased to 15 billion rubles (more than $600 million) instead of the budgeted 7.5 billion rubles (more than $300 million). During late 2005 and in May 2007 Dagestani media reported incidents of ethnic strife in Botlikh between the village’s Avar majority and its ethnic Botlikh minority. Firearms were used on both occasions, resulting in some casualties. According to the Southru.info agency, what triggered both conflicts was a difference of opinion over building a Russian military base in Botlikh.

There were also some armed conflicts between the Botlikh natives and contract servicemen stationed in the village. The violence was triggered by ordinary disputes but escalated to the point that heavy military equipment was deployed and criminal cases were brought against the local inhabitants.

It is already easy to predict that the Botlikh post, the Russian stronghold on the southern border, will find itself essentially in the position of being a military base locked inside hostile territory.

Putin’s decision to build a backup highway connection to Georgia generated domestic as well as international interest. In Georgia, whose relationship with Russia is at best lukewarm, the news was welcomed, with the Georgian government assessing the move to build the reserve highway as an indicator of warming relations and a signal that Moscow is ready to begin a constructive dialogue (see RFE/RL Newsline, February 7, 2008).

A few observations, however, place Putin’s Botlikh-Georgia project in a different light. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Georgia highway routed through Dagestan aims to create a backup communications corridor in the event Russia loses control over its North Caucasus territory. Russia and Georgia are currently connected by the officially blocked Transcaucasian highway running through South Ossetia via the Roki Tunnel and by the Georgian Military Road. The official border point is the village of Upper Lars on the Georgian Military Road in North Ossetia.

Both roads suffer from geographic and political vulnerability as they traverse North Ossetia, which openly supports the cause of South Ossetia. Should conflict flare up, the roads connecting to Georgia and to Yerevan will be blocked, which means that vehicle traffic between Russia and the Transcaucasian states will be suspended indefinitely. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the late Shamil Basaev picked the North Ossetian town of Beslan, where Georgian Military Road originates, for his terrible act of terror in 2004.

One additional geopolitical shortcoming is that Ingushetia, currently the least stable republic of the North Caucasus, is located adjacent to the Tbilisi route. Should things begin to unravel in Ingushetia, the highway will again face the risk of being paralyzed.

As for the new project, the Botlikh option does offer some advantages. Leaving aside the 130 kilometers section running from Makhachkala along the Georgian border in the Tsumadi distsrict, and looking at the project as an alternative connection between Russia and the Transcaucasus, the geographic options do expand significantly. The new highway will become a backup connection between the Black sea ports (Novorossiysk, Adler, Sochi), Krasnodar and/or Rostov-on-Don through Budyonnovsk (infamous due to another act of terror staged by Shamil Basaev) and Neftekumsk directly to Kizlyar and Makhachkala. The advantage of this route is that the highway will be located outside all the North Caucasus trouble spots, except for Dagestan, and run through the stable territory of the Krasnodar and Stavropol krais. The latter is also a main military staging area in the North Caucasus, with a high concentration of Defense Ministry mechanized troops and aviation resources. Assuming that Putin’s road from Botlikh will follow this route into Russia, the project acquires a more logical and realistic meaning than a mere diplomatic gesture toward Georgia.