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January 23, 2013, Wednesday

Opening the Abkhaz railway: Who stands to benefit, who will lose out? (1)

It is often said that history repeats itself; personally I don't agree with that assessment of the current realities. Nonetheless, many of us still remember Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the Cold War era's most devastating crises, namely the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960's, but few recall his warning to Georgia at that time: “If Georgians are not clever enough, I'll set Abkhazians to them.” True to his word, he later summoned the first secretary of the Abkhazian regional party in Georgia, Mikhail Timurovich Bgazhba, and ordered him to request in the name of the Abkhazian people that the territory leave the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic and accede to the Krasnodar region of Soviet Russia. This was typical of Khrushchev's “shock therapy” -- threats were made, but did not materialize.

These days in the Caucasus, few remember the Soviet leaders and their “shock therapy” methods, but the Abkhazia example is still very useful is establishing a realistic assessment of today's situation, where we see a new dynamic emerging and challenging the overall geopolitical picture in the region, threatening the political alliances established in the 1990's.

Notably, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's visit to Armenia sparked speculation in the Armenian media about the opening of the Abkhazian railway link following Ivanishvili's remarks about the potential for the rail link to Russia. By contrast, President Saakashvili strongly opposes the railway opening. During his address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg on Jan. 21, he argued that it would mean “changing strategic orientations and basically disconnecting us with the European strategic lines.” The railways also threaten Azerbaijan's policy over Armenia, where Baku uses its geopolitical advantage to pressure Yerevan to change its position on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It also poses a challenge to Turkey's role in the Abkhazia situation; Turkey is home to more ethnic Abkhazians than are living in Abkhazia, and this diaspora sometimes lobbies official Ankara for support.

Prior to Georgia's Oct. 1 parliamentary election, then-opposition leader Ivanishvili promised in a public speech that one of his first acts will be to open a railway and highway with Abkhazia, which will open up access to Russian markets for Georgians and Abkhazians. This will be essential for the revival of the Georgian economy. It was clear that opening the Abkhaz railway could serve two political purposes, firstly, as a part of a “soft” strategy to win the hearts and minds of ethnic Abkhazian residents, who ultimately are excluded by Saakashvili's conflict resolution strategy of “engagement without recognition.” Abkhazians living under their autonomous region's de facto authorities cannot act freely, and face the risk of political repression, despite the improved public discourse that Saakashvili's policy hopes to achieve. Secondly, opening the Abkhaz railway -- which would mean restoring a 60-kilometer section from Georgia's Zugdidi region to Abkhazia's capital, Sukhumi -- entails a gesture of goodwill to Moscow from Georgia, with the aim of establishing mutual trust.

Looking to the Saakashvili government's dealings in this regard, it seems that the interested parties in opening the railway are Russia and Armenia, rather than Abkhazia. During 2005-2006, there was active engagement on this issue, involving Armenian, Russian, Georgian and Abkhaz delegations. In early May 2006, the parties even signed a protocol on establishing a consortium -- the Black Sea Railways -- to rehabilitate the Abkhaz railway. But since May 2009, the plan is that management rights for Abkhazia's railway and airport would be transferred to Russia, according to a decision by the Abkhazian de facto leadership.

Today, the parties involved may have different expectations of the possible opening.

On the one hand, opening the railway will bring “fresh air” to Armenia, providing a geographical link to Russia. Armenia is likely pursuing this based on two key angles: First, if the railway opens, Yerevan will gain a direct link to Russia that can be used to transport both non-military goods and possibly even military equipment. Second is the PR element: Following the failed attempt to reopen the Turkish-Armenian border, Armenia is trying to prove to Ankara that their abortive negotiations have not prevented Armenia from making progress in the region, putting the failure firmly behind them. This move would also damage Azerbaijan's isolation policy, in addition to the significance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway (with an estimated completion date at the end of 2013), which is aiming to dissolve the Russian “railway monopoly.”

On the other hand, the other interested party is obviously Russia. Recently Moscow has signaled that it may move away from Medvedev's balanced approach to Armenia and Azerbaijan; Putin has announced Russian assistance in strengthening Armenia's military capabilities. Moscow's main concern is that Georgia will try to put pressure on South Ossetia, using Russia's reluctance to jeopardize the Abkhazian rail link as political leverage. The possible agreement on the resumption of traffic through Abkhazia opens up tremendous opportunities for political games from Moscow's perspective, with the possibility of radically increasing Yerevan's dependence on Russia. Currently some political groups in Armenia are looking to the EU for political reforms, and the railway would make the Armenian government hostage to the “other: EU -- the Eurasian Union.

Abkhazia itself is less interested in the railway than Armenia and Russia. Abkhazia would benefit financially from the railway, but Abkhazians don't, for two reasons, support the concept. Historically, the Abkhaz population is wary of Russia, and feels that Moscow uses Abkhazia as a political tool in the service of its own interests. It is also not clear how the opening of the railway will affect Abkhazia's campaign for independence.

Finally, from a realist perspective, if Nikita Khrushchev were alive today, he might say, "You will see -- I'll send political shockwaves through the Caucasus.” While he might be gone, it seems that his legacy has remained, and someone is trying out “shock therapy” in the region.

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