Tbilisi Softens Stance over Abkhazia Railway

If launched, rehabilitation of the Abkhaz
railway will cost more than USD 100 mln.
and will take more than one year.

The Georgian authorities announced on June 15 that Tbilisi has changed its stance and is now ready to start talks over reopening the Abkhaz section of the Russian-Georgian railway, which has been on hold since the conflict in the breakaway region in the early 90s. Both Russian and Georgian officials had said that more than USD 100 million is needed to rehabilitate a 60-kilometer long portion of railway between Georgia’s Zugdidi district and capital of the breakaway republic, Sokhumi.

“Recently, the Georgian authorities have been positive about resumption of railway,” Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said on June 15. He addressed the summit of heads of railway companies from the CIS countries in Tbilisi.

Genadi Fadeev, who before the evening on June 15 chaired the Russian Railway Company, met with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on the sidelines of this summit and discussed the resumption of the Abkhaz railway. News broke late on June 15 that Fadeev was replaced at his position by his deputy Vladimir Yakunin. But, it is less likely that this change of leadership in the Russia’s state-owned Railway Company will result in a change in Moscow’s positive stance over the resumption of the Abkhaz railway.

If implemented, the project will revive the Trans-Caucasus Railway, which stretched more than 2,300 kilometers during Soviet times, connecting Armenia and Georgian Black Sea ports with central Russia; the railway operated passenger services and handled more than 15 million tons of transit cargo per year.

But, recently the issue of reopening the railway via Abkhazia has always been overshadowed by the political agenda pushed forward by officials in Tbilisi. Specifically, Georgia demanded the return of Georgian internally displaced persons to Abkhazia in exchange for the resumption of rail traffic through its breakaway region.

“Georgia’s previous authorities had a different position and were against [the reopening of this railway link], but the new authorities have recently taken a more positive stance on this issue. But this process [of reopening the railway] has some organizational problems and, of course, this issue is linked, first and foremost, with the security of the Georgian population of Gali district [of Abkhazia],” Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said.

He also said that the “organizational problems” also include the way in which customs procedures will be arranged, as well as how this process will be controlled.

In an interview with Civil Georgia, Chief of the Georgian Railway Company Davit Onoprishvili said on June 15 that restoration of the rail link might promote the peace process in Abkhazia.

“In general, the Georgian side is interested in reopening this railway traffic, because it will boost economy and, in turn, [these economic levers] might well foster the conflict resolution process,” Onoprishvili said.

“But this process [of railway rehabilitation] needs technical preparations. How long it will take should be assessed  –  I think more than a year; it should also be decided who will fund this project – it can be not only Georgia and Russia, but also other interested parties,” he added.

Both the Georgian and Russian chiefs of railway companies say that the cost of the rehabilitation works will exceed USD 100 million.

“This cost [USD 100 million] will further increase if we include [the expenses related to the] rehabilitation of [the portion of the railway] over the Enguri river,” Genadi Fadeev told reporters in Tbilisi on June 15. The Enguri river marks the administrative border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

“I think all participating countries – Russia, Georgia, also Armenia and, to a certain extent, Azerbaijan as well – should fund the implementation of this project,” he added.

Davit Onoprishvili said that rehabilitation works should be carried on the portion of the railway which stretches from the Abkhaz capital of Sokhumi to the Inguri station, in the Zugdidi district, which lies at the administrative border of Abkhazia.

“Actually, there is no railway [on this portion]. A new railway needs to be installed there,” Onoprishvili added.

The rest of the portion of the railway, connecting Sokhumi with the Russian capital Moscow has already been rehabilitated with the active involvement of the Russian side and has been in operation since September, 2004. This portion of the railway was reopened by Russia unilaterally without prior agreement with Tbilisi, triggering harsh criticism from the Georgian side.

Russia and Georgia agreed to jointly work over the resumption of the Abkhaz railway in March, 2003, when Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze singed an agreement, during a meeting in Sochi, to resume the railway connection and simultaneously launch the process of returning Georgian internally displaced persons to Abkhazia.

Georgian and Russian officials launched two-day talks in frames of this agreement in Moscow on June 15. Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Issues Goga Khaindrava told reporters before his departure to Moscow on June 15 that “technical issues” over resumption of the railway, as well as the return of Georgian IDPs to the Gali district will be discussed during these talks.


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