Analysts Call for Cautious Approach to Abkhaz Railway

Officials from Georgia, Russia and breakaway Abkhazia plan to meet in Tbilisi on July 11 in frames of a series of negotiations involving discussions over the rehabilitation of the Abkhaz portion of the Russo-Georgian railway. These series of talks were launched last month after Tbilisi softened its stance over the reopening of the Abkhaz railway. But some political observers warn that the Georgian authorities are without a comprehensive strategy or action plan regarding this railway and that this softened position might result in negative political consequences for Tbilisi.

During the scheduled talks in Tbilisi, the three sides plan to agree over the composition of an expert group which will assess the current condition of a 60-km portion of the railway that links Georgia’s Zugdidi district and the capital of the breakaway republic, Sokhumi.

“Apparently, it will be known by October 1 exactly what kind of work will be necessary to carry out in order to rehabilitate the Abkhaz railway,” Giorgi Khaindrava, the Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Issues, told Civil Georgia.

The Russian side, which has shown great interest in this multi-million project, has already undertaken practical measures by dispatching its peacekeepers stationed in the Abkhaz conflict zone to sweep the railway area for mines and pave the way for the joint expert group to carry out their assessment.

These talks over the railway are being held in frames of the 2003 Sochi agreement between Russia and Georgia, envisaging the rehabilitation of the railway in conjunction with the return of hundreds of thousands of Georgian internally displaced persons that have fled Abkhazia since civil unrest began there in the early 1990s. But the Abkhaz side is already showing signs that it may not follow this agreement after it was announced that Sokhumi is against linking the reopening of the railway with other, political issues, including with the return of internally displaced persons.

The return of Georgian IDPs to Abkhazia is an extremely sensitive political issue, for both the authorities in Tbilisi and Sokhumi. Although the Georgian government says that the return of the IDPs still remains a top priority for the Georgian side, opponents fear that the issue of the restoration of the railway is gradually overshadowing problems related with the return of these IDPs, as talks over the railway have intensified while measures undertaken in regards to the return of the displaced persons have stagnated lately.

Temur Iakobashvili, from the Tbilisi-based think-tank Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS), says that the launch of “at the very least, the first stage of the IDPs’ organized and secure return should be a minimum political gain; this reopened railway should [help facilitate this].” “Otherwise, it won’t be profitable for Tbilisi,” Iakobashvili told Civil Georgia.

The Deputy Chairman of the Georgian Parliament’s Defense and Security Committee Nika Rurua, a parliamentarian with close ties to the government, says that “the issue of returning IDPs should not become a hostage of the issue of reopening the railway.”

“This [return of IDPs] is an unconditional process, which will occur sooner or later and it should not become a matter for political horse-trading,” MP Nika Rurua told Civil Georgia.

He said that the reopening of the railway, as well as other joint economic projects, will help in the confidence building process between the two sides. “We, the Georgians and Abkhazians, should get accustomed to living together and, of course, the railway will contribute to this process,” MP Rurua said.

But some political analysts say that the Georgian authorities have not yet put forward any reasonable argument backing their ideas behind the resumption of this railway link.

“Has anybody made a comprehensive analysis of the possible positive and negative consequences of this project? If the Georgian government has and found out that it will be politically and economically profitable, then they [authorities] must tell us about it,” Alex Rondeli, the President of GFSIS, told Civil Georgia.

He said that the reopening of this railway is also linked with other sensitive issues – like customs and border controls. “If we fail to decide these issues and the railway is reopened, while maintaining the current, status quo situation, it will be a huge strategic mistake for the Georgian government,” Rondeli said, adding that poor control of this railway will definitely increase the threat of illegal arms and drug trafficking.

The problems related with customs and border controls will most likely be a catalyst for major controversy between the Abkhaz and Georgian sides during the talks. The Abkhaz side has rejected a proposal by Tbilisi to open joint, Abkhaz-Georgian customs checkpoints at the Psou river on the border between Russia and breakaway Abkhazia. In turn, the Georgian side is against setting up a custom service office at the Enguri river, which lies on the administrative border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

Analysts say that among the sides which are most directly involved in the Abkhaz railway issue – Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Abkhazia – Sokhumi is the least interested in resuming this railway link. Abkhazia already has a railway link with Russia and prefers to maintain the status quo rather than engage itself in burdensome talks over customs and border controls.
“Armenia, as well as Russia, is the most interested party in this issue. If the railway is reopened, landlocked Armenia will gain access to its strategic partner – Russia,” Temur Iakobashvili said.


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