Resuming Abkhazia Railway Link, Russia Strengthens its Hand Versus Tbilisi

Resumption of railway in Abkhazia further
increase tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow.

On September 10 the railway link between Moscow and the capital of Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia was re-opened, bringing 200 Abkhaz residents to Moscow via the Russian town of Adler.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian Ambassador to Georgia, Vladimir Chkhikvishvili, to express his protest over, as Tbilisi put it, the “unilateral and illegal” decision by Moscow to resume the railway connection with the unrecognized Abkhazian Republic. In a statement issued on September 10 the Georgian Foreign Ministry described the move as “a violation of Georgia’s sovereignty” and bilateral agreements.

The railway link has been defunct for the past eleven years, after the armed conflict in the region ended in the cleansing of the Georgian population from Abkhazia. In response, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, including Russia, introduced economic sanctions against the secessionist Abkhazian leadership. An agreement by the CIS heads of states of January 19, 1996 prohibits direct contact with the Abkhazia authorities.

Russia started to actively erode this regime of sanctions in 2001.  Abkhazia residents were granted Russian citizenship en masse and Russia has maintained a visa-free regime with Abkhazia despite introducing visas for Georgian citizens. Since late 2002, a small-scale railway link has been operating between Adler (Russian Federation) and Sokhumi. However, old infrastructure in the Abkhaz territory prevented a full-scale resumption of communications.

The railway infrastructure was restored through active involvement by the state-run Russian Railway Company; its Chief, Genadi Fadeev, participated in the official opening ceremony, which took place in Sokhumi.

Georgia has consistently sought to use the resumption of railway communication through Abkhazia as a lever in political negotiations with Russia. The railway, which in its time carried 80% of the trade between Georgia and Russia, is a vital link between the two countries. It is also the only direct overland communication between Russia and its main ally in the South Caucasus – Armenia. Georgian authorities tried to use the resumption of the railway link as a political concession, granting that Georgian displaced persons would be allowed to return to Abkhazia.

On March 7, 2003 Russian President Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze signed an agreement in Sochi envisaging a “synchronization” of the two processes – return of the internally displaced persons to Abkhazia’s westernmost Gali region, and the resumption of the railway connection. The two presidents also agreed to set up two separate bilateral governmental commissions to work over these issues.

However, the commissions failed to take off. The Russian Foreign Ministry, in a statement issued on September 10, 2004, accused Tbilisi of hindering their efforts.

Currently, the Foreign Ministries of the two countries are fighting over the interpretation of the 2003 Sochi agreement. A statement issued by the Georgian Foreign Ministry says that Russia has violated the CIS agreement of 1996 and Sochi agreement of 2003, while Russia denies these accusations.

Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vladimir Chkhikvishvili told reporters, after meeting with the Georgian Foreign Ministry officials on September 10, that setbacks in the process of the IDPs’ return should not become a reason for delaying other processes, i.e. the resumption of the Georgian-Russian railway connection.

“The sides [Russia, Georgia] also agreed earlier that it is not always necessary to synchronize these two processes – the return of IDPs and the resumption of railway; if there is a progress in one direction, we should not stop and should move further forward,” Vladimir Chkhikvishvili said.

Vladimir Chkhikvishvili also denied that the resumption of the railway was a unilateral move. “The Georgian side was informed regarding this matter several times,” he told reporters. The Russian Foreign Ministry also said in the September 10 statement that the restoration of railway will be a benefit to the entire South Caucasus region, including Georgia and Armenia.

However, this fight over semantics is rather irrelevant. This resumption of full-scale railway communications serves specific political purposes. On the eve of presidential elections in Abkhazia it gives the Kremlin-backed candidate, Raul Khajimba, a decisive advantage in the race.

Also, the Georgian statistics department estimates that the opening of the cargo transportation, foreseen in the coming months, would at least triple the trade with Russia and, hence, increase stability of the Abkhaz secessionist authorities and strengthen their hand in their standoff with Georgian authorities. In addition, an increased volume of trade is likely to endanger Georgia’s economic space more than the notorious Ergneti market, which until recently existed in South Ossetia.

Georgia has no realistic means to stop the communication, short of, perhaps a direct air strike, which would most certainly be counterproductive for the peace process, and is thus highly unlikely. Tbilisi is time-pressed for a diplomatic response to Russia’s unilateral action. But more tangible and long-term policy should follow.

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