Russia's transport ambitions create new headaches in Georgia
Tbilisi seems to be facilitating Armenia-Russia maritime links, but has no intention, for now, of reviving the railway connection through breakaway Abkhazia.
After the recent controversial resumption of air travel with Russia, anxiety is growing in Georgia that Moscow is poised to push for closer transport and economic ties in a bid to reassert its dominance over Tbilisi.
The re-establishment of direct flights between Russia and Georgia was followed by remarks in Moscow about the prospective revival of the long-dead railway link through the breakaway Abkhazia region. At the same time, Tbilisi has to deal with local scrutiny of its facilitation of Armenia's maritime trade with Russia.
This has led to questions in Georgia about whether the government will have to give in to more pressure from Moscow to take part in schemes connecting Russia with its partners to the south and east.
"Railway transit should also be organized within the framework of the Silk Road route: China, the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, Astara in Iran, Astara in Azerbaijan, Gabala in Azerbaijan, and Marneuli in Georgia, through the territory of Abkhazia to Russia," Sergei Katyrin, president of Russia's Chamber of Commerce and Industry told Rossiyskaya Gazeta on May 12 in the context of transport projects under discussion to develop the so-called North-South corridor connecting Russia with Iran.
The 200-km railway section crossing through Georgia's Russia-backed separatist region Abkhazia is the only railroad link to connect Georgia and Russia but has not been used for that purpose since the armed conflict in the early 1990s. There has been periodic talk of reviving the railway, but it has never borne fruit, partly because of the obstacles that would follow Georgian trains going through the region, which Moscow has recognized as an independent state since 2008.
Katyrin's remarks came shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree lifting the four-year unilateral ban on direct flights with Georgia and reintroducing visa-free travel for Georgian citizens after more than two decades.
The Georgian government embraced the decision, quickly authorizing several airlines for regular Russia flights. The first planes flying from Moscow have already touched the ground at Tbilisi airport despite local protests and Western criticism.
Katyrin, discussing the prospects of Russian business in Georgia in his interview, said new transport links would help facilitate more lucrative long-term oil and gas deals, and also ease the burden on Upper Lars, the only overland border crossing between Russia and Georgian-controlled territory, where trucks regularly have to queue for days.
"Given the current situation with the transit of Russian goods through Turkey, organizing such a scheme is vital," Katyrin told the newspaper.
Georgia's pro-opposition TV Pirveli also cited Russian MP Leonid Kalashnikov as floating the idea of restoring the Abkhaz railway, and various pro-Russian voices in Georgia have recently also raised the issue. Others, like U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan, expressed fears the project could be next in a series of gestures of cooperation from Moscow ultimately aimed at increasing Georgian dependence on Russia.
"What is the price that Georgia is going to have to pay for direct flights, for lifting the visa regime, potentially for restoring this railway that would connect Georgia to Russia through Abkhazia?" the diplomat asked in remarks to journalists on May 18.
Georgian leaders have rejected such a prospect for now. Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said on May 14 that the issue of railway revival is "not on the agenda," adding that decisions on such matters would be taken in accordance with Georgia's "national interests."
Similarly, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili called the speculations about the railway's imminent revival "lies", saying that "many things can be discussed" after the country is reunified.
(The ruling party has advertised the recent detente with Moscow as a pragmatic policy that could eventually lead to the country regaining its Russia-backed breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia).
The potential revival of railway links would particularly benefit Armenia and Turkey, which rely on the Georgian road corridors in their overland trade with Russia. Adverse climate conditions and growing traffic jams on Georgian roads as a result of rising transit demand in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year have particularly troubled Armenia, which has few alternatives and no direct sea access. But that would beget more controversies in Georgia, due partly to fears that it would mean de facto recognition of Abkhazia, and partly to mounting opposition to growing dependency on Russia amid the Ukraine war.
And this comes as the issue of granting Armenia sea access to trade with Russia has led to separate controversies in Georgia.
Since last year, Armenia has been working to set up a ferry route to Russia through Georgia amid significantly rising trade with Moscow. The country's officials cited problems with perishable goods amid protracted transportation.
Back then, the Georgian authorities defended the initiative, citing sympathy for the concerns of its southern neighbor and Tbilisi's commitment to international conventions obliging the provision of sea access to landlocked countries such as Armenia.
Tbilisi recently had to respond to the alarm following Armenian media reports about the launch of regular container ship traffic between Georgia's Batumi and Russia's Novorossiysk ports since April as a more convenient alternative to the jammed Upper Lars route.
Tbilisi's Maritime Transport Agency called the reports a misinterpretation, denying the existence of a "regular" route while confirming that two commercial transit trips have been indeed completed by a vessel operating under the flag of Palau, and that more are to follow.
The agency said that the vessel was not subject to sanctions and that sanctioned ships or those with sanctioned owners are not allowed into Georgian ports.
Following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Moscow's subsequent political and economic isolation, it has been Tbillisi's declared policy not to impose its own sanctions on Russia, but to ensure that Moscow cannot use the country's territory to evade Western sanctions.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.
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