Abkhazia and Georgia: Ready to ride on the peace train?

Originally published
Spanning the Inguri River near Zugdidi are the rusty remains of the Sochi-Tbilisi railway bridge. For 13 years, its demolition has meant the severance of economic and communicative ties between Georgia and the breakaway territory of Abkhazia, as well as the disruption of rail trade between Armenia and Russia. Talks about reopening the line between Tbilisi and Abkhazia's capital, Sokhumi, first started seven years ago, but only recently have both sides earnestly engaged in discussions to make these plans a reality.
In Abkhazia, the restoration of the railway is viewed with hope, doubt and fear. De facto Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Shamba believes in the best-case scenario: a railway completion agreement could be reached at the end of 2005 -- providing "conflicts of interest in Tbilisi don't prevent it," he stated in an interview with EurasiaNet. "There are political forces in Tbilisi who would not like to see the railway project be completed," Shamba stated. "But I feel [Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution] Giorgi Khaindrava is a man we can talk with."

Under the terms of a July 19 agreement reached in Sokhumi by Georgia, Abkhazia and Russia, a 41-person commission will begin inspecting the condition of the railway on August 9 as a first step toward reopening the line. A full report on the commission's work is slotted for October 1.

Relations between Georgia and Abkhazia appear to be slowly warming. United Nations-mediated talks held in Tbilisi on August 4 between Abkhazia and Georgia were deemed "constructive" by both sides. The discussions reportedly covered only general topics, but were presented as a potential launch pad for more detailed negotiations in future. "A constructive dialogue between Tbilisi and Sokhumi should be continued," the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Khaindrava as saying.

Much touted in Georgia as a potential benefit of rapprochement, the railway project appears to have much support in Sokhumi, too, but according to Shamba, there are people who feel the railway could be a threat to national security. Securing and protecting the railroad was Georgian Defense Minister Tenghiz Kitovani's pretext for sending the Georgian National Guard into Abkhazian territory in 1992 while fighting a civil war with forces loyal to deposed Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

"We remember how Georgia had planned to use the railway in 1992 to deploy troops and equipment overnight to three locations into Abkhazia and seize it," commented Shamba. "If the Zviadists hadn't blown the bridge, they may have succeeded."

A series of explosions in Ochamchira, a Black Sea port city between Gali and Sukhumi, on March 24, 2002 has kept that nervousness alive. The blasts destroyed a commuter train and the rail station, killing three people and wounding 28. The explosions were blamed on Georgia, which categorically denied them.

To secure the safety of the railway, initial plans would have Halo Trust, a British non-governmental organization that removes unexploded ordnance and clears landmines, complete de-mining the line. Abkhazia would guarantee security from Ochamchira north to the Russian border and Russian peacekeepers from Ochamchira to Gali, at the border with Georgia.

At this point, only freight will be transported. Among numerous other issues, carrying passengers would require rebuilding the destroyed stations of Gali and Ochamchira. Before the war, both stations were bustling with activity. Today, the Ochamchira station is in the same state as it was after the 2002 bombing, while Gali is a post-apocalyptic testament to the ravages of war.

In addition, 60 kilometers of track, between Zugdidi, administrative center of the Georgian region of Samegrelo, and Ochamchira have been removed from the railroad and sold for scrap metal. One hundred million dollars will be needed to repair the stretch, according to Georgian and Abkhazian officials' estimates.

If and when completed, the railroad will comply with the 2003 Sochi agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, which calls for the return of Georgian refugees to the Gali region, modernization of the Ingurhesi hydroelectric plant and reopening of the railroad. While negotiators are addressing all three issues, some modifications have been made. Georgia, for one, has agreed to repudiate its condition of a simultaneous return of Georgian refugees to the Gali region.

Customs issues have also been discussed, but not yet resolved. In his interview, Shamba dismissed this obstacle by focusing on the benefits the railway will provide. " We have been cut off from each other for too long. Communication links will resume. We will be able to start reconciling the conflicts in the Caucasus. And as the world is now connected, we, too, must consider the economic development for the Caucasus. The railway will create an entrepreneurial zone."

Both Georgian and Abkhaz residents of Abkhazia appear to support this idea. "Any means to develop a bridge of communication is a good thing," said one Georgian from Gali who gave his name as Besik B. "We want peace. The railroad is a link to peace."

That view was echoed by de facto Deputy Foreign Minister Maxim Gunjia, who described the railway as an option for greater regional cooperation. "We wouldn't need the EU [European Union] or the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] if we had a Transcaucasus Federation where borders would be open, electricity shared -- an economically united union."

Others see a restored railroad as essential if Abkhazia will not fall even further behind into economic isolation. "It's the 21st century and look at how we have to transport ourselves!" exclaimed one man as he crossed the railroad bridge between Georgia and Abkhazia.

The decrepit bridge across the Inguri has been rigged with planks and cables, providing residents with a precarious, yet unrestricted means for travel between the two territories. With the exception of the Russian peacekeeping forces, there are no border checkpoints.

Nevertheless, some Abkhazians like Nugzar O., a resident of Gali, see the railway as just another political promise. "They say the railway will help the country . . . we'll see if they ever build it or not."

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