Georgia: Abkhaz railway - Light at end of tunnel?

The reopening of railway links with Georgia could bolster peace efforts.

By Inal Khashig in Sukhum and Giorgy Kupatadze in Tbilisi (CRS No. 297, 27-Jul-05)

Georgia and the breakaway region of Abkhazia have agreed to conduct a joint study on the feasibility of reopening the railway that links them both to Russia -- putting within reach a potential major breakthrough in the unresolved conflict.

Following preliminary talks, it was agreed that on August 9 a research group which will contain Georgian, Abkhaz and Russian specialists will visit the Zugdidi region of western Georgia and the Gali and Ochamchira regions of Abkhazia to study the state of the railway line there.

The Georgians have been keen to stress that things are still at an early stage. "The leadership of Georgia has not yet taken a political decision about whether the railway will be restored," said Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgy Khaindrava on July 19 after a meeting in Abkhazia on the issue. "At the moment we are just talking about collecting preliminary data."

Relations between the two sides are still strained more than 11 years after the end of the conflict of 1992-3 which took thousands of lives and led to the expulsion of tens of thousands of mainly Georgian refugees. Last week, UN-sponsored talks in Tbilisi were called off because of a row over the detention by Georgian border guards of a Turkish ship headed for Abkhazia.

However, even discussion of the question of rebuilding the railway is an important development. The railway line, closed since the start of the war, connects not only the territories of Abkhazia and Georgia but is also potentially the major transport route between Russia and the South Caucasus.

Armenia, whose railway links with Azerbaijan and Turkey are completely shut, is immensely interested in reopening direct rail traffic with Russia via Georgia.

After 1992 wandering cows and pigs replaced trains on the line and in many parts of Abkhazia subtropical vegetation has entirely covered the tracks.

Two and a half years ago, the section between the Russian town of Sochi and the Abkhaz capital Sukhum (or Sukhumi as it is known in Georgia) was restored and now a suburban train runs between the two towns once a day and a passenger train comes from Moscow three times a week. The government in Tbilisi strongly objected to the move but the Russian government said it was a humanitarian project implemented by a commercial company.

Both sides would stand to gain economically from a restoration of the railway link, but Georgia has until recently been reluctant to make a concession to the Abkhaz without getting guarantees on its major demand -- the right of return of more than 200,000 Georgians expelled from Abkhazia during the war.

However, the Georgians are no longer openly linking the issue of refugee return with that of the railway.

Political analyst Paata Zakareishvili said, "If the railway starts to work, then some of the refugees will return to Abkhazia to work on restoring and servicing it, if it will be set out in the agreement that citizens of Georgia -- amongst whom the country's leadership includes residents of Abkhazia - ought to do this."

"The restoration of the railway should make a positive difference into the Georgian-Abkhaz negotiation process," Giorgy Volsky, Georgia's deputy minister for conflict settlement, told IWPR. He said it should help lead to the return of refugees and a rebuilding of trust between the two conflicting sides.

The Abkhaz are suspicious of statements of this kind. "The question of restoring railway communications is a purely economic problem and it ought not to be accompanied by political demands," said Abkhazia's deputy prime minister Leonid Lakerbaia. "If the Georgians want to build trust between our peoples then it should happen through the economy and without any additional political demands."

All sides acknowledge that the reopening of the railway would transform the economic landscape of the region.

"If the project goes ahead, then with a minimum freight cargo Abkhazia will receive from 500 to 800,000 US dollars a month," said Guram Gubaz, head of Abkhazia's railways, explaining that the current monthly budget is just under two million dollars. "Besides there will be a chance to use our ports. Russian companies are seriously lacking in Black Sea ports to transport their oil products."

David Onoprishvili, head of Georgian railways, said that "sooner or later this railway has to open and it will be useful first of all for Georgia and its economy".

The Georgian economy is now heavily reliant on transit cargoes, which now comprise 70 per cent of all freight traffic on the railways.

Another project which would benefit greatly from the reopening of the railway is the Kulevi oil terminal on Georgia's Black Sea coast, which an international consortium wants to build. Access to Russian markets would enhance the project enormously.

The experts will be inspecting a 200-kilometre stretch of the railway route in August. Most of it is in an appalling condition. Sleepers are rotten, rails are worn out and small stations are entirely dilapidated.

In the southern Gali region of Abkhazia (or Gal as it is known to the Abkhaz), which has a majority Georgian population, the railway line has disappeared altogether. Local people have pulled up the rails for use as scrap metal and burned the sleepers as winter fuel. Even the railway embankment has been cleared away and it is hard to see where the line used to go.

According to some estimates, it might take three years to restore this section of the railway.

Russian Railways, the company which has been actively promoting the project, has estimated that 100 million dollars are needed to restore the railway.

Georgian experts refuse even to hazard a guess. "We are talking about rebuilding blown-up bridges and clearing mine fields where the mines have not been mapped," said Giorgy Khukhashvili, an economic expert and former Georgian railway manager. "No one can say how much it will cost."

Another stumbling block is likely to be the issue of customs and border posts and the security of railway traffic through Abkhazia as a whole.

Previously, the Georgian government insisted it must have the right of inspection on the border crossing between Abkhazia and Russia at the Psou river -- the point that is still internationally recognised as the Russian-Georgian border. Otherwise, went the argument, cargoes would be crossing unauthorised territory without being checked.

Georgian parliamentary deputy Levan Berdzenishvili, from the opposition Republican Party, argues, "People are forgetting that this is a rebel region and if the Georgians and Abkhaz do not reach an absolutely concrete agreement on this issue and don't act together, the trains will not run.

"We must not forget that the war in Abkhazia began because the Georgian side could not control the railway. If the authorities in Georgia want to start another war, this is a way to do it."

He was referring to the formal pretext for the start of the conflict in Abkhazia in August 1992, which was that Georgian troops supposedly intervened to protect the railway.

The Abkhaz public is reacting cautiously to all the reports about the reopening of the railway. No one is speaking out against it but there is little of the euphoria that accompanied the reopening of the Sochi-Sukhum link -- an event that parliamentary speaker Nugzar Ashuba compared to the launch of a space-ship.

Giorgy Kupatadze is correspondent with the Black Sea Press news agency in Tbilisi. Inal Khashig is co-editor in Abkhazia of Panorama, a newspaper supported by IWPR, and editor of the Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper.