Abkhazia: Once again about the rail road

Spartak Zhidkov, Abkhazia. Exclusively to Vestnik Kavkaza

The victory of Ivanishvili's coalition in the parliamentary elections has remarkably revived domestic Georgian politics. Perhaps in the near future analysts will be observing an impressive struggle for power and control of the new team against the old. As can be seen, the failure of the one enemy of Russia in former Soviet space cannot but make Moscow politicians happy. Therefore, despite the rather skeptical approach of many experts to the warming of relations between Russia and Georgia, the diplomatic initiatives of the "Georgian Dream" are generally welcomed.

One of the initiatives of the new Georgian Minister for Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, was rather shocking to the Georgian public. He has not only offered to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of the conflict, but also to legitimize the Abkhaz and South Ossetian passports in Georgia. At the same time he proposed restoring rail traffic through Abkhazia, which affects the interests of all Transcaucasian countries.

The idea of Zakareishvili provoked unexpectedly sharp criticism from the Azerbaijanis, who are always rather indifferent to any events in the Caucasus not dealing with the Karabakh issue. But this time Baku made it clear they are extremely concerned about Tbilisi's plants to run a railway through Abkhazia. Some Azerbaijani experts saw in Zakareishvili's project quite an obvious intention to involve Russia and Armenia in the project, since Russia is in need of ways to supply its military bases on the territory of Armenia, while Yerevan has been seeking an escape from the Azerbaijani blockade for many years now. As you know, trains between Russia and Armenia can travel only via two rail lines: through Abkhazia and through Azerbaijan. Zakareishvili had to persuade Baku that Georgia has no hostile intentions towards Azerbaijan.

By and large, the measures proposed by Zakareishvili in respect to Abkhazia and Ossetia in themselves are reasonable. However, of course, a new minister cannot question the main tenets of the foreign policy of his country and has no right to discuss the issue of recognizing the independence of Abkhazia. At a time when "Georgian Dream" is conducting a death struggle against the president, who has a lot of opportunities for revenge, such a proposal would be tantamount to scoring an own goal. But the rhetoric of Zakareishvili is noteworthy only because he called for abandoning an aggressive accusatory tone regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which has been a necessity for any Georgian politician in the past two decades.

However, Abkhazia did not demonstrate an emotional reaction to Zakareishvili's ideas.

The attitude of the Abkhazians to the opening of rail transit of goods from Russia through Georgia to Armenia, and eventually to other Black Sea countries, is rather complex. First of all, this initiative would indeed allow Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh to improve their situations. Thus, the restoration of a rail link would strengthen the authority of the chief ally of the Armenians - Russia - in the South Caucasus. Freight and passenger trains can bring Abkhazia very real financial dividends.          On the other hand, all these positive results, taken together, cannot outweigh the concerns of Sukhumi about the "rail project." This does not only concern military security, but also political security. To understand why, it is necessary to go back twenty years.

The Georgian-Abkhazian war began in August 1992. The motives which prompted the Georgian government to send troops to Abkhazia were primarily because of the domestic political situation in Georgia. The military forces that overthrew Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia were actively getting rid of Gamsakhurdia's legacy - in particular, of a Georgian-Abkhazian agreement signed on August 27, 1991, which provided self-government to Abkhazia. In the summer of 1992, the Georgian State Council was preparing a campaign against Abkhazia, but needed an official excuse, a satisfactory explanation for the world community. Guerrilla attacks of supporters of the ousted president, Zviadists, who blew up railway tracks in Samegrelo, in western Georgia, became a pretext for the war. An expeditionary force, gathering against Abkhazians, was openly formed in Tbilisi and was aimed at restoring "order on the railroad." Even when Georgian troops entered Abkhazia and conflict broke out, during the first few days and weeks the leaders of the State Council tried associate the slogan "to protect the railroad" to the events in Abkhazia, which very soon turned into a war. Only when it became clear that it would be too hard to regard the Abkhazian campaign as a counter-terrorism operation did the main aim become a struggle for the territorial integrity of Georgia.

Moreover, very soon it became clear that it was no accident that the Georgian military were associated with the campaign on the Abkhazian railroad. The railroad was essential to the plan "Sword" of the Georgian military, which was to culminate in the capture of Abkhazia. The Georgian plan was foiled after guerrillas in western Georgia planted explosives on the rail lines and stopped the transit of trains. When the Georgian army entered the territory of the republic by road, it was stopped half-way, and although in the first five days of war the Georgians took control of three-quarters of the Abkhazian coast, the war scenario was altered.

A year later, the Abkhazians, with the support of volunteers from the North Caucasus and other regions of Russia, defeated the Georgians and expelled their army from Abkhazia, while the Zviadists, using the defeat of the government army, organized a new rebellion in Western Georgia. However, in early October 1993 Eduard Shevardnadze quickly made Georgia part of the CIS and asked Boris Yeltsin's help against the rebels. Moscow agreed to help in the fight against the Zviadists, but not against the Abkhazians. At that moment the Georgian diplomatic services began to work on a new plan. In mid-October Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to cooperate "in the protection of railways" in Western Georgia, which was the epicenter of the civil war. Georgia even agreed to deploy Russian troops along the railroad tracks between Kutaisi and Tbilisi. Armenian troops had to guard a section of the road between Poti and Kutaisi, Azerbaijan - a section between Tbilisi and the Azerbaijani border. Soon it became clear that Azerbaijan and Armenia, occupied with their own conflict, did not intend to get involved in the Georgian conflict. But nevertheless Shevardnadze sanctioned the entrance of Russian troops to Georgia and at the beginning of November 1993 they defeated the Zviadists. Luckily, the Georgian plan to occupy Abkhazia was not supported in Moscow, which realized at that time that such an operation would destroy Russia's position in the Caucasus.

Not surprisingly, after the end of the Georgian-Abkhaz war the "order on the railroad" became a very sensitive topic in Abkhazia, even more hated than "normalization of the situation in Afghanistan" in the Soviet Union. However, after the signing of a ceasefire and separation of the parties (in April-May 1994), the railroad again became an irritant in Georgian-Abkhazian and in  Russian-Abkhazian relations. From 1994 to 1996 the Georgian government hoped that Moscow would help Georgia return its refugees to Abkhazia. The situation with a de facto independent Abkhazia and a weakened Georgia which did not dare to start a new war was good enough for Russia and did not counter its own interests. With one exception: Armenia, which was the only recognized independent country at the time in the South Caucasus which still had friendly relations with Russia, despite the fact that it won the Karabakh war, remained blocked by Turkey and Azerbaijan. The only land connection between the Russian bases in Armenia and Russia passed through Georgia. In 1994 - 1995 negotiations on the resumption of rail traffic on the territory of Abkhazia were very frequent. In these discussions Abkhazia was given the role of a disabled partner who was not taken seriously. All this increased tensions between Abkhazia and Russia, to the satisfaction of Georgia.

But more importantly, Tbilisi wanted to profit from the situation not only in the diplomatic arena. Once it became clear that the Abkhazians did not intend to allow the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia unless they agreed to submit to the authorities of Abkhazia, Georgia started to negotiate with the Russian military, persuading it to open the Georgian-Abkhaz border in order to allow refugees to safely return to Abkhazia. Thus, in September 1994, Russian General Georgy Kondratyev tried to open the border, despite the opposition of the commander of the Russian peacekeeping forces, General Vasily Yakushev. The incident was extinguished, but a similar attempt was made in September 1995. The events of the fall of 1995 coincided with a new round of talks between Russia and Georgia on the resumption of rail traffic through Abkhazia. The railroad might have been opened, if Shevardnadze had not dismissed a pro-Russian security officer, Igor Giorgadze, which led to a deterioration in relations between Russia and Georgia. In January 1996 the CIS introduced collective sanctions against Abkhazia, which were de facto abolished with the coming to power of Putin in Russia, but were formally cancelled only six months before Moscow's recognition of Abkhazia's independence in March 2008.

It is therefore easy to understand why all the talk about the opening of the railway to traffic is not welcomed by the Abkhazians. Sukhumi sees this project as Georgian and as threatening not only to the security of the small country but also Russian-Abkhaz  friendship. Russia might not receive a guaranteed connection with its bases in Armenia, since in case of any crisis Georgia could control the passage of trains. By giving Georgia access to Abkhazia, the influence of Russia in Abkhazia will be to a certain extent endangered and Russia might be blackmailed by Georgia in regard to the Abkhaz question to get access to its bases in Armenia. One should not exclude a situation in which Georgia would try to put pressure on South Ossetia, using Russia's reluctance to jeopardize its "Abkhazian" rail link. It would not be a serious risk to the borders of South Ossetia, but it might become dangerous for Russian-Abkhaz and Russian-Ossetian relations. In general, the agreement on the resumption of traffic through Abkhazia opens up tremendous opportunities for political games. Do Russia and Armenia need this? It depends on many factors, including the position of Azerbaijan, the situation in Iran and the possibility of an agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi which will not concern Abkhazian issues...Does Abkhazia need this? Absolutely not.

This does not mean that the Abkhazian side will not seriously consider the resumption of rail traffic through its territory. But in any case, Sukhumi should have a solid guarantee that such a move will not cause numerous problems to Abkhazia in the future. It is easier to avoid them now by preserving the existing situation. For many years the people of Abkhazia have been suspicious of any talk about the resumption of rail traffic through their territory. Before the train between Moscow and Sukhumi was launched, the Abkhazians ignored the  decay of stations and railroads. Even the poorest people preferred buses to trains. The proposal to blow up the rail bridge over the Inguri River, which marks the Georgian-Abkhazian border, to raize it to the ground, was at one time very popular among the citizens of Abkhazia. This does not contradict the current efforts of the Abkhazian government to restore transport links, including the railroad, because Abkhazia is thinking about passenger and cargo transportation to Russia and from Russia. Abkhazia has enough contacts with its northern neighbor and with Turkey by sea. In the light of the above-described circumstances, any attempts to force the reconstruction of the Black Sea railroad should be treated with caution, while the arguments of skeptics should be more valued. Even despite the fact that Abkhazia indeed could solve some of its problems by restoring rail transit. After all, the Abkhazian authorities and the Abkhazian people value the security of their country much more.