Railways on the Agenda as Prague Talks Expand

The Russian-Georgian negotiations that started three years ago as a duet will soon become a sextet. At the end of June, in Prague, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigori Karasin and Georgian Prime Minister’s Special Representative Zurab Abashidze will each be joined by two more representatives from their respective foreign and economic ministries at the negotiating table. The main reason for this multiplication in numbers involved is simple as both sides seek genuine economic progress. Both Karasin and Abashidze concur that the Prague negotiations had reached a point where experts should become involved in the process.

After the Russian state company Rosneft bought 49% of the Poti Port Terminal several months ago, the purchase of other strategic sites of Georgia are on the agenda. The Prime Minister’s special representative in relations with Russia Abashidze told Commersant that there is talk of a railway, which would cross Georgia via Azerbaijan. According to him, there are proposals from the Russian side to use Georgia as a transit country for the export of its products, including oil products. Transportation of cargoes will take place in the ports of Poti and Batumi. Cargo traffic on the Georgian railways has decreased significantly – according to the Ministry of Economy, last year the cargo traffic on the Georgian railways decreased by 8 percent. At the same time, the number of passengers decreased by 10 percent so the need for investment becomes clearer. A declining business, as a rule, has a lower price. Despite this, the Georgian Dream government claims that the Georgian railway is one of the most promising and profitable spheres in the Georgian economy and cites the example of transiting Turkmenistan’s oil through it. According to the Prime Minister’s special representative Abashidze, this was the first time in the last 10 years where Central Asian oil was transited through the Georgian railway corridor. In addition, consider the recent TV advertisements that promote the transportation of Chinese cargoes on the Georgian railway. Against this background, the Georgian government’s decision to sell a profitable business owned entirely by the Georgian state looks strange.

Generally, Russia’s interest in the Georgian railway is nothing new. Back in the period of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s rule, Moscow showed interest in purchasing the railway. However, following the wise words of the then Minister of Economy Kakha Bendukidze, “Everything can be sold except for conscience”– the railway was removed from a list of assets to be privatized. Talks over the railway were renewed after the October 2012 elections. However, this time Moscow it was more concerned about restoring the Abkhazia stretch of the railway.

Bascially, Moscow wanted to somehow cut the railway corridor to Armenia in order to bring out the Gyumri military base and its strategic partner Armenia from transport isolation. Despite these attempts, Moscow could not succeed. Apart from several statements of the Russian Foreign Minister, there has been no advance. Curiously, the main barrier to this plan has been the de-facto government of the occupied Abkhazia, which stubbornly demanded recognition from Tbilisi before the opening of the railway. The second and main barrier was Azerbiajan who have no intention to support anything that might in any way benefit Armenia. Therefore, the Kremlin easily shifted the vector of its goal and turned the main opponent of the Abkhazian railway into its main ally. Cargoes will be transported to Georgian ports from Azerbaijan.

The selling of the Georgian railway surely has a political aroma, something which the Georgian Dream supporting analysts cannot hide. For Gia Khukhashvili, former counsellor of the ex-Prime Minister, it is absolutely unclear as to why the issue of selling or not selling the railway should be discussed in Prague when the doors were never closed in Georgia to Russian business. “Transportation of cargoes can only be welcomed. But I do not understand why it is necessary to involve the state in it. Russian companies are using this corridor anyway. If someone wants to transport more cargoes – let them do it. Why this has become a political issue I do not understand. Russian companies never had a ban on them and they were always operating here. There are no regulations or differences among representatives of other companies. Railways cannot give preference or oppress any party – this is a purely commercial business. As for passenger transportation, there can be no talk about it as the passenger trains can only go through Abkhazia. Thus, this is a problem that remains unsolved. It is politics already. There simply is no other route. Restoring the Abkhazian railway includes a set of problems in itself, including political ones,” Khukhashvili told a Rezonansi reporter.

Zaza Jgharkava

04 June 2015 19:57