Author: Jeyhun NAJAFOV
Just before the end of 2017, some optimistic forecasts about the imminent end of a regional transport blockade, which Yerevan had driven itself into after the occupation of Azerbaijani lands, hit the headlines of Armenian media. The reason for such an optimism was the ratification by the Georgian parliament of the Russian-Georgian agreement on the operation of customs checkpoints at border posts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is important for Yerevan in the context of the opening of corridors connecting Russia with Armenia.
One of such vital routes for Armenia is the Sukhumi-Zugdidi-Yerevan railway closed since the beginning of the 90s. During his last visit to Tbilisi, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan intended to get the long-awaited answer from Georgians about the opening of this route. We interviewed the political observer of the Georgian Public Television, Rezi Koiava, about the achievements of Sargsyan in Georgia, and the relations between the South Caucasus states.
Has Serzh Sargsyan managed to get a clear answer from Tbilisi about the Sukhumi-Yerean railway?
Apparently, Armenian president could not get any specific response from Tbilisi. And it is not just about Georgia, which has ratified the agreement with Russia on transport corridors through a Swiss company. By doing so, Georgia did her part of the job and washed hands off. The ball is in Russian court now. From now on, Georgia can tell her partners in the World Trade Organization that her mission is over. From political viewpoint, Tbilisi is more advantageous than Moscow. But the Georgian government is harshly criticized because of the ratification. Some Georgians consider the document unfit to Georgian interests.
Firstly, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway is strategically important for Georgia in all respects. Secondly, Georgia’s strategic partners in the region, Azerbaijan and Turkey, may not welcome the opening of the route. Finally, the Sukhumi-Yerevan route may reanimate the Abkhaz economy to a certain degree and strengthen the positions of the separatist government in Sukhumi. A reverse process, when Abkhazia becomes economically dependent on Georgia, is also likely.
Either way, Tbilisi has some valid arguments against the opening of the Sukhumi-Yerevan railway. Most likely, the authorities understand this and expects that the railway will eventually not work due to a number of substantial factors. Considering the sanctions, Russia does have neither intention nor funds to invest in the reconstruction of the route. At the same time, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not signatories of the agreement. That is, the railway construction is carried out without consent of “independent” Abkhazians and South Ossetians, which implies a blow to the pride of Sukhumi and Tskhinval. Finally, Tbilisi can find enough reasons to quit the agreement with Russia at the last minute.
Incidentally, there is one more factor against the Sukhumi-Yerevan route. The leader of Armenian separatists in Samtskhe–Javakheti, Chakhalian, has repeatedly stated that the only reason to postpone the accession of this region to Armenia was the cargo transportation from Poti and Batumi to Armenia. Does it mean that the opening of the alternative route will grant complete freedom to separatists as far as the “miatsum” (the concept of unification, R+) of Javakheti is concerned?
Although the media presents the region as a hotbed of separatism, the situation in Javakheti is calm since the Georgian side is trying not to provoke Armenian nationalists. Of course, there are some separatist elements there but they do not pose any significant threat to Georgia’s territorial integrity. The situation has changed a lot since the early 90s when separatists held rallies, congresses, and so on.
I do not think that that the opening of the Sukhumi-Yerevan railway will strengthen separatism in Javakheti. The actual route runs through the whole of Western Georgia. If something happens in Javakheti, it will not be difficult to shut the route.
Georgia is a window to the world for Armenia. Armenia’s access to the CIS and the EU passes through Georgian territory. Armenia had plans to build a railway route through Iran. But they abandoned the idea because of the excessively high cost of the project ($4b). Armenia does not have this money, and Russia is not interested in constructing a route that would link Armenia to Iran.
During Sargsyan’s visit to Georgia, the defense ministers of both countries discussed bilateral cooperation. How do you imagine a cooperation between Georgia aspiring to NATO and Armenia, the CSTO member state?
As far as I know, the ministers discussed the issues related to the participation of Armenian military in NATO exercises under the program Partnership for Peace and the cooperation in military medicine. No prospects for the sale or exchange of weapons.
Recently, the Armenian Church has sued the Georgian government because of the transfer of a temple, which Armenians apparently consider their own property, to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Disputes about the ownership of churches and monuments go back to the times of Ilia Chavchavadze. Is it true that more than 200 churches scattered throughout Georgia are subjects of debates with the Armenian community?
In fact, disputes about the ownership of more than 200 churches, most of which are located in South Georgia, are still ongoing. The positive point is that these disputes do not reach the state level. On the other hand, Georgia also has questions to Yerevan, as Armenia claims a part of the Georgian cultural heritage in this country. But there are no mutual claims at the government level. Disputes at the level of experts will not end soon though.
Georgia has completely switched to Azerbaijani natural gas since 2018. Does this mean that Georgia stopped the talks with Gazprom on the possible purchase of gas from the Russian company?
The issue of gas purchase from Gazprom concerned the transit of Russian gas through Georgian territory to Armenia. Instead of gas, Gazprom offered money to Georgia as a payment for the transit of natural gas. This was the topic of negotiations. It is difficult to say whether the issue of Georgia's purchase of Russian gas will be raised. Georgia is covering her needs in natural gas thanks to supplies from Azerbaijan. If Tbilisi decides to diversify the supplies, then the best option for Georgia would be gas from Iran. But there are certain difficulties. Currently, Georgia is constructing gas storage facilities. While Georgia buys natural gas from its strategic partner and reliable supplier, Azerbaijan, there are no fears that the country remains without the sources of energy.