Abkhazia railway project
The article was originally published on the website of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (Rondeli Foundation). The text and terminology of the article have been left intact. All rights belong to Rondeli Foundation. Publication date: July, 2023
Talks about the restoration of railway communication between Russia and Georgia through the occupied territory of Abkhazia have recently been heard more frequently from the Russian authorities and the media. It is interesting to explore why the issue has again become topical, who will benefit, and who will be harmed by the restoration of railway communication between Russia and Georgia, which was suspended in 1993 as a result of the war in Abkhazia.
Statements from the Russian government
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
On June 28, during a weekly briefing, the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Maria Zakharova, answered a journalist’s question on the possibility of restoring railway traffic between Russia and Armenia through the occupied territory of Abkhazia. She claimed Russia will make every effort to implement the planned large-scale “roadmap,” which includes the signing of documents at the level of heads of state, and the work of relevant commissions with the participation of government representatives. Zakharova added that “everything is being done on a daily basis to implement this plan.”
Chamber of Commerce and Industry
About six weeks before Zakharova’s statement, the President of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Sergey Katyrin, also talked about the transit potential of occupied Abkhazia. In an interview with Russian media on May 12, speaking about Georgian-Russian relations, he said that rail transit should be planned within the framework of the Silk Road, which covers China, Iran (Bandar Abbas, Astara), Azerbaijan (Astara, Gabala) and Georgia (Marneuli), including the territory of Abkhazia. Katyrin said he believes the opening of railway transit through Georgia would unload the Zemo Larsi border crossing and reduce the cost of cargo transportation.
Shortly after Katyrin’s announcement, on May 17, Iran and Russia signed an agreement on cooperation in the construction of the Rasht-Astara Railway line. Russia plans to allocate EUR 1.3 billion for the project. Moscow expects the railway line to become part of the International North-South Transport Corridor which is to connect Russia with the countries of the Caspian region, the Persian Gulf and South Asia. If the project is implemented, Russia and Iran will be connected by a railway line through Azerbaijan.
Official Stance of the Georgian Government
On June 30, during his speech in Parliament, the Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Gharibashvili denied any talks with Russia on the restoration of the railway through Abkhazia, and stated that this would be possible only after the reunification of Georgia. The Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia, Shalva Papuashvili, also refuted discussion of the railway issue.
Why Has the Issue Regained Relevance for Russia?
The context of Russia’s statements on the restoration of railway traffic with Georgia through occupied Abkhazia is different this time. Where, previously, the project was more related to Armenia’s economic interests, this time it is important to consider the fact that Russia, under pressure from the Western sanctions, is trying to develop alternative import-export routes. From February 2022, the territory and the infrastructure of Abkhazia became more attractive to Russia, which saw it as a possibility to circumvent the international sanctions. Russia’s heightened interest in Abkhazia is not limited to the railway issue alone, as it also extends to the rehabilitation of Sokhumi Airport.
The rehabilitation of railway infrastructure on the territory of occupied Abkhazia, with the financial and technical support of Russia, has been going on for years; however, it is still not fully restored and has limited throughput capacity. In addition, for the implementation of Russia’s plans, even with the possible consent of Georgia, the railway line connecting the occupied territory and the territory controlled by the central government of Georgia needs complete overhaul.
Obviously, the recent rehabilitation of the railway in Abkhazia with the support of Russia is dictated not only by the motive of increasing passenger traffic and developing tourism: In recent years, the scale of cargo transportation by rail in occupied Abkhazia has increased, in which Russia’s interest is clearly manifested. For example, on March 23, 2023, the first container train (a total of 62 containers carrying 2,700 tons of cargo) arrived in Abkhazia. According to available information, the cargo was loaded onto a ship in the port of Ochamchire which sailed to Turkey. This very fact is an indication that Russia is trying to use every opportunity to circumvent the sanctions.
Who Will Benefit and Who Will Be Harmed by the Restoration of Railway Traffic through Occupied Abkhazia?
Some actors will benefit politically and economically from the restoration of rail traffic between Russia and Georgia through the territory of Abkhazia, while others will be harmed.
Who Will Benefit?
Russia: For Russia, against the backdrop of the war with Ukraine and consequent sanctions and confrontations with the West, any new transit corridor which would allow Moscow to offset the damage from Western sanctions is important. Although the transit resources of occupied Abkhazia (roads, railways, ports, airport) are significantly limited, the situation is so critical that all options are acceptable for the Kremlin. By restoring railway traffic through Abkhazia, Russia will get not only economic but also political benefits, which will be reflected in the growth of economic and, accordingly, political influence over Georgia.
Armenia: Armenia, whose economic and transport links with its neighbors (Azerbaijan, Turkey) are still limited, has been lobbying for the renewal of railway communication on the territory of Abkhazia for years. If the railway is put into operation, Yerevan, in addition to the Zemo Larsi border crossing point and sea ports of Georgia, will develop an additional route connecting to Russia, which will help it to overcome the logistical challenges it currently faces.
Occupied Abkhazia: For occupied Abkhazia, the rehabilitation of the railway infrastructure and the renewal of rail traffic will be important both economically and politically. From the economic point of view, infrastructure will be restored in Abkhazia, additional jobs will be created, and the income of the de facto government will increase as a result of the implementation of the railway corridor. From the political prospective, the occupied region will become a participant of an international project which will help to present it as an “independent” political and economic entity.
Who Will Be Harmed?
Georgia: Without the de-occupation of Abkhazia and the return of central government control over it, the restoration of railway connection between Russia and Georgia through occupied Abkhazia is tantamount to legitimizing the de facto government of Abkhazia and implicitly recognizing its “independence.” If Georgia agrees to accept and process cargo which illegally crosses the Abkhaz section of the Russian-Georgian border without border and customs control by the relevant state institutions of Georgia, and the border and customs control of said cargo is carried out on the occupation line, it will create the risk of marking the occupation line as a state border.
It should be noted that the Law of Georgia on Occupied Territories explicitly states that railway and international overland traffic is restricted on the occupied territories, which means that Georgia’s acceptance of Russia’s proposal automatically implies making changes to the law and weakening it.
In addition, against the backdrop of Russia’s war with Ukraine, Georgia’s participation in such a Russian economic project means assisting Moscow to circumvent the sanctions, which will lead to the strengthening of the Kremlin’s political and economic influence over Georgia by distancing the latter from the West.
The West: The United States, the European Union and their allies, which have imposed sanctions on Russia, view such projects as Russia’s attempting to avoid the sanctions. At the same time, the restoration of railway communication between Russia and Georgia through occupied Abkhazia will lead to the economic strengthening of Russia in the region and the weakening of the influence of the West on the ongoing political and economic processes in Georgia.
The initiative to restore railway communication between Russia and Georgia through occupied Abkhazia is part of a far-reaching Russian plan which meets both the economic and political interests of the Kremlin: avoid Western sanctions, mitigate economic damage, ensure international legitimization of occupied Abkhazia, and strengthen its influence on Georgia.
If the Georgian government agrees to Russia’s proposal on the restoration of railway communication through Abkhazia and cancels the corresponding entry in the Law on Occupied Territories, the national interests of Georgia will be irreparably harmed, as Georgia will thereby be promoting the international legitimization of Russia’s military occupation of its territory and the de facto government of Abkhazia. It will further ensure Georgia’s return to Russia’s sphere of influence, significantly damage relations with the West, and threaten the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration. No economic benefit can compensate for this political damage. Therefore, in the current situation, the resumption of railway traffic between Russia and Georgia through occupied Abkhazia is not permissible.