Putin’s Midnight Train to Georgia
Now that separatist Abkhazia had been tied to Russia through an essentially federal pact, setting up a train link to the rest of Georgia may be the next stop in Vladimir Putin’s plan for cementing Russian hegemony over the region.
“Together with other partners and with everyone’s consent, we believe it is possible to start thinking about such projects as railway transit to Sokhumi, Tbilisi and further down, to Armenia from one end, and Russia, at the other,” said Russian President Putin as he and Abkhazia’s separatist leader, Raul Khadjimba, on November 24 signed a controversial agreement on Alliance and Strategic Partnership.
Strictly from a pragmatic point of view, in theory, everyone along the route could potentially benefit from it, including Georgian exporters. Landlocked, semi-blockaded Armenia would benefit the most from such a link to its main trade-partner, Russia.
But many Georgians fear that giving the green light to the project would reduce their chances for negotiating the return of hundreds of thousands of IDPs to Abkhazia and, also, precariously increase Georgia’s economic dependence on Russia. That could spell a potential threat to the country’s longheld EU and NATO ambitions, the thinking goes.
And signal a wider battle for the post-Soviet space as well. In response to Abkhazia’s agreement-signing with Moscow, Georgia has made a cry of creeping annexation of its territory, and the US and EU have denounced the document as a violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Yet Tbilisi’s position on the railway is a little fuzzy. Armenian and Russian officials have claimed that negotiations have been held about restoring the railway, but Georgia denies it. Putin’s aide, Vladislav Surkov claimed that Tbilisi is amenable to the idea, while Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili equivocated, saying that Georgia will be guided by raison d’état in decisions about reopening any transportation-channels. Now, the focus is on restoring territorial integrity, she said.
Georgian officials are pressured to respond to what is largely seen as a piecemeal annexation of Georgia. It is unclear if that focus could change, if Moscow, which agreed to some $200 million in aid for Abkhazia as a pacifier for its partnership-pact, starts to put an effort into rallying relatively muffled Georgian interest in doing business with Russia.
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