ARMENIA RESPONDS TO KARS-AKHALKALAKI RAILROAD PROPOSAL

By Grigor Hakobyan (09/07/2005 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad will stretch 98 km and cost $500- $800 million. Turkey’s share of construction would be 68 km while the remaining would be the responsibility of Georgia. The Armenian daily Azg commented that “The idea of a Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad emerged in the 1990s, but it wasn\'t implemented for three reasons: the construction is very expensive, passes through a region that is difficult to traverse, close to the Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi railway that connected Georgia with Turkey in Soviet times.” According to an unnamed diplomatic source quoted by Azg, the Azerbaijani lobby was able to replace discussions pertaining to potential construction of a Kars-Batumi railroad with those about building the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad during Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s visit to Ankara last May.

Azg questioned why Azerbaijan would be interested in building a railroad via the predominately Armenian-populated Akhalkalaki region when “taking into account the current Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, Azerbaijan should not be interested in connecting with friendly Turkey through this very territory”. Therefore, Azg concluded that the construction of the Kars-Akhakakalki railroad pursues the following two goals: first, increasing the influence of Georgian central authorities in the Armenian-dominated province of Javakheti and second, maintaining control over the bulk of Armenia’s exports, which the Georgian budget greatly benefits from. “It’s worth mentioning that from a merely economic viewpoint, the improvement of Armenian-Turkish relations, particularly the opening of an Armenian-Turkish border-gate and the utilization of the Kars-Gyumri railroad are not in the interest of Georgia, as Armenia transfers its goods mainly through Georgian territory. The opening of the Armenian-Turkish border would mean that the Georgian state budget will be deprived of income from the transportation of Armenian goods”.

While contemplating what benefits Azerbaijan may derive from such a controversial venture, Azg argued that Azerbaijan can be connected to Turkey through the railroad and that by joining the Azerbaijani, Georgian and Turkish railroad networks, Armenia will appear in greater isolation. Besides, the opening of the Kars-Gyumri railroad would hardly be on the agenda after the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad is built.

Meanwhile the authorities in Armenia expressed a different perspective on this issue. During his July 24th visit to Georgia, Armenia’s Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan said that “the building of the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi railroad is an internal affair of Georgia, which is seeking to maintain railroad communications with Turkey. Meanwhile, I think that it would be less expensive to restore communications along the Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi vector than building a new railroad.”

Margaryan’s suggestion seemed to have been preceded by a statement made by the Coordinator of the European Union’s program in Armenia, Sebastien Dubost. Mr. Dubost has been quoted as stating that “when the Kars-Yerevan-Baku railway is put into operation, Armenia’s transit role will become more important. The restoration will not require much funding, as the railway is in good state of repair.”

Speaking on the same topic, Armenia’s Minister of Transportation Andranik Manukyan stated that “the Armenian part of the railway and the border terminal are in perfect technical condition. We are also ready to provide beneficial transit tariffs to the Turkish side.” Manukyan stated the same already in April 2004: ”We have already prepared the Gyumri-Kars line to receive goods. Our part is totally ready”, he has stated then.

In the past, efforts to resume Kars-Gyumri railroad communication were also supported by Armenian and Turkish entrepreneurs across the border. One of the groups campaigning for the opening of the Kars-Gyumri railroad was the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council. However, the current state of affairs pertaining to this project could be described as a time of uncertainty since Turkey continues to refuse the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of railroad communications with Armenia as long as the issue of Mountainous Karabakh is not resolved.