Zhvania agrees to Georgia-Abkhazia railway

The Messenger, Georgia
Nov. 3, 2004

Zhvania agrees to Georgia-Abkhazia railway

Tbilisi officials say restoration currently impossible owing to tense
situation in Abkhazia
By Keti Sikharulidze

Russian Minister of Transport and Communications Igor Levitin was in
Tbilisi on November 1 to discuss the possible reopening of the
Georgia-Russia railway link through Abkhazia.

He met with Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, Head of the railway
department David Onoprishvili and Minister of Economy Kakha Bendukidze
to discuss the issue, and afterwards Zhvania announced that an
agreement had been reached, and that experts would begin considering
the reopening of the railway link.

However, the prime minister added that reopening the link is currently
impossible, due to the tense situation in the breakaway republic.
Restoring the railway seems impossible “until the situation becomes
clear and calm in Abkhazia,” he stated.

Onoprishvili confirmed Zhvania’s comments, saying that it had been
agreed in principle to reopen the railway link, but that this was
impossible at the present time owning to the situation in Abkhazia.
Once stability has been restored, “a group of experts will be created
that will work out these issues,” he said.

The railway through Abkhazia was destroyed during the Georgian-Abkhaz
war in 1992, but in September the Abkhazia-Russia section was reopened.
Tbilisi protested against this, saying that it violated the 2002 Sochi
agreement between Russia and Georgia, which envisaged the reopening of
the railway in parallel with the return of Georgian refugees to the
Abkhaz region of Gali.

Neither Zhvania nor Onoprishvili made any mention of the return of
Georgian refugees, however, leading some Georgians to express concern
regarding the agreement.

The announcement was met with cautious approval by the opposition
Industrialist Party, who welcomed the positive impact the railway would
have on the Georgian economy, but said that it should be restored only
after Georgian refugees from Abkhazia are able to return.

One of the leaders of the Industrialists Zurab Tkemaladze told The
Messenger that his party “likes the idea of the government reopening
the railway line between Tbilisi and Sokhumi, but with the condition
that Georgian refugees are allowed to return, first to the Gali and
then to other regions of Abkhazia as well.”

“The problem is that we can’t be sure Russia will keep such a promise
and will deceive the Georgian side once more,” Tkemaladze warned.

“On the whole, however, I like the idea, because it would be good for
the country from the point of view of industry,” he said.

The reopening of the railway will also affect the economies of Armenia
and Azerbaijan, and before traveling to Tbilisi, Levitin visited both
countries, where his proposal that the railway the reopened met with a
warm welcome.

“I was in Baku and Yerevan where I received support from the ministers
of transport and the presidents of both countries. And I am also
pleased to announce that the Georgian side agreed to renew the former
Caucasus railway line and I am glad that we found mutual cooperation,”
Levitin told Imedi.

Levitin also added that this railway line would help boost the movement
of passengers and the movement of goods, and thus the Georgia economy.

It is unclear how much the restoration of the railway will cost, and
who will pay for it.

The restoration of the Abkhazia-Russia section cost several million
rubles, and the Russian side said the Tbilisi-Sokhumi leg would cost
more because it has several bridges.

The Georgian side said that its experts would estimate the total costs
of the project, and that each country (including Azerbaijan and
Armenia) would be responsible for paying for the restoration of
sections of the railway passing through its own territory.

As well as railway communications, the two sides also discussed
problems connected with the ferry route between Poti and the Russian
port in Sochi.

Minister of Economy Kakha Bendukudze expressed his satisfaction with
the negotiations regarding both the sea and railway links, as well as
the memorandum signed by himself, Zhvania and Levitin.