TOL: Next Stop, Baku

NEXT STOP, BAKU
by Nicholas Birch

Transitions Online, Czech Republic
Oct 15 2007

Trains linking Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan could start rolling
in 2009. But Armenia will be left in the dust. From EurasiaNet.

KARS, Turkey | Barely a decade ago, the city of Kars had to fight hard
to ensure it was connected to a new improved railway line stretching
east across Turkey from Ankara. Now it is set to be a transit hub
connecting southern Europe to China, via the Caspian.

Given the go-ahead early this year by the governments of Azerbaijan,
Georgia and Turkey, after 15 years of hesitations, the $600-million
Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway line is expected to be completed
by 2009.

In late September, 14 Turkish companies including construction giants
Nurol and Tekfen presented bids for the 70-kilometer section of track
due to connect Kars to the Georgian border. Turkey has earmarked $300
million for the work. Gas-rich Azerbaijan has already given Georgia
$40 million of a $200 million loan – to be paid back over 25 years
at 1 percent interest – to finance its part of the project.

Kars Mayor Naif Alibeyoglu sees the railway as a crucial lifeline
for the city, one of Turkey’s poorest. "Not so long ago, people joked
about selling Kars off for a handful of lira," he says. "Now we can
look to the future with hope."

He also thinks the BTK rail line confirms Kars’ position as a natural
bridge between two geographical zones. "Kars is as much Caucasian
as it is Anatolian", he says, referring to the city’s distinctly
un-Turkish cobble-stone boulevards and elegant black stone houses.

Kars was in Russian hands between 1878 and 1918, and many of its
inhabitants are the grandchildren of Azeris who fled inter-ethnic
fighting and Bolsheviks at the end of the First World War.

A media-savvy man, Alibeyoglu is convinced it’s his lobbying that
has brought the railway project to fruition. In reality, the BTK
is just another sign of what Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the
Moscow-based Institute for National Strategy, calls "the myth of the
unerring dependence of Eurasian states on Russian hydrocarbons."

GEORGIA NOW ON BOARD

If the railway has taken so long to get off the drawing board, it is
largely because of Georgian hesitation. In part, Tbilisi’s problem was
simply lack of money. But it also feared a trans-Caucasian railway
would undermine the importance of its two major Black Sea ports –
Batumi and Poti.

It changed its mind after Moscow cut transport and postal links
with Georgia following Tbilisi’s arrest of four Russian soldiers in
September 2006 on spying charges.

Not everybody is happy about the new route. Armenia, which has had
antagonistic relations with Turkey for most of the last century,
stands to be shut out from the benefits of the BTK railway.

The green light for railway construction riles Yerevan for the
simple reason that it already has a railway line connecting Turkey
to the Caspian. Considerably shorter than projected Baku-Kars route,
the Armenian line – which crosses the Turkish border 40 kilometers
east of Kars – could be brought back to life for a fraction of
the cost of the new project. The chief obstacle to cooperation is
a Turkish embargo against Armenia – imposed in 1993 after Armenian
forces drove the Azerbaijani military out of the disputed territory
of Nagorno-Karabakh, and went on the occupy a substantial portion of
Azerbaijani territory. Efforts to negotiate a Karabakh peace settlement
remain deadlocked.

BORDER TENSIONS UNDERMINE FINANCING

The lack of Turkish-Armenian cooperation helps explain European and
American unwillingness to help finance the BTK. It remains to be
seen whether the World Bank will respond any differently to an Azeri
request for funding made in September.

In Akyaka, a Turkish town that sits astride the old trans-Caucasus
line just 10 kilometers from the Armenian border, locals seem resigned
to their fall into dusty oblivion.

"We used to get a lot of freight through here," railway worker Fuat
Erdogdu remembers. "Now we’re the end of the line – just one train
a day from Kars."

With the BTK project in the works, Akyaka Mayor Bulent Ozturk
acknowledges, the likelihood of the local track being reopened to
international trade is slim. "We’ll survive. It’s Armenia I feel
sorry for: Armenians are poorer than us."

Like almost all locals, he goes on to insist that there is no question
of Turkey ending its Armenian blockade unless the Nagorno-Karabakh
issue is resolved.

Back in Kars, Naif Alibeyoglu is more candid. Armenian President Robert
Kocharian has painted his people into a corner with his hawkishness,
he says, but Turkey is to blame too.

"Trade is the best way to improve relations. But Turkey’s governments
have always preferred to play the populist card – talking about
standing up for our Azeri brothers. The result? Stalemate."

Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran, and the Middle East. A
partner post from Eurasianet.

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