By Astghik Bedevian
Armenia, Georgia and Russia have formally agreed to reopen a Soviet-era railway that used to be vital for the two South Caucasus nations’ commercial exchange with the outside world, a government-connected Armenian parliamentarian claimed on Thursday.
Vladimir Badalian, who also co-heads a Georgian-Armenian business association, told RFE/RL that an agreement to restore the rail link was signed by senior representatives of the state-run railways of the three countries as well as Abkhazia after four days of negotiations in Moscow late last week.
Direct rail communication between Georgia and Russia was disrupted with the outbreak of the war in Abkhazia in 1992, stripping Armenia of its last relatively cheap conduit to the former Soviet Union and Europe. Russian-led efforts to restore the transport link have been seriously hampered by the unresolved the state of the Abkhaz conflict.
They appeared to have made substantial progress two years ago, leading Russia’s Transport Minister Igor Levitin to declare in December 2004 that the restoration of rail traffic through Abkhazia is on the cards. Around that time the Armenian and Russian railway chiefs announced plans to set up a joint venture that would handle renewed rail communication between their countries.
But with the already strained Russian-Georgian relations subsequently deteriorating further, Levitin’s optimism proved misplaced. Those relations hit a new low last month with Moscow’s controversial decision to ban imports of Georgian wine and mineral water and Tbilisi’s threats to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States. Neither government has reported any agreements on the railway over the past week.
According to Badalian, about $200 million in investments is needed to rebuild its damaged Abkhaz section. The interested parties will therefore take at least two years to make the railway operational, he said.
The absence of railway communication with the outside world is widely seen as the main reason for the disproportionately high cost of transporting goods to and from Armenia. Economists say that in turn is a major obstacle to a more rapid growth of the Armenian economy.