By Emil Danielyan
A key committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to ban any U.S. government funding for plans by Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to build a regional railway that would bypass Armenia and add to its economic isolation.
A legal amendment, unanimously approved by the House Financial Services Committee late Wednesday, makes it impossible for the U.S. Export-Import Bank to “develop or promote any rail connections or railway-related connections that traverse or connect Baku, Azerbaijan; Tbilisi, Georgia; and Kars, Turkey, and that specifically exclude cities in Armenia.” The influential Armenian-American lobbying organizations were apparently instrumental in its passage.
The $400 million project has yet to get off the drawing board but has already prompted serious concern from the authorities in Yerevan. They fear that it would prevent Armenia from becoming a regional transport hub after a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and a normalization of its relations with Turkey. Reports from Washington quoted pro-Armenian members of the congressional panel as echoing these concerns.
"With this amendment, we are sending a message to the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan that continually excluding Armenia in regional projects fosters instability," said its main sponsor, Congressman Joseph Crowley of New York. “Bypassing Armenia is just another attempt to further suffocate this republic, which has made great strides in democratic and economic reforms notwithstanding its neighbors' hostility.”
Another New York Democrat, Carolyn Maloney, referred to Armenia as a victim of Turkish-Azerbaijani “aggression.” “Allowing the exclusion of Armenia from important transportation routes would stymie the emergence of this region as an important East-West trade corridor,” she told the House committee.
Not surprisingly, the two main Armenian-American advocacy groups were quick to welcome the measure. “Passage of this amendment protects U.S. goals and interests in the region and ensures that attempts by Turkey and Azerbaijan to isolate Armenia will not go unanswered,” Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, said in a statement. Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, similarly praised the U.S. legislators for “protecting American taxpayers from subsidizing an ill-advised and over-priced railroad project.”
The measure will most probably be endorsed by the full House later this year. The U.S. Senate is expected to discuss a similar bill and may well follow suit. That would be a major blow to efforts by Ankara, Baku and Tbilisi to attract external financing for the proposed rail link. The Export-Import Bank could help to raise much of that funding. Its credit guarantees have already been essential for the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that was completed earlier this year.
The U.S. administration, which has been pushing for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties, seems to disapprove of the controversial railway project. The Armenian Assembly quoted the U.S. ambassador-designate to Azerbaijan, Anne Derse, as telling congressional hearings last month that it “would not be beneficial to regional integration.”
The European Union also opposes the construction of the Kars- Tbilisi-Baku railroad. “A railway project that is not including Armenia will not get our financial support,” EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said during a visit to Yerevan last February.
Armenian officials argue that there already exists a railroad connecting Turkey to the South Caucasus via Armenia and that the regional countries should reactivate it instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on building a new one. The Kars-Gyumri rail link has stood idle more than a decade as part of the continuing Turkish economic blockade of Armenia.
That there are geopolitical motives behind the controversial rail project was admitted by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev last year. “If we succeed with this project, the Armenians will end in complete isolation, which would create an additional problem for their already bleak future,” Aliev reportedly declared.
Still, Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli insisted after talks with Armenian leaders in Yerevan last September that his country is only looking to further capitalize on its geographical position and is solely concerned with economic benefits that would stem from the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku route.
The existence of such benefits was called into question last week by the director general of Georgia’s state-run rail network, Irakli Ezugbaya, though. In particular, Ezugbaya cast doubt on the credibility of a feasibility study on the project that was conducted by Turkish company recently.
According to Georgian press reports, the study failed to predict the anticipated volume of traffic and freight along the would-be railway. The transport ministers of Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan are expected to discuss the issue when they meet in Tbilisi later this month.