By Emil Danielyan
Turkey on Wednesday played down the significance of a likely legal ban on U.S. involvement in its plans to build a rail link with Georgia and Azerbaijan that would bypass Armenia. Official Ankara said at the same time that it has begun exploring possible Armenian participation in the far-reaching regional project.
A committee of the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a legal amendment last week that forbids the U.S. Export-Import Bank from financing construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi railway estimated to cost $400 million. The measure, strongly advocated by Armenian-American lobbying groups, is likely to be passed by the full House. Similar legislation is also expected to be debated in the U.S. Senate.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Namik Tan told RFE/RL that U.S. restrictions could not thwart the project’s implementation. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think the three countries have enough funds. So we can finance the project in one way or another.” Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey are keen to start work on the railway “as soon as possible,” he said.
A senior official at the Azerbaijani Ministry of Transport, Sadreddin Mamedov, likewise dismissed the congressional measure at the weekend. “If American companies do not finance the project, we will find other sources [of financing]: Japanese banks, the Asian Development Bank or somebody else,” he told the Baku daily “Ekho.” Besides, he said, Azerbaijan has “sufficient resources” to foot a large part of the construction bill.
Still, Turkish media reports suggest that Ankara is now willing to show more flexibility on the issue. According to the official Anatolia news agency, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev in Baku on Tuesday that “Armenia can also join these projects if it wants.”
Tan confirmed that Gul raised the issue with Aliev but made it clear that Armenian involvement in the regional railroad is conditional on a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “The fact of the matter is that we have to include Armenia into the project after the solution of the problem,” he said. “That was the discussion which took place between Aliev and Gul.” The Azerbaijani leader was “positive” about the Turkish proposal, added the official.
Armenian officials argue that there already exists a railroad connecting Turkey to the South Caucasus via Armenia and that the Turkish government should reactivate it instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on building a new one. “The Turkish Daily News” quoted on Wednesday an unnamed official in Ankara as agreeing that the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi link will make no economic sense if Turkey lifts its economic blockade of Armenia.
“But there are some realities on the ground which can not be ignored,” countered Tan. “There is a problem and that problem should be solved. Armenia must exert some efforts and try to find ways to solve it.”
A Karabakh settlement is also a key Turkish precondition for a broader normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. In addition, successive Turkish governments have demanded that Yerevan stop campaigning for international recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Gul reportedly stated in Baku that the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two estranged nations and reopening of their border is therefore “not a subject of discussions” at present.
Senior Turkish and Armenian diplomats have held a series of confidential meetings over the past year but failed to make any progress towards a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Tan stood by his earlier statement that more such talks are possible in the coming months. “We have talked to them and I think we will,” said the Turkish Foreign Ministry official.
(Photolur photo: Abdullah Gul.)