By Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili, Associated Press
Leaders of Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan signed an agreement Wednesday to build a railroad line that will link the three nations and provide a new route for trade between Turkey and the Caucasus Mountain nations.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed the deal in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, where Erdogan also attended the opening of an international airport terminal that was rebuilt by a Turkish company.
Construction is expected to start in June on the $600 million rail line linking the eastern Turkish city of Kars with the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, on the oil-rich Caspian Sea. It will go through the Georgian town of Akhalkalaki and the capital, Tbilisi.
Saakashvili said the railroad would be a "a geopolitical and geo-economic revolution" that will connect Europe with the Caucasus and Central Asia, further east. Erdogan likened it to the Silk Road, the trade caravans that long ago linked Asia with Europe. Georgian authorities say they expect the railroad to handle 15 million tons of goods annually.
A leading lawmaker in Armenia, cut off from trade with foes Turkey and Azerbaijan, two of its four neighbors, denounced the project. Vice-speaker Vahan Hovannisian said the project had no economic basis and was "aimed to strengthen the blockade of Armenia."
Saakashvili put in a word for Armenia, saying that Turkey is investing millions of dollars in Georgia. "We are witnessing huge changes. We do not want any neighboring country to be left outside these processes." He said Georgia wants good relations with Armenia.
The railroad is one of several projects to link resource-rich Azerbaijan and Central Asia with Turkey and European markets while bypassing Russia. An oil pipeline from Baku through Georgia and on to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan was opened n last year, and a gas line is in the works.
Georgia is to receive $200 million from Azerbaijan to help with construction of the railroad. Saakashvili thanked Aliev for support in the face of pressure from Russia, which sharply raised the price of natural gas for Georgia this year and cut off travel links with the small ex-Soviet republic in the fall.
After the signing, the three leaders attended the opening ceremony for the new international terminal at Tbilisi's airport, rebuilt at a cost of $2 million by the Turkish company TAV Urban, which received the right to manage the airport for nearly 12 years. Runway improvements were also made at the airport.