By Emil Danielyan
A key committee of the U.S. Senate has joined the House of Representatives in banning U.S. government assistance to controversial plans for the construction of a railway that would link Turkey with Georgia and Azerbaijan and bypass Armenia.
A legal amendment approved by the Senate’s Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee under pressure from Armenian-American lobbying groups late Thursday forbids the U.S. Export-Import Bank from financing any regional railroad that “does not traverse or connect with Armenia.” The House passed a virtually identical bill in late July.
The ban is likely to be endorsed by the full Senate and signed into law by President George W. Bush. Bush administration officials have not voiced objections to the bill. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told Congress earlier this year that implementation of the $400 million project discussed by the Turkish, Georgian and Azerbaijani governments “would not be beneficial to regional integration.”
“Armenia is a valued friend of the United States and our government ought not to be supporting programs or initiatives in the South Caucasus that exclude that country from participation,” said Rick Santorum, one of the two senators who introduced the amendment.
The Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), which has lobbied the U.S. government to thwart the project, hailed the Senate committee vote. “We commend the leadership of Senators Santorum and [Robert] Menendez for introducing legislation that would prevent Armenia’s neighbors from isolating her,” the AAA executive director, Bryan Ardouny, said in a statement.
ExImBank is a federal government agency which provides loans, loan guarantees and insurance to support U.S. exports. The congressional ban will therefore also discourage private U.S. companies from investing in the Tbilisi-Kars-Akhalkalaki railway.
However, its significance has already been downplayed by Turkish and Azerbaijani officials who say Ankara and Baku have sufficient resources to finance the project. “We don’t need ExImBank’s assistance,” Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov said on July 27.
The head of Georgia’s state railway, Irakli Ezugbaya, was reported to have announced last week that work on the 192-kilometer-long Georgian section of the planned rail link will be financed by a zero-interest loan to be disbursed by the Azerbaijani government. He said Baku and Tbilisi could sign a relevant agreement by the end of September.
The Armenian government argues 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.
(Armenian Assembly photo: Santorum, left, and Ardouny pictured after discussing the issue on Capitol Hill last week.)