A key member of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government has reaffirmed its support for reactivating a railway connecting Georgia as well as Armenia to Russia, saying that would benefit the entire region.
Speaking at the end of an official visit to Yerevan, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania made clear at the same time that the new government in Tbilisi will move cautiously towards restoring the Soviet-era rail link passing through the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
“I supported the reopening of the railway in 2005 when I was the chief Georgian negotiator in the Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue. I continue to support that,” Alasania told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in an interview late on Thursday.
“But we should do that in a very delicate way, without haste. I think that our Abkhaz partners should also feel comfortable about that,” he said.
“If there is a political will -- I’m talking not only about the Georgian side, I also mean the Russian side -- I think that will bring lots of benefits to the region. So this project is such that we should not hurry. I am sure that in the near future some first steps will be taken in this process,” added Alasania.
Ivanishvili called for renewed rail communication between Georgia and Russia shortly after his Georgian Dream alliance swept to power following parliamentary elections held last fall. He reiterated those calls during a January 17 visit to Armenia.
The issue was high on the agenda of Ivanishvili’s talks with Armenian leaders. Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian reaffirmed Yerevan’s strong interest in seeing the Abkhaz railway reactivated.
The railway, which used to serve as a lifeline road for landlocked Armenia, has been closed since the outbreak of a bloody war in Abkhazia in 1992. Successive Armenian governments have for years held out hope for its re-launch. The Russian-Georgian rail link would lower transportation costs in Armenia’s import and export operations that are mainly carried out through Georgian territory.
Georgia’s embattled President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is increasingly at loggerheads with Ivanishvili, voiced strong opposition to the railway opening immediately after the Georgian premier’s talks in Yerevan. He claimed that the railway would be of little use to his country and would only allow Russia to “legalize its occupation of Abkhazia.”
The Ivanishvili government is promoting the railway project as part of its strategy of facilitating the eventual resolution of the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia through better ties with Russia.
Alasania, whose Free Democrats party is a key member of Ivanishvili’s bloc, underlined this “pragmatic” policy. He said the Georgian government hopes that direct commercial contacts and other confidence-building measures could lead to a “gradual normalization” of the Russian-Georgian relationship.
The Georgian minister spoke after holding what he called “very successful and fruitful negotiations” talks with President Serzh Sarkisian and his Armenian counterpart Seyran Ohanian. The two defense chiefs told a joint news conference earlier on Thursday that they agreed on a plan of joint activities by the Armenian and Georgian militaries for this year.
“We have made friends and are already building a warm personal relationship,” Alasania told RFE/RL’s Armenian service, referring to Ohanian. “But the key thing is to ensure cooperation between our military institutions. We have a plan of interaction for 2013.”
“Our relations are deepening and our interaction will become even closer,” he said.