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Armenia opposes Turkish-Georgian-Azeri rail project

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  • Armenia opposes Turkish-Georgian-Azeri rail project

    EurasiaNet, NY
    June 30 2006

    Emil Danielyan 6/30/06

    Plans for the construction of a major railway linking Turkey to
    Azerbaijan via Georgia are prompting mounting concern in Armenia.
    Officials in Yerevan, fearing the completion of the railway would
    further isolate Armenia, have pressured Georgia to pull out of the
    multimillion-dollar project. The railway also is facing objections
    from the United States and the European Union.

    Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey revealed their intention to pursue the
    railway project in May 2005 during the ceremonial opening of the
    Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. The presidents of the three
    nations said the rail link, estimated to cost roughly $400 million,
    would promote regional economic integration and create a new
    transport corridor between Europe and Central Asia.

    The project essentially boils down to laying an almost
    100-kilometer-long rail track between the eastern Turkish city of
    Kars and the southern Georgian town of Akhalkalaki. Armenian
    officials insist that the project makes no economic sense, pointing
    to the existing railroad running from Kars to the northern Armenian
    city of Gyumri and on to the two other South Caucasus countries. The
    Kars-Gyumri link has stood idle for over a decade due to the
    continuing Turkish economic blockade of Armenia. [For background see
    the Eurasia Insight archive].

    The Armenian government argues that that Turkey, Georgia and
    Azerbaijan should make use of this Gyumri hub instead of spending
    hundreds of millions of dollars on building a new one. As an
    incentive, Yerevan has indicated that it would make the Gyumri hub
    available without insisting that Turkey lift its economic blockade.
    "Armenia is ready to let Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan use the
    existing railway line on Armenian territory without Armenia's
    participation," Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian reiterated
    during an official visit to Tbilisi on June 27.

    The issue was high on the agenda of Oskanian's talks with Georgia's
    President Mikheil Saakashvili and Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili.
    A statement issued by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said Oskanian
    "stressed the economic and political importance of the operation of
    the Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi rail line." Armenian officials took little
    comfort in Bezhuashvili's public assurances that the
    Turkish-Georgian-Azeri project is "purely commercial." They fear that
    the new railway would deepen Armenia's economic isolation. Aggressive
    statements made recently by Azerbaijani officials, including
    President Ilham Aliyev, have helped fuel worries in Armenia.

    The landlocked country has already been left out of regional energy
    projects such as the BTC pipeline, due to the unresolved Karabakh
    conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

    Influential Armenian lobbying groups in the United States have joined
    Yerevan in trying to thwart the project. They were instrumental in
    securing a US congressional committee's June 15 vote to endorse an
    amendment that would prohibit the US Export-Import Bank from funding
    the railway's construction. "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 US
    Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat who is the measure's main

    The amendment is expected to be considered by the full House of
    Representatives later this year. Similar legislation is pending in
    the US Senate, and the Bush administration has not voiced objections
    to either bill. The ambassador-designates to Armenia and Azerbaijan
    assured pro-Armenian US legislators during recent congressional
    hearings that Washington is against the construction of the
    Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi railroad. Without ex-im bank backing, US
    companies would likely be reluctant to invest in the project.

    The European Union seems to take a similar view. "A railway project
    that is not including Armenia will not get our financial support,"
    the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner,
    said in Yerevan last February.

    Turkey and Azerbaijan appear undaunted by US and EU expressions of
    displeasure. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's discussed the
    issue with Aliyev during a late June visit to Baku. The Turkish Daily
    News newspaper quoted Gul as telling the Azeri leader on June 20 that
    "Armenia can also join these projects if it wants." However, the
    Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, Namik Tan, clarified the next day
    that this could happen only after a resolution of the Karabakh
    dispute. The Karabakh peace process is currently stalemated. [For
    background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

    Tan also downplayed the significance of likely US funding
    restrictions. "I think the three countries have enough funds. We can
    finance [the railway's construction] in one way or another," he said.

    Baku had hoped to begin work on the railway later this year and have
    it completed by 2008. But with Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan having
    yet to agree on the sources of funding, this time frame seems
    unrealistic. Furthermore, the Georgian government is having what Gul
    reportedly described as "serious hesitations." This might explain why
    a planned meeting of the transport ministers of the three states,
    which had been planned for late June, has been postponed until late

    The director general of Georgia's state-run rail network, Irakli
    Ezugbaya, publicly questioned earlier in June a feasibility study
    that was conducted and released by a Turkish company recently. The
    Caucasus Press news agency quoted him as saying that the study failed
    to predict the anticipated volume of cargo traffic along the would-be

    Editor's Note: Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and
    political analyst.