By M. Alkhazashvili

The Messenger
Jan 9 2008

Reflecting on events in the South Caucasus in 2007, the launch of
construction on the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway was one of the most
high-profile regional projects to date.

An inauguration ceremony was held on November 21, the same day
Turkey and Georgia signed a free trade agreement, by the presidents
of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

Then-president Mikheil Saakashvili described the project as a
"geopolitical revolution" that would provide an alternative to the
Russian Trans-Siberian railway for Chinese cargo, at the ceremony
in Marabda, a town south of Tbilisi. He also said it would see the
creation of "tens and hundreds of thousands of jobs in Georgia"
and help stimulate the local economy in Samtskhe-Javakheti province.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev mentioned the project in his New
Year speech, noting that obstacles to its implementation had been
overcome and construction begun.

Those obstacles included political opposition to the project from
Washington, in response to Armenian complaints that the railroad is
an intentional attempt to isolate their country.

The project will oversee the construction of 150 kilometers of new
railway, 29 kilometers on Georgian territory and 76 kilometers on
Turkish, as well as the rehabilitation of 183 kilometers of the
Akhalkalaki-Marabda-Tbilisi railway.

While Georgia is likely to reap some benefit during the construction
stage of the project, it is unclear whether the railway will be an
economic success story in the long run, given competition from Iranian
and Russian corridors.

The Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway may therefore prove to be most
significant as an example of regional cooperation, and more memorable
for its political, rather than economic, implications.