The Messenger, Georgia
June 6 2005

Tbilisi shows willingness for compromise on Abkhaz railway
Paper speculates that base agreement was in exchange for Trans
Caucasus Railroad
By M. Alkhazashvili

The Georgian government is reportedly ready to compromise on the long
awaited railroad project to reconnect Russia and Armenia via
Abkhazia. While political groups applaud the change, Georgian media
speculates that Russia stipulated the railroad as a condition to
close its military bases here.

The Georgian government has softened its position regarding the Trans
Caucasian Railway, which connects Armenia and Russia via Georgia
proper and separatist-controlled Abkhazia. According statements from
government officials, Georgia agrees to allow the railway to
operation, if Georgian refugees are simultaneously returned to
Abkhazia.

According to Speaker of Parliament Nino Burjanadze, this is a marked
changed; a few years ago the government's position was unilaterally:
first the return of the refugees and then the railway. "But over the
last two years, we have changed our position and have agreed to
implementing these processes simultaneously," she is quoted as saying
by the newspaper Alia.

The announcement was made after Burjanadze spoke with Armenian Prime
Minister Andranik Markarian. For years, Armenian officials have
underlined the importance of restoring the Trans Caucasian railway,
and Markarian's June 2 visit was no exception.

The fact that he came to Tbilisi for a CIS summit places the issue in
a wider context. The newspaper Alia went so far as to report that
Russia is demanding the restoration of the railway in return for
withdrawing its military bases from Georgia.

However, according to Georgian officials, the government's new
compromising attitude boils down to economics. MP Kote Gabashvili,
chair of the parliamentary foreign relations committee, explained it
as a simple change in tactics: unilateralism failed to produce
results. Now the accent will be placed on implementing profitable
economic projects.

Russia is Armenia's main strategic and trade partner. Given Yerevan's
vital interest in restoring the key link with Russia, Georgia has
frequently asked Armenia to use its leverage with Russia to resolve
the frozen Abkhazia conflict.

"We ask only ask that Russia adopts an objective position in regard
to Abkhazia. That Russia plays the role of mediator, speeds up the
negotiation process and the return of the Georgian refugees,"
Burjanadze was quoted by Khvalindeli Dghe as saying. "In such case,
clearly the railway restoration process will begin very quickly...our
formula is well known: the Trans Caucasus Railway will be restored in
parallel with the settlement of certain political processes and the
return of refugees, beginning with the Gali region," she said.

According to reports by the Georgian media, an agreement is on the
horizon. "Tbilisi is being promised a minor breakthrough in the Gali
issue, namely the return of the refugees and an autonomous status for
the region [which has traditionally been inhabited largely by ethnic
Georgians]. Gali will come under the influence of Tbilisi and yet
remain in the interests of Sokhumi. They will leave the local
administration to a Georgian [in Gali]," Alia reports.

Opposition parties also support restoring the railway in conjunction
with returning refugees. According to a representative of the New
Rights Irakli Iashvili, opening the railroad without any political
justification would be unacceptable. "It would be wrong if we don't
receive political benefits and open the railway for purely economic
reasons," he said. But he added that returning the refugees to
Abkhazia is a viable benefit.

Republican Party leader Davit Berdzenishvili also agrees with the
government's new position. According to him, the railway should be
opened, as should the highway. He added that Georgian-Abkhazian
companies should be created, because the more economically powerful
Georgia is, the easier it will be to regain Abkhazia.