Alexander Gabuev

June 2 2008

Railroad Landing

Russia deployed its railroad construction troops in Abkhazia. Moscow
referred to the necessity to repair a railroad that'll link the
breakaway republic to Russia and its Olympic facilities of Sochi. In
its turn, Tbilisi regards Russia's maneuvers as "plotting a military
invasion." The USA immediately sided with Georgia. Nonetheless,
according to the information of Kommersant, the deployment of Russia's
units in Abkhazia may be a part of Moscow's preparation for a meeting
of Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Mikhail Saakashvili planned for
this week.

Road to war

"With the pretext of restoring a trunk-railway in Abkhazia, Russia
conceals its preparation for a large-scale military operation aiming at
annexation and occupation of Georgia," stated Deputy Defense Minister
of Georgia Batu Kutelia. "We consider the activity of Russia as
another act of aggression directed against the territorial integrity
of Georgia. No doubt, the Russian party is consolidating the military
infrastructure to start a military intervention," Deputy Foreign
Minister of Georgia Grigol Vashadze echoed Mr Kutelia. "No one deploys
railroad construction troops on the territory of another state unless
a military intervention is plotted." Mr Vashadze reported that due to
the recent activity of Russia a 59th note of protest will be handed
over to Russia's ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko. "In spite
of the fact that it's hard to find the Russian ambassador on occasions
like this, we'll find him, bring to the MFA and hand over the note,"
Mr Vashadze added with irritation.

It is Russia's deployment of its railroad construction troops in
Abkhazia, which Russia's Defense Minister announced Saturday, that
aroused the indignation of the Georgian government. "According to
the order of the President of the Russian Federation on rendering
assistance to the republic of Abkhazia, work on restoring railroad
lines and infrastructure has been started, where unarmed units
and machines of the Railroad Construction Troops of the Russian
Federation are engaged," reported the Ministry's Press-Service. In
other words, the military justified their activity with the orders
that Vladimir Putin gave to the government in April. By the way,
Thursday Commander-in-Chief of the Railroad Construction Troops
of the Russian Federation Lieutenant General Sergey Klimets stated
that his subordinates are ready to provide aid to Abkhazia "in case a
corresponding political decision is made." It means that the decision
to send Russian troops to Abkhazia was taken at the top level.

Yesterday Foreign Office Chief of the breakaway republic Sergey
Shamba told Kommersant that some 400 Russian military were deployed
in Abkhazia. However, Saturday Batu Kutelia stated that, apart from
the railroad construction soldiers, 500 Russian commandos landed in
Abkhazia. Curiously, on that day Russia's Defense Ministry reported
that a routine rotation of its peace-keepers was carried out in
Abkhazia from May 25 to May 30, with "the total number of those
replaced amounting to 500 people," which equals to the figure given
by the Georgian Defense Ministry's experts.

Tbilisi has already promised to rebuff "the Russian railroad
landing." "If Russia keeps on with that sort of activity, we'll
respond harshly to it," Batu Kutelia threatened and promised that the
international community will side with Georgia. A few hours later
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said, "The United States
is dismayed by Russia's Defense Ministry announcement on May 31 that
it intends to send more military forces into the Georgian region of
Abkhazia without the consent of the Georgian Government. We have
expressed our concerns to the Russian government and are in touch
with the Georgian government about this latest announcement of a
Russian military buildup," emphasized the American diplomat.

Road to Sochi

The authorities of Abkhazia explain the activity of Russia's Defense
Ministry with purely economic reasons. "There is no malicious intent
in it - many people want our railroad system to be restored, mainly
from economic considerations," Sergey Shamba told Kommersant. In
particular, from the Abkhazian Foreign Office Chief's viewpoint,
"one should take into consideration the forthcoming Olympics in Sochi
- the railroad can be of use when it comes to transporting cargoes
necessary for constructing Olympic facilities."

Interestingly, May 16 Governor of the Krasnodar region Alexander
Tkachev also mentioned the need to organize transportation of different
materials from Abkhazia by railroad. On that day Mr Tkachev signed
an agreement between his region and the breakaway republic about
supplies of building materials for Sochi. The governor believes that
it's more convenient to supply them from Abkhazia rather than from
other regions of Russia because the unrecognized republic is just 40
km away from the area where the facilities are erected.

These initiatives are supported by the Russian government as well. For
example, in March, as Moscow unilaterally lifted the sanctions against
the breakaway republic, Head of the Ministry for Regional Development
Dmitry Kozak said that Russia saw no hindrance to purchasing building
materials and hiring workers from Abkhazia for fulfilling the Sochi

Yesterday Sergey Shamba told Kommersant that the Abkhazian authorities
hope that the restoration works at the railroad will be completed for
the most part in three months. Governor Tkachev planned to begin with
building materials supplies from Abkhazia to Sochi right at that time.

Road to the South Caucasus

For all that, the restoration of the railroad on the territory of
Abkhazia will allow Russia to gain much more than just a cheap
transportation route for shipping Abkhazian gravel and sand to
Sochi. Moscow has been repeatedly trying to repair the railroad
(which was destroyed in the course of the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict)
linking it with Georgia via Abkhazia: It will enable Moscow to have a
direct railroad communication with its key ally in the South Caucasus
- Armenia.

As far back as March, 2003 Moscow made its first attempt to do it - the
question of restoring the railroad became one of the key points during
the talks of Vladimir Putin and Georgia's president Eduard Shevardnadze
in Sochi. That time Russia and Georgia negotiated a bargain: Tbilisi
provided for a smooth transit between Russia and Armenia, and Moscow
promised to thrash out with Sukhumi the matter of Georgian refugees'
returning to Abkhazia. These negotiations didn't stop even after the
Rose Revolution broke out, and May, 2006 the authorities of Russia,
Georgia, Armenia and Abkhazia even set up a consortium to restore the
railroad. But the escalation of tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi
in the autumn of 2006 prevented the plan from being realized.

According to the information of Kommersant, Moscow has been striving to
resume the talks about these agreements. For instance, Vladimir Putin
ordered that railroad communications be restored as he suspended his
ban on transport links with Georgia in April. Officials with Russian
Railways told Kommersant that the matter stalls because a large part
of a railroad line is missing from Sukhumi up to the Inguri river
that separates Abkhazia from Georgia. Sergey Shamba told Kommersant
that the mission of the Russian Railroad Construction Forces is to
repair this section - from Sukhumi to Ochamchira. Plenipotentiary
Representative of the Abkhazian President in the Gal region Ruslan
Kishmaria assured Kommersant that reparation will soon start.

According to Sergey Shamba, the question of the complete restoration
of the railroad and resumption of communications from Russia in the
Georgian and Armenian direction may be raised in the near future. The
sources of Kommersant with Russian Railways and Georgian railways
confirm it, too. Russian Railways experts are to go to the site soon
to give their estimate of the complexity of works and the investments
required. Head of Georgian Railways Irakli Ezugbai assesses the program
of restoring the Abkhazian railroad infrastructure at $241 mln. Sergey
Shamba told Kommersant that so far the Russian government sponsors
the works, but Sukhumi doesn't rule out the possibility of engaging
Tbilisi and Yerevan in the project once devised by the consortium.

The talks about restoring the railroad from Russia to Abkhazia are
likely to focus on other issues as well. "The Georgian government
can agree to do it only in exchange for significant dividends, say,
repatriation of Georgian refugees to the North of the Gal region,
or lifting the Russian embargo of Georgian goods," opines Georgian
political analyst Nika Imnaishvili. Besides, the agreements must
provide for the security of the route, especially at the Abkhazian
sector. It means that Moscow, Tbilisi and Sukhumi will have to conclude
a package agreement. Head of the Georgian Parliament Committee for
the Restoration of the Country's Territorial Integrity Shota Malashhia
confirmed it to Kommersant that Tbilisi insists on a package agreement.

According to the information of Kommersant, many issues that are
to be included in it have been under discussion, for example, peace
guarantees in Abkhazia and repatriation of refugees. A personal meeting
of Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and his Georgian counterpart
Mikhail Saakashvili must become a key point in the coordination of the
matter. The meeting has been planned for June 6 in the framework of
the CIS summit in St.-Petersburg. To make all necessary preparations
for it, Deputy Russian Security Council Head Yury Zubakov visited
Tbilisi last week. The diplomat is responsible for settling disputes
on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Another testimony
of the parties' ability to come to an agreement has been Vladimir
Putin's unexpectedly high estimate of the Georgian President's plan
on resolving the Abkhazian conflict. In his interview to the French
Le Monde, Russia's president said, "I hope that the plan proposed by
Mikhail Saakashvili will be carried out, slowly but surely. On the
whole, it's a good plan."