Armenia needs a train to make full use of its upcoming economic integration with Russia's Customs Union, but the only track still accessible to it runs via separatist Abkhazia. Now, after years of firm opposition from Tbilisi, Yerevan appears to sense an opening.
It is vital, indeed. For landlocked Armenia, the land route to Russia – a prime market for Armenia exports and migrant workers – bottlenecks through the Georgian mountains. This route is susceptible to political and natural disasters, such as the 2008 war with Russia or a recent deadly landslide, and has limited cargo transit capacity.
Georgia did not leap at Sargsyan’s overture, but indicated that there is room for discussion. Georgian officials said that Moscow and Tbilisi may discuss the Abkhazia railway at their next round of talks, and that the National Security Council will also mull over the matter. Retired Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely seen as the real ruler of Georgia, has indicated in the past that he looks favorably on the railway both as a way to bridge Abkhaz and Georgian differences and as an economic boon for everyone involved.
Moscow, for its part, also has an interest. Vladimir Yakunin, the chief executive officer of Russian Railways, which essentially operates Armenia’s domestic railway system, stated recently that now was the time to start thinking about the topic.
But while everyone seems willing to sit around and think about the railway, the Abkhaz train, like any international project in the South Caucasus, touches a web of conflicting or interconnected interests. Any consent by Tbilisi to the line reopening will inevitably face domestic criticism from political opponents, who believe the railway would only consolidate Abkhazia’s claim to independence.
The Abkhaz themselves have indicated that, while the railway could bring benefits, they would expect to be included in the planning as a full-fledged state. That’s unlikely to come from Tbilisi.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s neighbor , Azerbaijan, has its own territorial conflict to think about. The struggle over Nagorno Karabakh means Baku will hardly be pleased to see Tbilisi facilitating trade opportunities for Yerevan, Baku’s sworn enemy .
Azerbaijan has a separate railway project in Georgia designed to connect both Caucasus countries to Turkey’s railway system, and potentially further afield, to Europe.
And then there are the differences between Armenia and Georgia. The two countries are opting for different final destinations – Russia and Europe, respectively – both in terms of railway routes and geopolitically. Armenia plans to sign on with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus’ Eurasian Union, while Georgia is about to connect to the European Union through an association and free trade agreements.
With all this happening, Yerevan-Moscow train is unlikely to be departing soon.