As discussed in my previous column, the opening of the Abkhaz railway is significant within a larger geopolitical debate: It poses a threat to the overall balance in the South Caucasus. The 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia brought the Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara tandem into trouble, and at that time Tbilisi was a “silent observer” of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.
Now, the political agenda of the new Georgian government is bringing the Abkhaz railway issue on the regional agenda and Baku is in the position of waiting and seeing.
The main interested parties outside Georgia are Russia and Armenia, both of whom stand to gain from the project. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, perceives multiple threats to its red lines while Ankara remains on the fence as the railway entails both pros and cons for Turkey.
From the Azerbaijani perspective, opening the railway is obviously a threat to its national interests and Baku’s Karabakh policy, which prioritizes Yerevan’s “geopolitical isolationism” as the most effective sanction. Interestingly, Azerbaijan is using the same strategy that it used during the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process, which is playing out as follows:
First of all, after the October 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia, Azerbaijan was, on the one hand, seriously concerned with the new government’s pro-Russian attitude, which Baku sees as a possible challenge to the sovereignty of regional countries. But on the other hand, Baku still has faith in its leverage in Georgia, notably through the energy card — though this was not so effective when Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili raised several questions about the visibility of energy projects, though these concerns were more or less put to rest during Ivanishvili’s official visit to Baku in December 2012. Azerbaijan wants to be on good terms with the new Georgian government until the 2013 presidential election, which, Baku’s political elites believe, will mean the separation of the Georgian Dream coalition, with a divergence of political views. Baku had hoped — and still hopes — that President Mikheil Saakashvili would be followed by a young, pro-American president such as Irakli Alasania, the leader of the Our Georgia-Free Democrats, one of the main coalition parties in the Georgian Dream bloc. The concern, then, is that any hasty action by Georgia’s new government (i.e., before the election) could damage the Tbilisi-Baku relationship.
Secondly, regarding the Abkhaz railway, most Azerbaijani officials have remained silent. Recalling the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, officials were similarly silent during the early stages of this process, suggesting that silence is not always a sign of consent. The other similarity with Turkish-Armenian rapprochement is that there is a non-negligible Azerbaijani voting population living in Georgia and a political opposition that is unhappy with the current government’s dealings.
Thirdly, Azerbaijan believes that the opening of the railway will damage Western interests in Armenia, particularly the EU’s position. The railway will open up the region for Yerevan, and as such, it will be perceived as a “gift” from Moscow. But there will be a price — namely, joining the Russian-led Customs Union and the Eurasian Union. Thus far, pro-Western political elites in Armenia have argued that “we have neither a common nor an open border with Russia,” an argument that would collapse with the opening of the railway. The conditionality of the Russian gift was very clearly outlined last December by the chairman of the board of the Eurasian Economic Commission, Viktor Khristenko; he declared, “Certainly, Armenia has very sensitive infrastructure constraints: It has a single transport corridor to the Customs Union, and it goes through Georgia.”
Looking further to Turkey, Ankara’s position will be decisive. Earlier, Ankara had tried to persuade Tbilisi of the wisdom of opening the railway, but retreated following hard-line opposition from Tbilisi. With a new government in Tbilisi, however, Ankara sees new opportunities. Currently, the Abkhazian diaspora is bigger than the population in Abkhazia and that lobby will put pressure on Turkey now that there is a concrete means of pursuing more open political and economic relations with Abkhazia. Ankara may seek to engage with Abkhazia more fully in the future, but there are two problems with this. First, Azerbaijan will expect support from Ankara if Georgia opens the railway. Second, in Georgia, especially along the west coast, the local population is concerned about increasing Turkish investments, fearing some kind of “neo-Ottomanism,” whereby Turkey might support Abkhazia’s self-proclaimed independence.
Generally speaking, however, Georgians don’t expect Turkey to recognize Abkhazia in the foreseeable future. Turkish Circassians point to Turkey’s recognition of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) in support of Turkish recognition of Abkhazia, and after the 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia, Russians also invoked the KKTC as a precedent. The Russian media proposed a convenient quid pro quo deal, suggesting Russian recognition of the KKTC in exchange for Turkish recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Needless to say, Ankara did not take up the offer.
Looking beyond the opening of the railway to other possible solutions of the frozen conflict with Abkhazia, it seems that if Tbilisi grants Abkhaz and Ossetian local ID cards the same status as Georgian passports for visits to Georgia, for example, it could build mutual trust and strengthen its position, bearing in mind that the majority of the population in Abkhazia and South Ossetia carry Russian passports and that in 2008, one of the pretexts for the Russian intervention was “the protection of Russian citizens.” Thus Georgia could weaken Russian influence and provide a starting point for a shift away from Moscow’s patronage of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Under these circumstances, Ankara might move forward together with Tbilisi, which would preserve both countries’ strategic alliances with Azerbaijan. Otherwise, Ankara may stay silent on the railway issue or join Baku in pressuring Tbilisi to refrain from not making such a move.
The situation is both fragile and complex, and it seems likely that any one act could have powerful implications for Tbilisi’s regional alliances, as well as its relations with the West and Russia.
Zaur Shiriyev’s Article on Today’s Zaman, 29.01.2013
Courtesy of: Today’s Zaman