“The previous government of Georgia had a negative attitude towards the reopening of the Abkhaz section of this railway link. The current government has adopted a more constructive approach. But there are a very large number of preconditions and issues that need to be resolved before this becomes a reality,” Noghaideli said.
Direct railway traffic between Georgia and Russia was interrupted following a decision made at a 1996 summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The move was part of economic sanctions on renegade Abkhazia demanded by then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Moscow’s decision to reopen a direct railway link with the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi last September raised fierce protests from Tbilisi.
The previous Georgian government of late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania had sent conflicting signals on its readiness to resume traffic through Abkhazia.
One of its main demands had been that the resumption of railway communications be conditional on the safe return to Abkhazia of all ethnic Georgians displaced by the 1992-1993 separatist war.
Since the end of the conflict, an estimated 20,000 to 60,000 ethnic Georgians are believed to have returned to Abkhazia’s Gali district, north of the demarcation line that separates the breakaway province from the rest of Georgia. According to the 1989 Soviet census, some 250,000 ethnic Georgians lived in Gali before the war.
Noghaideli yesterday said that Tbilisi no longer insists that all displaced Georgians be allowed to return to their home region before negotiating the reopening of the Tbilisi-Sukhumi-Sochi railway link. Instead, he said Georgia would content itself with Abkhaz safety guarantees for all those who have already come back.
“This is the main condition, but not the only one. Railway traffic through Abkhazia raises a number of serious organizational issues, such as freight control, customs procedures and so on. We’re just starting working on these issues. It would be then premature to draw any conclusions. We’re now waiting to hear what Russia’s position is,” Noghaideli said.
Moscow has long signaled that it is ready to reopen the link.
Addressing reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of CIS railways chiefs in Tbilisi yesterday, Russia’s representative Gennadii Fadeev said all parties were interested in resuming through-traffic across the Caucasus.
“I believe the politicians, the heads of states and all those who have the power to decide are in a very different mood today. They [now] have positive approaches and opinions. We, railways people, are ready to take the most direct part in unblocking railway communications,” Fadeev said.
Fadeev estimated the cost of resuming traffic through Abkhazia at around $100 million. That, he pointed out, does not include repair of the Inguri River railway bridge that links Georgia to its separatist province and that was destroyed during the war.
Fadeev, who yesterday held separate meetings with Noghaideli and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, said Tbilisi seemed ready to soften its stance on the railway issue.
“Everyone wants to resume through-traffic along the Black Sea coast to Tbilisi and [the Armenian capital] Yerevan. I cannot speak for the Georgian side, but after talking with [Noghaideli], my impression is that they are fully ready to begin implementing this project -- that is, to restore this link,” Fadeev said.
Resumption of railway through-traffic is essential to landlocked Armenia.
Turkey has been keeping its eastern border closed since 1993 to protest Armenia’s support of the separatist leadership of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
This leaves Georgia as virtually Armenia's only export outlet.
The head of Armenia’s Railways Department, Ararat Khrimian, yesterday gave a cautious welcome to the apparent Russian-Georgian rapprochement, indicating that his country is expecting both sides to take more concrete steps.
“If this project becomes a reality, then we will talk and think about it in a realistic way. Everyone needs this railway,” Khrimian said.
Georgia’s Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgi Khaindrava, who yesterday attended a meeting in Moscow, said railway experts from Georgia, Russia, and Abkhazia would meet on 1 July to examine ways to reopen the Tbilisi-Sochi link.
The outcome of the Tbilisi talks was overshadowed by news that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov had dismissed Fadeev from his post.
Late yesterday, the government issued a statement saying Vladimir Yakunin had been picked up to head Russian Railways and that Fadeev had been appointed an adviser to the prime minister.
No reason was given for Fadeev’s removal. But Russian commentators today noted the 66-year-old former head of Russian Railways long ago reached retirement age.