Tbilisi divided over re-opening Russia-Armenia rail link

By bne IntelliNews January 18, 2013

bne -

A new dispute has broken out between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili over the proposed re-opening of a rail link from Russia to Armenia via Georgia.

At a press conference in Yerevan on January 17, Ivanishvili proposed re-opening the railway, which has been closed since the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.

However, Saakhasvili responded with a statement that claimed reopening the railway would be "criminal, anti-state, [and] anti-Georgian," Civil.ge reports. Saakashvili added that when the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is completed, giving Georgian an alternative route to Europe, there will be no need for the link to Russia.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the railway runs through the separatist republic of Abkhazia, which has been recognised as independent by Russia plus a handful of other countries since the war. Ivanishvili partially acknowledged the problem with that facet of the plan at his press conference, referring to "uneasy relations with our Abkhaz brothers".

By way of contrast with the reaction at home, Ivanishvili's proposal was welcomed in Yerevan, where Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan expressed support for the plan, which will restore Armenia's direct rail link to Russia, its largest trading partner.

Yerevan's hostile relations with neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey, on top of the international sanctions against Iran, mean that Armenia's main link to the outside world is through Georgia. "We discussed this in out meeting. Armenia is interested in settlement of the issue," Sargsyan said following a meeting with Ivanishvili, News.am reported.

However, Russia's position on the issue is unclear. "You know that there are no problems in relationships between Georgia and Armenia," Ivanishvili told journalists. "But we have huge problems in relationship with Russia. The problems were huge and they unfortunately still remain. We [are trying] to restore and mend ties with Russia. The profound and most problematic issue is about Georgia's territorial integrity."

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