Georgia Today, the largest English language weekly newspaper in the Republic of Georgia, has reported that the governments of Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan have reached an agreement to finance a major rail project that is viewed as the "New Silk Road" since it establishes a rail line of commerce between Europe and central Asia, one not under direct Russian control.
Early this year, the Asian nations vowed to share the 600 million dollar cost to complete the direct rail link through the Caucasus that connects to the European rail network at Istanbul from which the fabled old Orient Express ran to the capitals of Europe.
The financial backing will support construction of two missing links in the area. One gap is the Bosporus tunnel that is currently under construction and is due to be complete by 2009. The second is the 98 kilometer Karsi (Turkey) - Akhalkalaki (Georgia) link. Having the rail line go through Akhalkalaki will greatly aid in political and economic stability of the impoverished Javakheti region of Georgia.
Potentially, the Karsi-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku (KATB) railway may be just as critical as the major oil pipelines of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum (BTE), since the refurbished rail line can haul not only dry goods, but also provide transportation for crude oil and refined petroleum products. The rail route establishes an alternative to Russian-controlled routes from the Caspian region to Europe, denying Russia a potential choke hold.
It is estimated that annual cargo turnover will be around 30 million tons.
The rail line was initially an EU backed venture as part of the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Central Asia (TRACECA) effort. True to form, the EU later abandoned the entire effort, as did the United Nations.
The project is a logical continuation of economic and geo-political support recognizing the strategic importance of the Caucasus in the GWOT, especially in isolating the nominal nuclear partners of Russia and Iran. Georgia in particular, has received military support from the US and NATO to aid in ridding the terrorist threat in the Pankisi Gorge and to re-establish its armed forces. And last year, well-received US and Western overtures to Azerbaijan effectively sealed the land bridge to Persian and Russian covert shipments.
Russia continues to oppose a sovereign Georgia with its historical borders intact. In 2006, Russia severed trade and transportation links with the country. In this sense, KATB will provide the Georgia and Azerbaijan an alternative and stable line of communication and trade to the West.
The US is not taking an official position on the project, possibly due to an intense lobbying effort by Armenia which claims the new rail line isolates the country. Left unstated is that Armenia remains firmly in the Russian camp with a garrison of over 20,000 of Putin's troops. One could say that Armenia's isolation is one of the "benefits" of the new trade route.
There are potential economic downsides as the article notes. For example the main Georgian port of Batumi on the Black Sea could suffer since costs for cargo service at Georgian ports are high, compared to Turkey's cheaper and more modern Black Sea and Mediterranean ports. Therefore, competition from the KATB may result in high unemployment at Georgia's port facilities. The oil "pipeline wars" also play a part in the economic future of Central Asia, and the reader is encouraged to examine this part of the article carefully.
Nevertheless, the economic and national security benefits are judged to outweigh potential negative economic impacts. For example, the New Silk Road would:
- Create a new transit corridor for "dry" cargo and container shipping, further promoting the region's perspectives for Euro-Atlantic integration
- It will be the shortest route between Central Asia and the Mediterranean, and Central and Eastern European markets including the rest of Europe and America.
- It will facilitate Georgia's and Azerbaijan's speedier accession to NATO.
- And last but certainly not least, it will increase Western presence and investments to "balance" the influence of Russia in the region.
It's clear that so far, US and NATO politico-military initiatives continue to bear fruit in isolating terror states from their technological and monetary sponsors while promoting democracy in newly independent sovereign nations.