February 14, 2011
The geographical location of the Samtskhe-Javakhetian region of Georgia at the junction of its borders with Armenia and Turkey, the complicated ethno-national situation, the routes of Baku-Tbilisi-Çeyhan oil pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, the beginning of construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad have predetermined the crossover of strategic interests of not only all South Caucasian countries, but also those of Russia, Turkey, Iran, United States of America and European Union just in this region.
However, the evaluation of the situation in the Samtskhe-Javakheti by these major external players and their engagement into social-economic, military-political and ethno-national processes in the region is completely different.
For example, the EU policy, as whole, does not go beyond the limits of the desire for the establishment of stability and mutual understanding, including within the context of the participation of the South Caucasian states in the “Eastern Partnership” project; the Iranian interests are mostly aimed at preventing both: the deployment of the U.S. and NATO bases in the region and increase of the Turkish influence in the region.
The Russian influence upon the situation in the South Caucasus has been significantly reduced because of the withdrawal of all its military objects and bases from Georgia late 2007 (especially the 62nd military base from Akhalkalaki) and freezing its relations with Tbilisi after the war in August, 2008. The crossings and clashing interests of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia and, certainly, Georgia itself are more subjective and multi-layer.
However, the attention of all actors and players toward the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti can drastically increase in case if the tensions really escalate. Although the social-economic and ethno-political problems of the region are determined by the main directions and trends of the Georgian domestic and foreign policies, they have some specific aspects, such as:
– Samtskhe-Javakheti is a territory of the compact residence of the Armenian population in Georgia;
– The region is an area with the Christian population, situated between Turkey and the Azerbaijani-populated Kvemo-Kartli, a region of the southern Georgia on the border with Azerbaijan;
– The ethno-national situation there is exposed to a drastic change due to the perspective of the return of the Meskhetian Turks to the region.
Taking into account that the south-eastern region of Georgia, i. e. Kvemo-Kartli, is populated by ethnic Turks, Azerbaijanis, Ankara’s assistance in repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks to Meskheti, and in perspective to Javakhk, which cannot be ruled out, will significantly increase the possibility of reaching one of the strategic goals of Turkey – to enclose Armenia and Iran by an uninterrupted Turkic corridor from the north through Samtskhe-Javakheti. It is one of the reasons why Turkey is interested in growing its military and technical cooperation with Georgia, as well as in the construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad.
On February 7, 2007, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed an intergovernmental agreement on opening the rail-way corridor Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku (KATB) with the use of already utilized main railroad Tbilisi-Baku. The project includes construction of the 98-km railroad between Kars and Akhalkalaki, 68 km of which will be laid on the Turkish territory, 30 km by Georgia, as well as reconstruction of the railroad Marabda (near Tbilisi) – Akhalkalaki with the length of 153 km. The initial cost of the project was $422 millions. In the first period of exploitation it is planned to transport around 1 millions of passengers and 6.5 millions of tons of goods a year, and up to 2034 its capacity should be increased, reaching 3 million passengers and 18 million tons of goods a year.
The construction was planned to be completed in 2010, but by some economic and political reasons, the railroad communication can be launched no sooner than 2012.
However, it seems that some delay with its realization is connected only with tactical considerations and the impact of the global economic crisis. For Ankara this project is not so much economic, it is rather political, with important strategic significance: after its full completion, Turkey – practically for the first time in the modern history – will receive a reliable de facto fully controllable land communication with the rest of the Turkic world in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia.
First, the laying of this railroad with creation of the contemporary wide industrial and service infrastructure along it, the further reconstruction and extension of the transportation network in the region, will trigger an economic development of the whole south-western part of Georgia, and a creation of several thousands of additional working places in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Such a perspective will be another argument for removing already not so frequent concerns of the official Tbilisi with the social and economic consequences of the repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks, at least, in the context of the possibilities for providing them with working places. Presenting the project under that angle, Ankara will gradually achieve a more favourable attitude toward the project by the United States and European structures, which refused to support the KATB because of the non-evident economic efficiency and political reasonability of the project: there is already an existing railroad Kars-Gyumri in the region with capacity of 10 millions of tons of goods per year, but is has not been functioning exclusively by political reasons due to the closure of the Armenian border by Turkey since 1993.
Second, the KATB is the next, after rehabilitation of the highway of Batumi-Rize and Batumi-Artvin, oil pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and gas pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Erzrum, but a consolidating stage in creation of the transit energy and transport corridor Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey.
If at the initial stages of the project, migration of the labour force from the neighbouring countries was not taken into account, now there are several reasons to suppose that at least a part of the Azerbaijani citizens engaged in the construction works will stay in Samtskhe-Javakheti for a permanent residence. For example, it is planned to build a working settlement for the needs of three thousand workers of the contractor “Azerinsaatservis”. Implementation of the construction works at the Georgian section of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad by an Azerbaijani corporation became possible, most probably, as one of conditions for providing Tbilisi a long-term preferential loan to implement the project. Here, as usual, a proposal, that is economically beneficial for the present, may turn out to be politically disadvantageous for Tbilisi in the medium and long-term perspective.
Third, beginning the exploitation of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad and developing it capacities up to the designed annual 18 million tons of goods will increase the chances for the communication via Abkhazia, especially in case of its active lobbying by Moscow and Ankara. , Turkey will not only receive apparent economic revenues, but also certain political bonuses in strengthening its strategic partnership with Russia, as well as political and economic dividends in Abkhazia. Such a pressing on Georgia is inevitable, as far as the loading of the KATB capacities is possible only in case of huge flows of goods to and from Russia.
Fourth, the political colouring is being attached to the seasonable or purely economical delays in the implementation of the project quite often deliberately, for example, with the aim of demonstrating the alleged disagreements between Baku and Ankara related to the process of restoration of the Armenian-Turkish diplomatic relations and de-blockading the Armenian-Turkish border. Similar politicized comments also took place during the delays in the realization of the Baku-Tbilisi-Çeyhan oil pipeline project and (to a less extent) of the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzrum gas pipeline construction up to their official operation.
Realization of the KATB project and the related economic and political infiltration into the region by Turkey, will become politically and economically more actual for Turkey in regard to the return of the Meskhetian Turks in the region. Thus, since 2011 they will be Meskhetian Turks along with the labor migrants from Azerbaijan and Turkey who will receive new jobs in the expanding economic infrastructure.
In this context the decision by the Georgian Government on restoration of Muslim mosques in Samtskhe-Javakheti seems another step in creating a cultural basis for the return of the Meskhetian Turks. Moreover that, according to Armenian historians, there is no any mosque in the region of Akhalkalaki.
Thus, if the launching of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad could initiate the improvement of the social-economic situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti, it would be impossible to say the same about the ethno-political situation there.
That is why slowing down of the KATB construction, the loud statements by Baku and Ankara about re-evaluation of its economic profitability and the prospects of its completion as a whole, are nothing but a tactical plan, and they cannot have any real impact on the implementation of this strategically and first of all politically important project.
In addition, with the beginning of repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks, Turkey will receive a very efficient tool not only to influence the inter-ethnic, and therefore, the internal political situation in the south-western and south-eastern regions of Georgia, but also, taking into account Tbilisi’s and Yerevan’s evaluation of developments in those areas, it will have a direct impact on the Armenian-Georgian relations.
Now one of the most sensitive, if not the most painful point in the Georgian-Armenian relations is becoming the situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti. There are objective preconditions for deterioration of the relations between the two countries; thus, the Armenian and Georgian sides should do utmost to minimize their impact and consequences, at least those having an external and mostly non-regional nature.
However, the question whether Javakheti-Javakhk turns into ‘bone of contention’ or becomes a region of the consent and development, primarily depends upon Georgia and Armenia themselves, upon the consistency of their policy aimed at increasing the bilateral trust and cooperation.
Undoubtedly, it is not worth tying up any aggravation of the ethno-political situation in Javakheti with Turkey. However, the circumstance that Ankara will never lose the chance to use it to achieve its own goals should not be ignored. It seems that just the repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks to Samtskhe-Javakheti will play the “triggering” role in the intensification of Turkey’s involvement in the developments in the southern Georgia.
The adequate understanding of the perspectives of the developments in Samtskhe-Javakheti and beyond, as well as the place of this Armenian-populated region in the global processes, in particular, in the Ankara-led neo-pan-Turkism and neo-Osmanism, should provide an impulse for elaboration of the multi-level and multi-vector policy, related to Javakhk, by Armenia and the whole Armenian nation, for consolidation of political and economic resources aimed at preservation of the Armenian population in Javakhk, providing a proper state support to their vital interests and utmost assistance to their free and prosperous development.
 The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad will allow to connect the far east with the Western Europe. Internet source Caucasian Knot. URL: http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/141490/
 Georgia announced tender for construction of the section of the railroad to Turkey. Internet source RosInvest.com. URL: http://www.rosinvest.com/news/612064/
 Azerbaijan will allocate the Georgian enterprise JSV “Marabda-Kars Railroad” a loan of $200 million for 25 years with annual 1% for construction of the Georgian part of the railroad. Caucasian Knot.
 The Turkish and Georgian governmental commissions signed a protocol, according to which Turkey is planning to restore three mosques and build one in Georgia, and the Georgian party will be allowed to rehabilitate four ancient Georgian churches on the Turkish territory: the churches of Khandzta, Oshka, Ishkhani and Otkhta on the territory of the ancient Tao-Klarjeti. The Turkish party will restore the mosques in the Samtskhe-Javakheti, including Akhaltsikhe, and in the Kobuleti region; it will also rebuild the mosque, that was burned in 1940, and restore the Turkish bath in Batumi. www.regnum.ru/news/georgia/1370140.html, February 1, 2011.