Reviving old rail connections in the South Caucasus

In a fast paced development, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia has triggered talk of reopening raillinks in the South Caucasus that have long been closed. Many of these links have an origin that go back to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.  

This war ended on 10 November 2020 with a Russia brokered ceasefire agreement. It not only regulated the return of some Nagorno-Karabakh territories to Azerbaijan authority, the deal also agreed to transport corridors. Most importantly for Armenia the Lachin corridor to Nagorn-Karabakh capital Stepanakert would be placed under Russian peacekeeping protection to ensure unrestricted traffic. For Azerbaijan infrastructure to its exclave Nakhchivan through Armenia was stipulated in the agreement.

All economic and transport links in the region shall be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the safety of transport links between western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with a view to organising the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions. The Border Service of the FSB of Russia shall exercise control over the transport communication. Subject to agreement by the Parties, the construction of new infrastructure linking the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with regions of Azerbaijan shall be carried out.

Since then, a lot has been shifting in the region regarding infrastructure, mostly the rail links. Quickly Azerbaijan announced it would not only establish a road link, but also revamp the defunct Soviet-era railroad to Nakhchivan via the South Armenian town of Meghri. Also, Azerbaijan announced its plans to reconnect its railway network with Agdam which was under Armenian control since the 1990s war.

Working Group

Following trilateral talks in Moscow on 11 January 2021 about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh and economic transport routes, a Working Group has been set up. This Working Group has been tasked with specifying what is needed to restore international traffic for both Azerbaijan and Armenia through each others territory:

The Working Group will, before 1 March 2021, submit a list of activities and their implementation schedule for approval at the highest level by the Parties, which would envisage restoration and installation of new infrastructure facilities required for the organization, implementation and provision of security of international shipping carried out across the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia, as well as shipping carried out by the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia the implementation of which requires the crossing of the territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia.

This would not only enable Azerbaijan access to Nakhchivan, but in return Armenia would be allowed to transport to Russia and Iran via Azerbaijan. Armenia would be allowed to restore the rail link with Nakhchivan at Yeraskh, and transport goods by rail to Russia through the planned Meghri line. This would be very beneficial for Armenia as it currently has only one landroute available to Russia, the road through Georgia via the Military Highway (Kazbeg). A road that is often disrupted due to snow or other natural causes.

Railway connections proposed for Armenia and Azerbaijan (2021)
Railway connections proposed for Armenia and Azerbaijan (2021)

Turkish South Caucasus Gateway

Meanwhile Turkey expressed its interest in establishing a railroad connection between Kars and Nakhchivan, something that has been in the works for a few years. This would create two connections between Baku and Kars: via Tbilisi and via Nakhchivan. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) line just opened in 2017 as a bypass of the old Kars-Gyumri connection, and frequently carries goods to and from Central Asia and China.

Some argue the Gyumri-Kars connection (out of use since 1993) might be dusted off. That would also make a major difference for Turkish investment needed to construct a direct link with Nakhchivan, but at the same time Turkey might still be keen to keep the door closed for Armenia. It would however make Kars the transport gateway to all three South Caucasus nations and with the current dynamic everything seems to be on the table.

Because one thing has become clear: all the talk about Armenian and Azerbaijan connectivity has sparked much more talk about international connections in the region. Both in Armenia and the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia (see also EkhoKavkaza), a campaign has been underway to raise the importance of restoring the (rail) connection via Abkhazia, with an explicit Abkhazian plea to Moscow.

The Abkhazia railway connection has been raised several times during the last decade. A few years ago Armenia made such an attempt, calling on Moscow, Tbilisi and Sukhumi. That initiative ran into objections in both Sukhumi and Tbilisi. Now Abkhazia has taken the initiative, afraid of missing the boat and a reduced regional relevance.

Overview of the main railway connections and proposed new links.
Overview of the main railway connections and proposed new links.

Persian trade

Also Iran, reportedly interested again in joining the Eurasian Economic Union, is contemplating a connection with Russia through Armenia after a governmental tour through the region. A logical move because it would be based on the old Tabriz – Julfa – Yerevan route. Just a few years ago Tehran had said goodbye to a link with Armenia, as it figured the Abkhazia railway which is crucial would not happen. Instead, it is currently working with Baku on the Rasht-Astara connection along the Caspian Sea. This is part of the International North–South Transport Corridor between India and Russia. With the opportunities now to reconnect Nakhchivan with Armenia, the business case for Tehran increases as it hardly takes any new investment. In the earlier plans a new branch from Tabriz to the Armenian border had to be constructed as well as a long stretch in South Armenia.

Caspian News summarized:

In December 2020, the governor of Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province Mohammad Reza Pourmohammadi announced the reopening of the Tabriz-Nakhchivan railway line. “The Tabriz-Azerbaijan railway is a very suitable route for communication with the European and North Caucasus railways. Recently, according to the trilateral memorandum between Iran, Russia and the Republic of Azerbaijan for its reconstruction, the Nakhchivan railway can be reopened.”

“And what about us?”

In addition, South Ossetia is also chiming in, although that is more dreaming or feeling forgotten than real substance. A local editorial also realizes that: “And what about us, you ask? Never mind”. Remind, in the 20th century various plans were developed to build a Gori-Tskhinvali-Alagir (Russia) connection with a long tunnel underneath the main ridge of the Caucasus mountains. This was never realized due to the increasing importance of road traffic which led to the construction of the Roki road tunnel instead. In the slipstream of regional railroad discussions, a South Ossetia – Russia connection plays a marginal role.

Alagir-Stalinir 1946 proposal
From the Alagir-Stalinir (Tskhinvali) 1946 survey. More on Caucasus passage railroad plans on this page .

All this puts a little pressure on Tbilisi, even though an Abkhazia rail connection is not economically attractive to Georgia. All the more it is for Abkhazia, which is why the Abkhaz Security Council emphasizes this connection is also good for Georgia. Some argue this is mainly Moscow speaking, as it puts Tbilisi in a geopolitically sensitive corner. For the time being, an Armenian transport corridor through Abkhazia is mostly a theoretical exercise, because there are quite a few (geo)political obstacles, mostly for Georgia. An alternative transport corridor for Armenia through Azerbaijan however does challenge Georgia’s position as a regional transport hub. At some point Tbilisi might want to accommodate more efficient alternatives for Armenia to keep the transit traffic, such as facilitating economical traffic via Abkhazia or Tskhinvali.

Whichever the case, things are moving in the region with regard to restoring old railroad and road connections. For better or worse.

 

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