Georgia to remain vital transit route for Armenia

Regardless of whether Turkey put an end to its blockade of Armenia

by Tatul Hakobyan

Published: Friday November 13, 2009

The map portrays the Turkish rail system. The distance between Armenia and the Black Sea is smaller via Georgia than it is via Turkey, and the rail lines in Turkey travel more slowly, owing to the bad shape of the lines.

The Gyumri-Kars railway at the border. Photolure.

Kars - Armenia is a landlocked country that is also blockaded by two of its four neighbors. One needs only to look at a map to understand the dire situation; territorially the smallest of the former Soviet republics, it is blockaded to the west by Turkey and to the east by Azerbaijan. In fact, 80 percent of the length of its borders is closed, and with it, all roads, rail lines, and pipelines from Turkey and Azerbaijan into Armenia are also closed.

Armenia has a border that's a mere 40 kilometers long but extremely important along the length of the Araks River, which it shares with its southern neighbor, Iran. For Armenia, the border with Georgia is more vital because the main land, rail, and seaborne transportation routes, which allow Armenia to connect with the outside world, pass through Georgia. About 70 percent of Armenia's foreign commodity circulation is realized through Georgian territory - via the Georgian rail system and the ports of Batumi and Poti.

The natural gas pipeline through which Russian natural gas flows into Armenia passes through Georgian territory. A few years ago an alternative Iran-Armenia pipeline was built. However, today Armenia continues to use Russian gas. The gas that reaches Armenia through Iran is converted to electricity and sent back to Iran.

The re-opening of the Russian-Georgian Upper Lars-Kazbegi land border crossing can only have a small effect on Armenia's economy because for Armenia the Georgian rail and Black Sea ports have the most significance.

In the event that the blockade by Turkey is lifted and the Turkey-Armenia border re-opens, Armenia will have new alternative routes to the outside world. With competition, Georgia will be forced to reduce transportation tariffs by a certain amount. Armenia naturally will also benefit to an extent from Turkish transit lines, initially by land transit. However, in the coming decades, thanks to its geographical position, and the good condition of its rail lines and ports, it is Georgia that will continue to remain the most important transit country for Armenia.

In pitiful shape

The lifting of the Turkish blockade would signifies the following: the land border crossings (one at Alijan-Margara by the Araks, which is only 40 km west of Yerevan, and the Kars-Gyumri border crossing) will open; the Kars-Gyumri rail line between Turkey and Armenia, which has been idle since 1993, will open. Air transit between Armenia and Turkey, which was also closed for a few years by Ankara, reopened in 1996. Today, there are regular flights between Yerevan and Istanbul, and in the summer months between Yerevan and Antalya also.
If the border is opened, will Armenian cargo transport immediately benefit from Turkish rail lines? It will benefit only minimally because the present physical condition of the Turkish rail system is not promising. Simply put, the Turkish rail system is in such pitiful shape that it is impossible to transport serious amounts of cargo.

As we noted, 70 percent of Armenia's foreign commodity circulation is realized via Georgian rail and Black Sea ports. If we look at the map, will it be possible or advantageous for Armenia to transport its cargo through the Turkey-Armenia border, if it is opened, via Turkish rail and Turkish sea ports?

A slow trip

The rail line from Yerevan to the sea ports of Batumi and Poti are three times shorter than the rail line from Yerevan to the Turkish port of Samsun. Moreover, while the Georgian railroad travels over mostly flatlands, the Turkish rail line passes primarily through mountain ranges. Why should Armenia make use of the Turkish rail line when it is three times longer and in such bad shape? If it takes Armenian cargo less than a day from Yerevan to Batumi, then from Yerevan to the Turkish port of Samsun it would take more than two days.

Even if Turkish transit tariffs are incomparably cheaper than Georgian tariffs, still, in the coming decades Armenia will be using Georgian rail lines because the Turkish railroad, which was built a hundred years ago, is simply not in a condition to carry out cargo transportation.

It takes passenger trains 45 hours to travel from Kars to Istanbul. This means that Turkish trains travel, on average, 20-25 km/hr. And it is exactly for this reason that the Turks themselves rarely use trains.

Georgian transit will significantly lose value for Armenia when there is a resolution to the Nagorno­-­Karabakh conflict and Armenia and Azerbaijan establish normal relations. In that case, aside from the Georgian rail system, Armenia will also equally make use of Azerbaijani railroads that will take it to its most important strategic, political and economic partner, Russia and then on to Europe.

However, there are no expectations that in the near future there will be a resolution of the Karabakh conflict and the railroads connecting Armenia and Azerbaijan - Yerevan-Nakhichevan-Baku and Ichevan-Baku - will begin operating. In fact, if Yerevan and Baku establish normal relations, then Armenia can reconnect with the Iranian rail system also. The Yerevan-Tabriz-Tehran rail line has also been idle for the past two decades because it passes through Nakhichevan.

Armenia and Iran have come to a political decision to build a new railroad, which will cost somewhere between 1 and 2 billion dollars. If that railroad is built, it will be significant, but once again it will not replace the Georgian railroad. For Armenia, perhaps the re-opening of the Abkhazian rail line would be more significant - but remains unrealistic, taking into account the current state of Russian-Georgian relations.

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The Cafesjian Foundation has taken a difficult decision to close The Armenian Reporter. We regret that we are forced to take this decision after more than eight years of publishing. We thank our readers and all individuals who have contributed to the Reporter. Kathleen Cafesjian Baradaran Chair, Cafesjian Family Foundation

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