The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, Ilham Aliyev, Mikheil Saakashvili and Abdullah Gül, respectively, said a regional railway project that would link Asia with Europe via the Caucasus was of “historic importance.”
The three leaders were speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony in the village of Marabda, in Georgia, marking the launch of construction of the Georgian section of the railway linking Azerbaijan and Turkey.
President Saakashvili said that it was “a historic day without any doubt,” because with the project Georgia was “moving out of a dead-end” and was linking itself with Europe.
“This is a huge project,” Saakashvili said. “Many doubted it could be done. But from the very first day of my presidency – together with my colleagues from Turkey and Azerbaijan – I started to work to make this project a reality.”
He also said that the railway link would help the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, in eastern Georgia, to overcome economic isolation and “become not only an important transit point but also an economically active center.”
This project, Saakashvili said, “means that Chinese cargo, now going via the Trans- Siberian [railway in Russia], will move via this route. This is a geo-political revolution.”
“Although we have been cut from the Europe’s major railway links after railway via Abkhazia was closed down, we are now gaining more important railway link,” Saakashvili said.
“I think construction of the railway will be finished well before my second [five-year] term as president expires and I will be able to open this railway and become the first passenger on this route,” he added.
In his speech, Turkish President Abdullah Gül thanked President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, for, as he put it, his “important role” in making the project a reality. Kazakhstan has pledged to use the route for the transit of cargo, Abdullah Gül said.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that the project was not directed against any third country. “On the contrary, the project will boost regional cooperation… and security in the region,” he said.
Armenia has been against the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway, claiming that the project would further isolate the landlocked country. As an alternative to this railway project, Yerevan has been pushing for the reopening of the existing Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi railway. The railway between the Turkish town of Kars and Armenia’s Gyumri is currently not operational because of trade blockades imposed on Armenia by Turkey and Azerbaijan.
In January 2007 Azerbaijan agreed to lend USD 200 million to Georgia to finance construction of its portion of the railway. Georgia will have to repay the loan, at 1% interest, within 25 years.
Twenty nine kilometers of track will be constructed from Akhalkalaki to the Turkish border, and 192 kilometers of existing track repaired in Georgia, in the framework of the project.
Construction of the railway is expected to be over in a course of 2010, according to Irakli Ezugbaia, chief of the Georgian state-run Railway Company.