Mikhail I. Chernov, deputy director, Centre of Strategic Conjuncture
Ladies and gentlemen!
The participation in the South Caucasus Security and Cooperation international conference – an event that is very important and timely to our states – is an honour to me.
2014-17 will be crucial to our states and our people. The establishment of the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which is bound to gain certain political forms as well, has been launched. A deadline has been set too. EEU will come into effect on 01 January 2015. I am certain the Republic of Armenia will join the organisation. By 2017, the Eurasian Union will gain a more clear-cut matrix of its own, in which most former Soviet states will occupy a noteworthy place.
The logic of Russia’s return to Transcaucasia is owing to the objective economic and political interest of the future Eurasian Union in the Greater Caucasus and Middle East. There are three economic regions in the Caucasus. Firstly, there is the East Caucasus comprising the Astrakhan Region, Dagestan and Azerbaijan. The area is completely linked with the Caspian states, Central Asia and Iran as well as hydrocarbons production and transit projects and trans-Caspian trade. Secondly, there is the Central Caucasus with Russia’s Stavropol Territory, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, North and South Ossetias, eastern part of Georgia, and Armenia. The Central Caucasus region is characterised by hydroelectric power generation, mining and technology projects. It also will become the core of the infrastructural and transport matrix of the whole of the Greater Caucasus. Thirdly, there is the West Caucasus – the Krasnodar Territory, Republic of Abkhazia, Adjaria, Mingrelia and Svanetia. The region is oriented at the cooperation and relations with Black and Mediterranean Sea states and the European Union. It is the Greater Caucasus’s gate to Europe and the Eurasian Union’s access to Southern Europe.
The Central Caucasus is of key importance to Russia and the Eurasian Union. It is the Central Caucasus that is the key to the security of the whole region, a direct military access to the Middle East and the most convenient corridor to the trade with Iran, Iraq and Turkey by land. Russia needs a direct transport and infrastructural access to Armenia to beef up the combat capabilities of its military base in Gyumri. Many in Yerevan are wondering about the future of the country’s economy in the Customs Union, EEU and Eurasian Union without a common border. The immediate border between Russia and Armenia, the Eurasian Union and Armenia shall have been introduced in the coming two to four years: Russia will have gotten a direct access to Armenia and Armenia to Russia along with an unimpeded access to the Black and Caspian seas.
The access will be implemented as part of a border change in Transcaucasia – an introduction of new, fair borders meeting the new economic and political realities. The basis of the new realities lies in the development of transport corridors laid down by the Russian empire, developed by the Soviet Union and bound to be developed further by the Eurasian Union proactively. The key motorway to link western Kazakhstan and Russia’s North Caucasus with Transcaucasia is the Transcaucasian Highway (Russian acronym TransKAM) commissioned in late 1986. Now, the motorway is in limited operation. It links the North Caucasus and the Republic of South Ossetia. For political reasons, the road is blocked on the South Ossetian-Georgian border near the village of Ergnet (Ergneti). In addition, the main gallery of the Ruk (Roki) tunnel is being reconstructed, which will have taken about two years to complete. At present, the tunnel operates in reverse mode. TransKAM is to be modernised by means of an advanced post- and pre-stressed concrete slab roadway surfacing technology that is novel to Russia. This will allow the carriage of any military or commercial cargo, including heavy combat vehicles, without damaging the roadway.
In addition, plans provide for linking the North Caucasus Railway and Transcaucasian Railway. For this purpose, the Alagir-Tskhinval railway leg, measuring about 150 km, has to be built and the Tskhinval-Gori leg has to be repaired. Plans for gaining a railway access to Transcaucasia via the Greater Caucasus Range were harboured by the Russian Empire. The Soviet Union and Russian Federation considered detailed projects in the 1930s, ‘60s and 90s, but they have never been implemented. At a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways, reported his company had started working out a project of a Russia-South Ossetia railway line. At present, the project is being analysed by relevant agencies. A motorway and a railway will link Russia and western Kazakhstan, on the one hand, and Armenia, on the other, via Ossetia, with a further access to Iran, the access including a railway line further down the road.
Quick implementation of the projects is linked with a just resolution of the Ossetian problem, which is yet to be done. There is the republic of South Ossetia recognised by Russia, but its borders – the borders of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Region of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic – run counter the historic realities and the very notion of justice. Recently, in the early ‘90s, about 100,000 ethnic Ossetians were driven out of present-day Georgia’s inner areas. Many of them were driven out of Trialetian Ossetia (the region that was supposed to become part of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region in the 1920s, but never did) and the Gori and Kazbegi districts of Georgia. There is the problem of the observance of the Ossetian refugees’ rights to return and to fair borders in Transcaucasia, including the Gori and Kazbegi districts of the Republic of Georgia, Trialetian Ossetia and the area around the town of Oni joining United Ossetia. Thus, Russia will assume control over the TransKAM with an access to Armenia, the Georgian Military Road linking Vladikavkaz and Tbilisi, and the Ossetian Military Road that will connect the North Caucasus, on the one hand, and western Georgia and port city of Batumi, on the other, once it has been provided with asphalt surfacing. A change to Ossetia’s borders will facilitate the evolution of the Eurasian transport infrastructure in Transcaucasia. The Transcaucasian motorway and railway running through South Ossetia, including the Gori District and Trialetian Ossetia will get an access to the Akhalkalaki and Akhaltsikhe districts of present-day Georgia and farther on into Armenia and Iran. At the same time, the issue of building the Sukhumi Military Road has been raised, with the road to connect the North Caucasus and Karachay-Cherkessia, on the one hand, and Abkhaz port cities of Sukhum and Ochamchira. The need of constructing the road (a stretch running via the Greater Caucasus Range, to be more accurate) is due to the overloading of the Black sea ports of Novorossiisk and Tuapse and the vehicular and railway infrastructure leading to them. The remaining parts of eastern and western Georgia will join the Eurasian integration too.
Another transport corridor important to Armenia will be the Avar-Kakhetian Road that will link eastern Georgia and the port city of Makhachkala. In 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of the need for the road; a similar statement was made by Dagestan’s leader Ramazan Abdulatipov in 2013. Meanwhile, the Avar-Kakhetian Road does exist, needing only to be asphalted. In 1991, Dagestani businessman Magomed Kebedov set up the Stroitel cooperative to complete the construction of the Avar-Kakhetian Road. By 1996, he had built a 55-km-long stretch, of which 36 km ran through Georgia, having paid out of pocket and using loans. A border crossing point was to be opened on the border in 1997, but the Russian border guards closed the road in the same year.
The development of new transport infrastructure in the Caucasus in the interest of the Eurasian Union will influence Armenia considerably.
1. The direct access to the Russian Federation will put an end to the economic and transport blockade of the Republic of Armenia by outside players.
2. There will be a prospect of the quick growth of Armenia’s economy through mining, power generation, railway and motorway construction and reconstruction, and transit.
3. Armenia will get access to the Black Sea port of Batum in Adjaria and father on to Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea countries and Europe, an independent access to and establishing of communication with Abkhazia and the North Caucasus , where numerous ethnic Armenians live, which also is important to the development of the Armenian state and economy.
4. Armenia will get a short way to the Caspian, bypassing Azerbaijan.
5. The scale and quality of Eurasian Armenia and Iran will be stepped up. In terms of infrastructure, the republic of Armenia will cease to be a dead end for Iran; rather, it will turn into its solid partner in transit to Russia and a venue for exchange and introduction of up-to-date technologies and technological solutions.
These changes are objective, natural and unavoidable. Russia has left the Caucasus several times in the past and it has always returned, with each of its returns the regional borders and economic models changing. They already began to change with the emergence and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The process is still under way. It will lead to the development of new regional infrastructure and a new Eurasian reality that will give new impetus to the Russian-Iranian cooperation in Transcaucasia as well.