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Georgian PM Reassures Armenia Over Turkish Railway Project

By Atom Markarian

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli sought on Thursday to allay Yerevan’s concerns about plans for the construction of a new railway that would run from Georgia to Turkey and bypass Armenia.

Noghaideli said that while pressing ahead with the $400 million project’s implementation, Tbilisi will try to convince Ankara to reactivate the currently sole railway linking Turkey to Armenia and the rest of the South Caucasus.

“Georgia will certainly take part in all economic projects that are beneficial for Georgia,” Noghaideli said after a meeting in Yerevan of the Georgian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. “At the same time, we will do our best to contribute to the development of alternative transport routes for Armenia and the reactivation of the Kars-Gyumri railway in particular. But as you can understand, that does not depends only on us.”

Armenia fears that the planned Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars rail link will dash its hopes to become a regional transport hub after a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the normalization of its relations with Turkey. An Armenian government statement said Prime Minister Markarian raised the issue during a tête-à-tête meeting with Noghaideli which was followed by a session of the bilateral commission. But it gave no details.

The commission co-chaired by the two premiers discussed a broad range of issues of mutual interest. “Agreement was reached almost all outstanding issues left over from the previous meeting of the commission last year,” said Markarian.

“This is the first time that the commission found solutions to all issues on the agenda of its meeting,” agreed Noghaideli.

The two sides signed agreements rescheduling the repayment of Georgia’s $20 million debt to Armenia and facilitating transport communication between the two neighboring countries. That includes a complete abolition of road taxes levied from personal and commercial vehicles entering each other’s territory. The two governments also agreed to enhance the existing rail and bus traffic between Armenia and Georgia and look into the possibility of restoring regular flights between their capitals.

Noghaideli further announced that Georgia will more than double imports of electricity from Armenia which resumed on October 1 after a six-month hiatus blamed on the dramatic appreciation of the Armenian currency, the dram.

The socioeconomic situation in Georgia’s Armenian-populated region of Javakheti was again on the agenda of the commission’s meeting. The meeting came less than a week after ethnic Armenian organizations in the impoverished area demanded that the government in Tbilisi grant Javakheti the status of an autonomy.

But Noghaideli ruled out such possibility. “There will be only three autonomies in Georgia: the Ajarian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian,” he told a joint news conference with Markarian.

Official Yerevan has never backed the Javakheti Armenians’ demands for autonomy, offering instead to help to alleviate the region’s problems. Noghaideli and Markarian toured Javakheti in July, pledging joint efforts to improve the difficult socioeconomic situation there.

In particular, the administration of President Mikhail Saakashvili has pledged to invest a large part of additional multimillion-dollar assistance provided to Georgia by the United States in the local infrastructure. Saakashvili has also said that local farmers will be the primary suppliers of agricultural produce to the Georgian army.

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