Author: Gela Khmaladze, Researcher at Rondeli Foundation
Despite the absence of diplomatic relations and the actual state of war between Georgia and the Russian Federation, for the past few years, initiatives have been periodically heard from Russia, specifically from the North Caucasus republics, regarding the possible reconstruction and reinitiation of the existing Soviet-era Transcaucasian transport highways connecting Georgia and Russia. A primary emphasis is on thecurrent Stepansminda-Zemo Lars border crossing point not being able to ensure smooth passage of increased traffic flows due to the difficult geographical and climatic conditions.
As early as 2012, during their visits to the Republic of Dagestan the leaders of the Russian Federation at that time V. Putin and D. Medvedev emphasized several times the desire to launch the Avaret-Kakheti highway connecting the territory of Dagestan with Georgia. One declaration, among them, hadclearly a provocative nature; in 2008 V. Putin announced the restoration of the aforementioned road from the base of the special forces of the Russian Federal Security Service located in the town of Botlikh, 40 kilometers from the Georgian border.
As the “Georgian Dream” party assumed power in Georgia, in 2014, for the first time, the current head of the Republic of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, publicly stated that the restoration of the Avareti–Kakheti Road would contribute to the economic development of the mountainous regions of this republic, and they would be seriously engaged in solving this issue. Roughly a month later, the head of the Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, made a similar statement. According to his words, the connecting road with Georgia through the Arghun valley can become an alternative to the Zemo Larsi border crossing point. About a month later, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the head of the Republic of Ingushetia at that time, made a similar announcement that this republic is seriously considering resuming the construction of the Transcaucasian railway, which was started during the Soviet Union and stopped in 1990. It should be noted that in the same period the government of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania also publicly expressed interest about the restoration of the so-called Ossetian Military Road. According to their plan, this road was supposed to reach the Russian-Georgian state border through the Mamison Ridge in the Racha area, at the Oni municipalitysection.
From 2014 to the present, similar statements are systematically uttered with certain periodicity and at different levels of government of these republics, as if the mentioned North Caucasian republics are negotiating with the Russian federal government at the level of relevant profile agencies on the issue of establishing transport communications connecting to Georgia.
The almost simultaneous orchestrated statements made by the leaders of the aforementioned North Caucasian republics give reason to assume that this is not a decision taken at the level of the local regional government, but rather a directive received from Moscow to promote the issue of restoring communications with Georgia. Even more so, when according to the current Russian legislation, border, customs, and transport-infrastructure issues with Georgia, as a neighboring state, are not within the competence of the regions, but of the Russian federal government. In addition, the aforementioned North Caucasian republics represent the most economically backward units of the Russian Federation. Their budgets are 70-90% subsidized. Thus, these regions do not have the authority, competence, and their own financial resources to implement such large international infrastructure projects.
It is interesting to briefly touch on the history of the operation of transport communication connecting each of the aforementioned North Caucasian republics, taking into account their political context.
The construction of the so-called Avaret-Kakheti Road connecting with the Republic of Dagestan was initiated by the Russian Empire with a military rational back in 1860, and was aimed at the rapid deployment of Russian troops from the North Caucasus to the south in the event of a war with Turkey or Iran. However, later, after the construction of the railway along the coast of the Caspian Sea, the importance of the aforementioned road lost its relevance. During the Soviet Union, the Avaret-Kakheti Road acquired only local importance and was used by the population of the mountainous regions of Dagestan for trade and economic contacts with Georgia.
Ramazan Abdulatipov, who was appointed as the head of the Republic of Dagestan in 2013, announced the economic development of the mountainous regions of this republic as one of his priority projects. In particular, it was envisaged to reconstruct the transportation network in the regions with difficult terrain and to pave access roads to the administrative centers of the regions. The preliminary cost of the project amounted to 460 billion rubles, and the leadership of this republic requested it from the Russian federal budget in the form of a targeted subsidy. In order to facilitate the allocation of money from Moscow, it was necessary to present these works as a project of international importance, as if its implementation represented a state interest for the Russian Federation. So, in reality, the reconstruction of Dagestanი internal highways was packaged as Avaret-Kakheti Road a project of international importance. In subsequent years, financial resources from the Russian federal budget for the reconstruction works in the aforementioned high-mountain areas were spent within the framework of this program.
After the completion of the aforementioned works, the subject of the Avaret-Kakheti Road was forgotten by the authorities of the Republic of Dagestan. Currently, in Dagestan, this issue is periodically mentioned only by public activists or individual experts living in the regions bordering Georgia.
The Shatili-Itum-Kali section of the road connecting Georgia with the Republic of Chechnya came to the attention of the international community in the 90s of the last century, when this road became one of the main means of communication with the outside world for the Chechen separatist government fighting for independence. Immediately after V. Putin came to power in 2000, one of the main reasons for the sharp deterioration of Georgia-Russia relations and Russia’s imposition of a strict visa regime for Georgian citizens was the refusal of the Georgian government to allow Russia enter Chechnya through the territory of Georgia using the aforementioned road in order to fight against Chechen military formations.
In the face of the complete concentration of power in his own hands in the Republic of Chechnya and the growing political weight in the Russian Federation as a whole, Ramzan Kadyrov is increasingly making public statements about the launch of the road connecting Georgia. Considering the fact that in Russia R. Kadyrov’s real political influence extends far beyond the Chechen Republic, he might indeed have ambitions to control the international transport links to Georgia. In addition, the control over this road for may become an additional lever R. Kadyrov in relations with the federal center.
It was no coincidence that after the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, on March 15, 2022, during the working visit of the Secretary of the National Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev to Chechnya, the Chairman of the Government of this Republic Muslim Khuchiev announced an initiative, according to which, the Western sanctions and the created geopolitical situation, precipitates theneed to establish new contacts with neighboring states in order to increase the trade turnover from these territories. According to M. Khuchiev, taking into account the difficult situation created around Russia, the implementation of the connecting road with Georgia becomes more urgent.
We should not lose sight of the fact that, as stated in the document on the socio-economic development strategy approved by the government of the Republic of Chechnya, 1.8 billion rubles should be spent on the rehabilitation of the remaining 49-kilometer section of the road to the Georgian border, and the works should be completed by 2025.
The construction of the so-called Transcaucasian railway was planned and begun in the last years of the Soviet Union. According to the project, the railway crossed the border of Georgia from the territory of the present-day Republic of Ingushetia and was planned to connect to the Georgian railway network through the Khevsureti and Aragvi gorge.
In recent years, on behalf of the government structures of the Republic of Ingushetia, information has been spread several times that allegedly they are creating an expert group in this republic to work with the Russian federal government on the construction of the railway project connecting to Georgia, however such statements have never had any results. It speaks volumes that the Russian federal government itself or even the state-owned company “Russian Railways”, which is a federal centralized structure and the construction of new infrastructure is its personal competence, has never made any kind of comment on this topic.
Last time, on December 1, 2023, during the meeting of the heads of the “Russia-Georgia Business Council” organization registered in Russia and representatives of the government of the Republic of Ingushetia, the issue of the aforementioned railway line was raised again. An initiative on cultural and educational cooperation with Georgia was also expressed.
The road from North Ossetia, which was connected to Georgia through Mamison Ridge, never had a special economic or military purpose. In the Soviet period, it was only a popular mountainous -tourist route.
In 2010, by the decree of the Government of the Russian Federation, the state company “North Caucasus Resorts” was established, the purpose thereof was to create mountainousresort zones in the North Caucasus republics. According to the publicly announced strategy of the Russian government, the introduction of mass tourism in the region should give a strong impetus to the development of the economy of the North Caucasus. Within the framework of this federal program, the construction of the Mamison tourist-recreational zone was planned in the territory of North Ossetia, in the Alagiri region near the Georgian border. The 15.6 billion rubles were allocated at the initial stage not only for the facilitation of the mining-resort infrastructure, but also the reconstruction of the existing road, bridges, and tunnels up to the border of Georgia. The launch of the resort and reception of the first tourists was planned for 2018.
As a result, no resort infrastructure construction has been started in Mamison. During these years, the allocated financing of the company “North Caucasus Resorts” turned out to be enough only to organize a four-lane highway up to 12 meters wide towards the Georgian border. Tunnels and bridges on the road were rehabilitated. It is now possible to move not only the civilian transport but also heavy military equipment in any season of the year.
The allocation of the federal budget money for the construction of the Mamison mountainous resort was stoppedfor unknown reasons. Moreover, in 2015, after the infrastructure works were already carried out in Mamison, a criminal case was opened for the theft of 82 million rubles, although no one was punished and the case was later closed for unknown reasons. Later, the company “North Caucasus Resorts” itself was considered an inefficient enterprise by the Ministry of Economic Development of Russia, and its rebranding and management change were carried out.
All of the above gives sufficient grounds to speculate that the Russian authorities had originally intended to rehabilitate and improve the capacity of the existing road to the Georgia border, so that in the future it would be possible to use this road for cargo transportation or military purposes. While, the construction of the mountainous resort “Mamison”, along with the implementation of corrupt schemes, was only a means of disguising this idea.
What does Russia want?
We can only assume why the Russian federal government is trying to raise the topic of Transcaucasian transport communications with Georgia not directly, but through the North Caucasian regional leaders. We think that in making such a decision at the time Moscow thought that the Georgian side would meet with more confidence and interest the aforementioned initiatives voiced by the authorities of the neighboring North Caucasian federal entities, and this would not cause sharp negative sentiments in the Georgian society.
With a high probability, from 2014 until today, the Russian authorities periodically raise the issue of transport communications connecting with Georgia to test the waters. Moscow observes the reaction of the Georgian government and society, that is how ready the Georgian side is to restore relations with Russia and cooperate on similar interstate projects. It should be noted that during all these years, the government of Georgia always reacts to the aforementioned issue with restraint and tries to distance itself from this topic as much as possible.