Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Caucasus: where the east meets west and much, much more

Tuesday, February 13, 2007, #028 (1295)
The Messenger

The Caucasus is often spoken of as a gateway between Europe and Asia, and the 'east meets west' cliché is all too often applied. But is easy to forget that less than twenty years ago this wasn't so much the place where the east met the west, but rather where they faced each other down across one of the most heavily militarised borders in the world.

When President Saakashvili signed the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway contract and a declaration on regional cooperation with the Turkish prime minister and the Azeri president last week he talked about Georgia's border with Turkey-"one of the most transparent borders in the world"-but he emphasised that when he was growing up, the only thing the Turks on the other side of the border knew of Georgia was an enormous searchlight preventing them seeing what was happening on the other side, and presumably searching for would be defectors attempting a night swim across the short stretch of water, and away from the oppression of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, visiting Batumi in the summer, it is hard to imagine that the tourist infested beach at Sarpi (and the considerably calmer one on the Turkish side, where Georgians can now sunbathe sans visa) used to be the easternmost extension of the Iron Curtain.

The president also talked about the new railway turning Georgia from a dead end to an integrated part of a network, and as such this link is the culmination of the process that started when the searchlight was switched off and the Turkish border opened for ordinary people. Georgia's western orientation and cooperation with its neighbours is turning the entire region from a divide into a bridge-and a profitable and self sustaining one at that.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is a link in a chain that stretches from china, through the Caucasus and under the Bosporus to the Atlantic Ocean. The new route will be the shortest way for goods and people to traverse the Old World overland, and what's more, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan are doing it all by themselves, with no help from outside. The three countries are forging a region out of what was for so long a frontier, and it is truly a cause for celebration.

And it was certainly an uphill struggle getting this railway started. As the route bypasses Armenia, and thus does not include all the countries in the region, America and Europe were not keen. Russia also opposed the railway, partly out of concern for its ally Armenia, but also because the new route may compete with Russia's Trans-Siberian. But, like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline-once derided as the 'pipeline to nowhere', and now an integral part of Europe's energy security architecture-the railway has confounded its critics, and will be ready for business in a few short years.

These projects, and this regional cooperation, mean the Caucasus is turning into a place much more significant than the place where east meets west: it is becoming the place where the east is bound up and interlinked with the west, the region that connects these outdated stereotypes, and thereby overcomes them. This can only be a good thing for all concerned.
Irrespective how much Georgia wants to sugar coat it and how much Armenia wants to downplay because it relies on Georgia to access to the world, the reality speaks otherwise. I see this as Georgia caving in to Turkey and Azerbaijan to bring Armenia to its knees in order for it to make concessions on the Genocide recognition and Nagorno Karabakh.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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