Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan have sealed an agreement to build a railway which would improve cargo transportation among the countries and eventually revive the historic Silk Road trade route -- linking Europe and Asia.
The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to the Georgian capital Tbilisi last Wednesday, Feb. 7, to sign the three-way agreement with his counterparts, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. The three agreed that construction on the railroad would start this year and should be finished by 2009. It will consist of a new 100-kilometer railway line connecting the eastern Turkish city of Kars with Georgia, while another 300 kilometers of existing track will be renovated.
The governments hope this railway will connect eventually to the proposed Trans-Asian Rail Network, which is being supported by the United Nations. Transport ministers from Turkey, China, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan met last year to discuss the project, which could one day see passengers taking a train from London to China.
Peace and conflict in the Caucasus
The Ankara government has already forged closer ties with Georgia and Azerbaijan -- particularly for oil and gas delivery from the Caspian Sea -- with a pipeline connecting the Azerbaijani capital of Baku with Georgia and the Mediterranean Turkish port of Ceyhan. The former Soviet republics used to be connected by a Communist-era Transcaucasian Railroad, which once moved millions of tons of cargo every year; but traffic was suspended after the Iron Curtain fell.
Not everyone in the region welcomes the planned new Transcaucasian route. The government in Armenia has criticized the decision by its three neighbors to develop a corridor that avoids Armenia altogether. Leaders in Yerevan say the plan deliberately ignores the old rail link between Armenia and Turkey, which has been idle since the the two countries cut off diplomatic ties in 1993.
Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are not much better: The two countries bitterly disagree over the enclave of Nagoro-Karabakh. The mountainous territory inside Azerbaijan has been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire ended six years of fighting, during which over 30,000 people died.