Abkhaz Leader Rules Out New Road to Russia
Abkhazian president Alexander Ankvab has come out firmly against a plan to build a second land route to key ally and neighbour Russia, even though others argue the highway would open up new economic horizons.
Because of Georgia’s continuing claim to sovereignty, overland traffic and freight to and from Abkhazia is funnelled through a border crossing with Russia on a strip of land along the Black Sea coast. Any further east, and the Caucasus mountains rise up into a high ridge, making the Russian-Abkhazian frontier impassable.
There is, however, a route over the mountains. Officials in Russia have suggested rebuilding a Second World War-era road into Abkhazia. It would open up a new direction for trade and traffic to move in, and ease congestion at the current crossing-point on the river Psou. Others point to the security benefits of having an additional overland connection with strategic partner Russia.
President Ankvab’s predecessor, the late Sergei Bagapsh, consistently supported plans for an alternative route into Russia.
A road could one day make Abkhazia a transit corridor for goods coming from the Black Sea into Russia, and vice versa.
Spartak Zhidkov, a member of the Aynar Media Club in Abkhazia, said it would allow companies in the North Caucasus to trade with Europe via Abkhazian ports, and reduce their dependence on the Russian domestic market.
At the Russian end, the local government in the Kabardino-Balkaria region is reportedly in talks with a British company about a planned road running over the Klukhor mountain pass and through the Kodor Gorge on the Abkhazian side.
Speaking on July 19, however, President Ankvab ruled out building the road.
“As a citizen and as head of this republic, I am against this project, especially since the Kodor Gorge is a unique natural area for us,” Ankvab said. “We must preserve it in its original state – that is my firm conviction. Environmentalists in Abkhazia are highly principled and will never agree to such a project. We will not force them to do so.”
Zhidkov acknowledged that the road would be costly to build and maintain, and might not divert much of the traffic that current goes through the Psou crossing, conveniently located just a few kilometres south of Sochi airport in Russia.
“Even if they build a new airport in Cherkessk [in the North Caucasus], almost all tourists would rather queue up at the old customs post instead of travelling a couple of hundred kilometres along a mountain road,” he added.
As for opening up new international trade routes, political factors will be the major constraint.
“Building the road won’t automatically create new markets,” Zhidkov said. “So far, only Turkish ships have been docking at Abkhazia’s ports. Neither Romania nor Bulgaria is interested in local products, and even if they were, Georgian diplomats would find it easy to curtail such contacts. Turkey closed its ports to Abkhazian vessels at the first Georgian request.”
Meanwhile, President Ankvab’s remarks have been seen as a reversal of Bagapsh’s policy of engagement with the Russian North Caucasus, and as a snub to the Circassians who live in its western half and are ethnic kin of the Abkhaz.
“We must acknowledge with regret that the president of Abkhazia has abandoned the policy of integration with the North Caucasus,” Aslan Beshto, a Circassian activist in Nalchik, the main city of Kabardino-Balkaria, said. “It confirms our suspicions that he is completely opposed to drawing closer to the North Caucasus, and to the Circassians in particular.”
Anaid Gogoryan is an IWPR-trained journalist who works for the Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia.