House Backs Funding Ban on Turkish Georgian Azeri Rail Link

WASHINGTON (RFE/RL)–The US House of Representatives has passed legislation banning US government assistance to controversial plans for the construction of a railway that would link Turkey with Georgia and Azerbaijan and bypass Armenia.

A resolution approved by legislators late Tuesday contains a provision which says that the US Export-Import Bank can not finance or promote "any rail connections or railway-related connections that do not traverse or connect with Armenia–and do traverse or connect Baku–Azerbaijan–Tbilisi–Georgia–and Kars–Turkey."

The provision was unanimously backed by the House Financial Services Committee last month under pressure from Armenian-American lobbying groups. Its main sponsor–Congressman Joseph Crowley of New York–said the ban will "assist in promoting stability in the Caucasus region–help in ending long standing conflicts–and save US taxpayers the responsibility of funding a project that goes against US interests."

"We thank Congressman Crowley–his Financial Services Committee colleagues Ed Royce and Brad Sherman–as well as the authors of the South Caucasus Integration and Open Railroads Act – Joe Knollenberg–Frank Pallone and George Radanovich – for securing the adoption by the House of this measure protecting American taxpayers from subsidizing an ill-advised and over-priced railroad project that–at the insistence of Turkey and Azerbaijan–has been proposed solely for the purpose of excluding Armenia," said Aram Hamparian–Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America.

The administration of President George. W. Bush did not voice objections to the bill–indicating its opposition to the railway project currently discussed by the governmen’s of Turkey–Georgia and Azerbaijan. "The proposed railway would bypass Armenia and thus not be beneficial to regional integration," Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said earlier this year.

Similar legislation is due to be debated in the US Senate soon. If passed–it will effectively block participation of US companies in the $400 million project that has prompted serious concern from Armenia’s government.

However–Turkish and Azeri officials have already downplayed the impact of US funding restrictions. "I think the three countries have enough funds to finance [the project] in one way or another," the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman–Namik Tan–told RFE/RL on June 21.

The Armenian government argues that there already exists a railroad connecting Turkey to the South Caucasus via Armenia and that the regional countries should reactivate it instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on building a new one. The Kars-Gyumri rail link has stood idle more than a decade as part of the continuing Turkish economic blockade of Armenia. Tan said it could be reopened only after a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

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