Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan Launch Joint Rail Link, Further Isolating Armenia

KARS (Combined Sources)–The leaders of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan launched a railway project between the three countries on Thursday, building on links forged by gas and oil pipelines.

At a railway station in the eastern Turkish border town of Kars (a historic Armenian town) the presidents of the three countries held a ground-breaking ceremony for the 290 million lira ($241.06 million) Turkish section of the railway, which circumvents Armenia.

The three are linked by the BP-led Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas line but trade links between Turkey and the Caucasus region are limited.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev placed three sections of railway track on a large map of the region in a symbolic launch of the project as confetti showered down.

"With this project the historic Silk Road is being reinvigorated," Gul said in a speech. "The project is open to all countries in the region who want to contribute to good neighborly relations, peace and prosperity."

Gul’s statement at the inauguration ceremony comes as relations between Turkey and its landlocked neighbor Armenia’seem to warming. On July 8, diplomats from both country’s held secret meetings and in a July 9 Wall Street Journal commentary article, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian invited his Turkish counterpart to watch the Turkey-Armenia world cup qualifying soccer match in Yerevan in September, saying that although there are political roadblocks to normal relations, "we must have the courage and foresight to act now."

"Armenia and Turkey need not and should not be permanent rivals. A more prosperous, mutually beneficial future for Armenia and Turkey, and the opening up of a historic East-West corridor for Europe, the Caspian region and the rest of the world, are goals that we can and must achieve," Sarkisian’s commentary said.

Gul was in the border ruin-city of Ani on July 23, touring the medieval Armenian capital city before attending the inauguration ceremony for the Turkish portion of the railway. Before Gul began his tour of the medieval city, he spoke to journalists at the office of the mayor of Kars. Tatul Hagopian, a correspondent for the Armenian Reporter and Aztag Daily asked Gul whether he had decided to accept Sarkisian’s invitation to watch the soccer match in Yerevan. According to Hagopian, Gul said he had thanked President Sarkisian for his invitation. But, he added, "we have not taken any decision yet." Hagopian, mentioning the ruined medieval bridge connecting Ani with Yerevan acoross the Akhurian River, asked Gul, "don’t you think it can be reconstructed as a new bridge between Armenia and Turkey?"

Gul’s response was: "Our policy is so clear. We want [a] good neighborhood. We want good cooperation with all the countries in the region. There are some problems; [those] problems should be removed. We want to see this region stable, peaceful. All the countries [may have an opportunity] to join regional projects if they recognize [the] territorial integrity [of neighboring states]," Hagopian reported in the Armenian Reporter.

But the railroad project, which bypasses Armenia completely, is seen as the latest step by Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan to isolate Armenia economically and politically. An existing railroad connecting all three Caucasus country’s with Turkey was stopped operating when Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993, during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The project involves new track construction and renewal of existing track, and is expected to be completed in 2011. Work on the 29-km (18 miles) stretch in Georgia was launched last year. Ozgun Yapi-Celikler joint venture won the tender last September for construction of the 76-km (47-mile) Turkish stretch of the railway with a bid of 289.8 million lira, the lowest of 14 bids.

The 160-km (99-mile) section of rail in Azerbaijan will be renewed.

"Thanks to this project we will not just be a part of Europe, we will become a solid bridge between Europe and Asia," Saakashvili said.

Turkish Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said the railway links from the region will extend into Europe with completion of an ongoing rail tunnel project linking the European and Asian sides of Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul.

In its first year of operation the Baku-Kars railway will carry one million passengers and 6.5 million tons of freight, Yildirim said.

The medium term annual target was three million passengers and 18 million tonnes of freight.

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