Tomáš Baranec/Strategic Analysis (TB): In the USSR period, a reliable network of railways was built in the South Caucasus, which, however, ignored the individual federal republics’ boundaries and instead reflected geographical and economic needs of the state. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this network has been broken in several places and as a whole, largely disrupted. What was the impact on Armenia and its citizens?
Armen Grigoryan (AG): In the Soviet era, the railway was meant primarily to serve the needs of the military and the industry. Certainly, it had been designed with consideration of the complicated terrain – mountains, gorges, canyons, and so forth – but it had been supposed to serve the needs of a state under unitary political and military command. So, for example, Georgia’s railway – including the Abkhazian section – had a rather limited capacity and was not normally used for cargo transportation between Armenia and Russia. As Azerbaijan’s early attempts to impose a blockade on the railway connection with Armenia started in 1989, even before the break-up of the USSR, and the Kremlin, essentially, turned a blind eye, the logistics had to be changed so the Georgian route could be used as a substitution, but with the war in Abkhazia, it also stopped operating in 1992.
TB: Was there any use of this railway from Armenia to Georgia after that?
AG: Since then, the railway’s role has been reduced to the transportation of cargo between Yerevan and Poti, Georgia, so ferry connections to Russia and, to a smaller extent, to Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine could be used. Low effectiveness and higher costs have been influencing the economy since then, with a number of negative effects including an energy crisis in the early 1990s, high unemployment, higher consumer costs and so forth.
TB: Which steps did Yerevan conduct in the last 30 years to facilitate these problems? To which degree were they successful?
AG: As a cease-fire was reached in 1994, Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, attempted to pursue a policy aiming at peaceful resolution, including mutual concessions. In an essay published in September 1997, War or Peace? Time to Get Serious, he presented his vision, particularly implying that stable peace would also mean additional economic opportunities in a changing regional environment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the planned pipelines connecting Azerbaijan and Turkey might pass via Armenia – and that was only one of the potential opportunities. However, then-prime minister Robert Kocharyan, jointly with the minister of interior and national security Serzh Sargsyan (both Karabakh native), managed to pursue the minister of defence Vazgen Sargsyan to turn against ‘defeatist’ Ter-Petrossian, who resigned in early 1998. During the Kocharyan presidency (1998-2008), the negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution were going on, but there was a de facto policy aiming to preserve the status quo. As a result, the Meghri-Kapan section of the railway was fully dismantled. Apparently, that was ordered by Kocharyan himself who boasted that Armenia ‘even under blockade, could develop successfully for 100 years’. In the Soviet period, that link, as a part of the route Yerevan-Nakhichevan-Kapan-Baku, going onwards to Russia, had also connected Nakhichevan with mainland Azerbaijan.