15 October 2006

1130) Railroad project constitutes hope for three countries: Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan

After the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border crossing at Doğukapı 13 years ago, the eastern Turkish city of Kars has been struggling with poverty and unemployment. Kars residents want the railroad to be opened as soon as possible

There is not even one tree around. Passing through a valley that almost resembles eternity, there are stone houses with earthen roofs, children playing in the mud and women with faces darkened by cold and weariness.

Here is Turkey's border area with Armenia and Georgia. The scene is never changing. Villages look alike, so do people. In three neighboring countries, residents talk the same, the talk is about “poverty and unemployment.” “Jobs and food” being the only agenda in this region, a project that interests three countries is top of the debate nowadays: The Kars-Tbilisi-Baku Railroad Project. The reason that this 8-year-old project moves up in the agenda is that the Armenian lobby in the United States has blocked loans to this project in the U.S. Senate. Immediately afterwards, the fact that Russia is about to impose an embargo on Georgia, also brings another light to the project. This route will be Turkey's cheapest and shortest access to Central Asia. Also, Georgia, immersed in economic troubles, will become a transit center of the region with the help of this railroad.

The Transportation Ministry sheds light to which phase the project is at: “The technical project of the route will be completed at the end of 2006. In 2007, a tender will be held. and the estimated cost of the project is $500 million.”

Bypassing Doğukapı:
The aim of the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku Railroad project is to expand the trade volume among Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. This route will bypass Doğukapı, meaning Armenia, the country that has troubles with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and end in Akhalkalaki, a small city in Georgia's southern region. From Akhalkalaki onwards to Tbilisi, the existing railroad route will be connected to the network expanding to the entire Caucasus.

For the Turkish and Azeri sides, this project is not only an economic project but each has a political goal attached to it. While both countries plan to have access to a huge market of $250 billion, at the same time, they consider cornering Armenia on issues such as occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the alleged genocide. Also, Georgia plans to become a new transit route to the Caucasus just like Armenia.

Turkey's Armenian border has been closed since 1993. For this reason Turkey cannot access the Caucasus and Central Asia through the shortest and cheapest route. The fact that the border crossing point at Doğukapı is closed cuts Armenia's connection to the West. It only has a road connection with Georgia to access a naval connection. Thus, the new railroad project is seen as the key to the $250 billion market of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Key to our future:
Even though the eastern Turkish city of Kars is among those provinces that have been prioritized for incentives, it is far from being a center of attraction for investors.

The closure of Doğukapı in 1993 has brought Kars economy to a standstill. Because this crossing is not an ordinary border gate. Once, Kars was selling 10,000 livestock annually to Russia and significant volumes of goods were exported to Iraq and Syria through this gate.

Many of Kars businessmen speak in one language: “The revenue initiated by this border crossing cannot be compared to any railroad project. We have no patience left for any more waiting. Because, our city, Kars is the only one suffering from and paying for the consequences of the closure of Doğukapı after Turkey decided to cut diplomatic ties with Armenia. Our genuine wish is to have Doğukapı opened. If that is not possible, then let them build the railroad to Tbilisi. This is the key to our future.”

Several Kars businessmen insist that the project of the century is the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku Railroad, not the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. This project means an alternative route that would give them access to the outside world.

Doğukapı: Silent for 13 years:
Standing right at Doğukapı, the border crossing that Kars people still have hopes and expectations that will open one day, has a capacity of delivering 10 million tons of goods annually.

A giant silence prevails in the area. The platform where the crane rests, once used for loading and unloading cargo delivered via railroad, is still in its place. The railroad where weeds have grown looks as if it can be functional after some brief repairs. The terminal building is in ruins. Kars residents say, “Only if they open the border, we will complete the whole work in one week.”

The closest witness to Doğukapı's silence is Kalkandere Village. At a walking distance to the border crossing, what can be seen at the entrance of the village is a striking example of regional unemployment. Young people from the village greet us at the entrance of their village. All of them are unemployed. “Harvesting of beet is finished. Winter is approaching. Time will not pass for us now,” says one of them gloomily.

Kubilay Oktay, 27, says, “I was loading cargo at Doğukapı when I was 13.” His life now is limited to commuting between fields and the village. Ayvaz Göktaş, 18, qualified for higher education in tourism this year but he could not use this major opportunity that would have taken him from Kars because of a shortage of money.

Eighty-year-old Murat Şimşek says that many villagers used to earn their living from Doğukapı: “It is closed now and our business is over. Our young people are unemployed. You cannot make a living by harvesting beet and herding cattle. They say Armenians are on the other side of the border. So what? Who cares who's on the other side, Armenia or what? We want jobs.”

October 15, 2006


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