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No, thanks Photo: Abbas Atilay
 
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Making Tracks

A massive railroad project raises cautious hopes for economic improvement in the South Caucasus. A TOL/EurasiaNet multimedia presentation.

by Andy Markowitz; photos by Abbas Atilay, Molly Corso, and Gulnar Novruzova 5 January 2010

To politicians, business interests, train-spotters, and international observers, the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is many things: a new and improved route for moving cargo through the South Caucasus; a potential magnet for foreign investment; an example of tightening ties among Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey; a sharp stick in Armenia’s eye.

 

But at track-side, the project’s potential impact can be boiled down to one mantra: jobs, jobs, jobs.

 

An idea first floated in 1993 after Turkey closed its border with Armenia, shutting off the existing rail link between Kars, Turkey, and Gyumri, Armenia, the “BTK” project was formally launched in 2007. The $600 million effort aims to establish the South Caucasus as a major link in the Eurasian transit corridor by building 105 kilometers of new track from Kars to Akhalkalaki, Georgia, and modernizing the existing line through Tbilisi to Baku.

 

btkrailMAP
Work has proceeded in fits and starts. Both the United States and the European Union, which previously supported pipeline projects following similar routes, refused to provide financing for the railway because it bypassed Armenia. (Azerbaijani oil revenue is instead providing the lion’s share of the money, including a virtually interest-free $220 million loan to Georgia for its section.) Construction in Georgia was suspended for a time in 2008 due to environmental issues and the Ossetia war.

 

Originally set to go into operation in 2010, the line is now on track to open in 2011, according to Azerbaijani transport officials. (A project overview at the rail-industry website railway-technology.com puts the opening date at late 2012.) Turkey and Armenia’s agreement last fall to reopen their border does not seem to have put a damper on the project, which experts predict will triple passenger traffic and cargo volume on the regional rail network over the next two decades.

 

On the ground along the route, such financial and political concerns take a back seat, as residents in towns where the railroad was once a powerful economic engine look to the BTK to bring badly needed jobs and boost wages – or dismiss it is a political ploy to enrich outside interests. TOL and EurasiaNet sent photographers to three stops on the line – Agstafa, Azerbaijan; Tsalka, Georgia; and Kars, the western terminus – to take a look at the old railway and ask locals how they thought the new one might change their lives and communities.

 

Abbas Atilay is a correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Azerbaijani Service. Molly Corso is a freelance photographer and reporter in Tbilisi. Gulnar Novruzova is a freelance photographer in Ganja, Azerbaijan. Andy Markowitz is TOL's multimedia editor.
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