Tourism or tanks? Why Russia, Chechnya want a new road to Georgia
The idea was put forward by Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, while it was approved of by President Vladimir Putin, who called it ‘appropriate.’
Kadyrov has included the project in his master plan for the development of Chechnya through 2025.
Georgia has not commented on the project.
The possible motives behind the project are of particular interest given that protests have been taking place in Georgia at which the slogan ‘Russia is the occupier’ is often heard, and that Moscow introduced a ban on air travel between Russia and Georgia in July 2019.
Chechen head Kadyrov says the highway will lead to increased tourism throughout the Caucasus:
“This is an extremely necessary road for us and for the Caucasus. From Itum-Kali [a village in the mountains in the south of Chechnya] to Georgia would take 40-50 minutes. And from there you can get through Turkey to Europe … Therefore, I think that in the near future we should open this road and establish relations with our neighbors, in particular Georgia”, RIA-Novosti quoted Kadyrov as saying.
Kadyrov said the issue of building a road between Chechnya and Georgia is a fairly political issue, and he expressed hope that “people in the Georgian leadership will appear who know history, know how we lived and how our ancestors lived.”
The roads between the North and South Caucasus and their significance
The Chechen authorities have already tried to implement the project.
Back in the late 1990s, work to lay a gravel road from Itum-Kali began. The idea was to lead it through the Argun gorge to the village of Shatili in the mountains of Georgia, but construction stopped at the border when the Chechen war began.
What was built – about 30 km – was bombed.
Today there are four roads from the North Caucasus to the South, but two of them are blocked due to unresolved conflicts.
Active and somewhat overloaded roads:
• From Derbent (Dagestan) to Azerbaijan along the Caspian Sea
• The Georgian Military Highway from Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia) to Georgia.
Roads blocked due to the unresolved Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts:
• From Vladikavkaz to South Ossetia, from there to Tbilisi through the Georgian city of Gori
• From Sochi (Russian seaside city) to Abkhazia, from there to Tbilisi via the Georgian city of Zugdidi.
Both of these roads were the most used routes both for the population and for the transport of goods from the North Caucasus to the South during the Soviet Union.
However, after the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz military conflicts in the early 1990s, the roads closed.
Both roads are at the center of the Georgian-Russian project to create alternative routes for the transit of goods between Russia and Georgia and Armenia.
The guarantor in this project is a Swiss company, the most recent negotiations between Tbilisi and Moscow were in February 2019. It has not yet been possible to agree on the details.
Experts say there are other, ‘unofficial’ roads from the North Caucasus to the South. Important among them are:
• From Mamison Gorge (North Ossetia) to Georgia
• From Dagestan to Georgia via the city of Lagodekhi
• From North Ossetia to South Ossetia via Upper Zaramag
• A road under construction from Dagestan to Azerbaijan.
This list also includes the unfinished road from Chechnya to Georgia, which in November 2019 was proposed to be reanimated by Ramzan Kadyrov, and in December he was supported by Vladimir Putin.
Georgia is not discussing the project at all, while Kadyrov has already found money for it
Officially, Georgia has not reacted at all to Kadyrov’s initiative.
Georgian experts are very suspicious of the project as a whole.
Military expert, chief editor of Arsenal magazine Irakli Aladashvili told RFE/RL that the construction of this road is not in Georgia’s interests, since all roads connecting Georgia and Russia were always used by Moscow for military purposes:
“In particular, in 2008 [during the August Georgian-Russian war] the Roki tunnel [from North Ossetia to South] was used by Russia to attack Georgia.”
But Kadyrov is determined. The construction of a road along the Argun River from Itum-Kali to the Georgian border was included in the Strategy for the Socio-Economic Development of the Chechen Republic until 2025.
The project is called a “strategic investment project” there, for which about $30 million has been allocated.
The strategy says that reconstruction of the Chechen section of the road to Georgia should begin in 2021 and be completed in 2025.
Why does Ramzan Kadyrov want the road? Social media reaction
“The road from Itum-Kale to the border with Georgia was built under the President of Chechnya Maskhadov, who desperately needed a different exit to the outside world, except for Russia. And why does Kadyrov want it? So that not tourists come to Georgia through it, but tanks.”
“Kadyrov is a well-known tourism development specialist. His only project in this area – the construction of a ski resort in Chechnya – cost the Russian budget dearly.”
“Everything is simple. Everyone knows: construction in Russia, especially expensive, begins as an economic project, and ends with banal theft.”
“The construction of this road will give Russia the opportunity to reanimate diplomatic relations with Georgia as a whole. And after that it will be possible to restore at least five roads through the Main Caucasian Range.”