Friday, September 23, 2011

The unspoken words of infrastructures

Much of human communication is nonverbal. People understand each other without talking, just decoding postures, gestures, clothing and more. Much of the communication between countries is silent, as well. It goes through infrastructures.
By their nature, infrastructures require substantial investments and planning in the medium-long term. It means that they are the test of the strategic choices of a country, not just in the energy sector, but in everything concerning the crossing of goods, people and communications, integration: railways, bridges, roads, canals, antennas and telecommunications networks, pipelines, hydroelectric plants.

Moscow-Sukhumi, by train
The railway that runs from Gagra, Sukhumi, Ochamchire and Gali district to Zugdidi, on to Tbilisi, is not working from ages. In 2003, Putin and Shevardnadze discussed the possibility of reactivating the Sochi-Sukhumi- Zugdidi branch, within the framework of the Process of Sochi to solve the Abkhazian-Georgian frozen conflict. The conflict would have started anew right after - in May 2008 - an additional group of Russian peacekeepers had rehabilitated the line Ochamchire-Sukhumi. After the war, the railway line has been the subject of further rehabilitation carried out by employees of the Russian railways, four of whom died in an accident last February. On 30 June the line Moscow-Sochi-Sukhumi started its service, with the train No 75 which runs a previously national route, now "international".
The broken and crumbling bridge of Shamgona, built by German prisoners, which joins Mingrelia and Abkhazia, is nothing but a rusty walkway. When it’s said to "sever ties" with the past ...

Many holes and one tunnel
A useless railway bridge and a bumpy road, the one that starts from the Ruki bridge over the river Enguri, the only officially crossing point the Abkhazian-Georgian "border", and passes through Gali district, inhabited by Mingrelian: Abkhazia seems to have made his choice of economic integration. But not Georgia: during the works of modernization of the East-West Georgian highway in November 2009, President Saakashvili stated that the new motorway would arrive to Sukhumi. From the Gali road, full of holes and cracks on the asphalt that worsen from year to year, are supposed to pass the 250 000 displaced people returning to the legitimate possession? A project that for the moment remains on paper.
On the other side, what is emerging from paper is another very significant project, which is also tied to an infrastructure that played an important role in the 2008 conflict, the Roki Tunnel. The tunnel, approximately 4 km long, passes beneath the Greater Caucasus mountain range and allows the passage from Russia (North Ossetia-Alania) to South Ossetia. The exact time of the crossing of Russian troops (around 23.00, August 7th according to the reconstruction of Georgian authorities, after 14.00, August 08th, according to the Russian ones) was a matter of discussion, whether the Russian intervention in Georgian-Ossetian clashes of 2008 was offensive or defensive in nature. Now the Russian government is pushing for a renewal of the tunnel, with works scheduled for 2012. The issue is delicate because on the Roki tunnel depend the supplies of South Ossetia, and its traffic, levied, is a relevant sources of revenue.

Basic Services
Not everything in South Ossetia, however, depends exclusively on the Roki tunnel. Water and gas system was born as integrated with the Georgian one. After the war especially the Akhalgori district, which until 2008 fell under the sovereignty of Tbilisi, was often deprived of these essential services. OSCE, which until the war had its own mission in the area, tried its best to have the two networks restored to full capacity. In addition to the OSCE, the Red Cross has been active on the issue of access to water. In July it started a program of modernization of the sewer around Tskhinvali. But the main concern is always Akhalgori. In June, the Lithuanian OSCE Chairmanship launched the Nikosi project. The project, agreed in the framework of the Geneva Discussions, aims to ensure access to water on both sides of the ceasefire line (http://www.

While OSCE tries to implement humanitarian projects that bring together, Tskhinvali starts projects with the aim to settle the division, and right there, in Akhalgori. The district, which passed after the war under the de facto sovereignty of Tskhinvali, did not receive until last July Ossetian television channels. On the 14th July a repeater was inaugurated. Located at 2500 meters it provides coverage to the district and make accessible Russian and Ossetian broadcast channels. The signal also reaches Gori, Mskheta and the heights of Tbilisi. Information warfare is one of the most important, and it is worth remembering that Tbilisi launched a satellite television Kavkaz1, in Russian, which reached the North Caucasus. Its broadcast was suspended because of the interruption of satellite service. According to the Georgian side, the French satellite operator was forced to cut the supply contract under Russian pressure. The channel started to broadcast in January with the name of PIK (Perviy Informatsionniy Kavkazsky).


Georgian information points to the North, while its new power station heads to the South. On September 09th, President Saakashvili visited the construction of hydroelectric plant Paravani (Akhalkalaki) that - once in service, in 2013 - should be able to sell electricity to Turkey during summer. The plant is one of three planned by the Georgian-Turkish agreement of last February, which followed a previous contract (November 2010) guaranteeing the Turkish Kolin Construction Company the construction of a network of stations on the river Tekhuri which should produce 105.7 megawatts.
While Georgia pushes its energy potential in the regional context, Azerbaijan tries to optimize its own. And the potential of the latter, as known, are hydrocarbons. At the end of the month the country will receive the visit of British Minister for Energy and Climate Changes, Charles Hendry. The visit could be the seal of the statements on the exploitation of the new field of gas (estimated potential of 500 square meters) of Shafag-Asiman. England has its share in the investment. Parallel to new exploitations, the race for export routes remains open. This is a separate chapter in the complex world of hydrocarbons. The allegedly eternal competition between Nabucco, the European project, and South Stream, the Russian project - one or the other? One and the other? – seems to be lead by the logic of the first passes the post. An assertive Gazprom would like to conclude with a signature in Sochi, September 16th, that would open the way to the birth of southern twin of North Stream which would ensure the transit of Caucasian/Caspian hydrocarbons through Russia.

One is missing
In the regional projects and counter-projects, Armenia is noted for its absence. Dependent on wheel and rail routes through Georgia, tied to energy supplies from Iran, its isolation increases to the extent that others are integrated. This process is so flagrant to cause concern to some analysts as if it was not a consequence of the political process, but a strategy developed by the Turkish and Azerbaijani leadership to reduce the country to be more submissive. Surely hydrocarbon market is a playfield of political games, in the Caucasus as elsewhere. But especially when projects involve third actors, it is difficult to make them bend to the needs of a single party. A reading of this kind by Armenian experts reveals how deep encirclement psychosis went, and thus how threatening may sound the voices of infrastructures to the landlocked Republic of Armenia.

(Article, in Italian,

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