Abkhazian Railway – Abandoned In A Country That Doesn’t Exist

The Abkhazian Railway was once part of the busy Transcaucus Railway, a strategic railway line built by the Russian Empire linking the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. It opened in 1871. It was an important route for supplying oil from Baku to the rest of the Russian Empire. When the Soviet Union was formed in 1922, the Transcaucasus Railway was absorbed by Soviet Railways but continued to operate as a subsidiary. It did so until the breakup of the USSR in 1991 when the Transcaucasus Railway was split between Armenian Railway, Azerbaijan State Railway, Georgian Railways and Abkhazian Railway. Not long after, the War in Abkhazia broke out and much of the railway in the autonomous region was destroyed and abandoned.

Abandoned locomotive in Abkhazia
A steam engine on the Abkhazian Railway.

Abkhazia traces its history back to the Principality of Abkhazia which emerged in 1463 when Georgia split into three rival kingdoms and five principalities. In the 1570s, the Ottomans occupied the area and it remained a principality within the Ottoman Empire. The Caucasian regions were the subject of conflict between the Russians and Ottomans in the subsequent centuries and on July 2, 1810, Russian forces entered the capital Suhum-Kale. Czar Alexander I declared Abkhazia an autonomous principality within the Russian Empire. During the Crimean War of 1853–1856, Prince Mikhail switched allegiance to the Ottomans. The Russians reaffirmed their dominance over the region in 1864 and Prince Mikhail was forced to abdicate. The Principality of Abkhazia was disbanded and absorbed into the Russian Empire proper. Large numbers of Muslim Abkhazians, estimated at 40% of the population, emigrated to the Ottoman Empire.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia became an independent country of which Abkhazia was a part. It was granted limited autonomy in 1921 but shortly after, the Bolshevik Red Army invaded Georgia and ended its short-lived independence. Abkhazia was made a Socialist Soviet Republic alongside the Georgian SSR. In 1931, Joseph Stalin made it an autonomous republic called the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Georgia SSR.

Towards the end of the 1980s, tensions began to rise within the Soviet Union as many of the constituent republics made moves towards independence. In 1988, Abkhazia demanded a return to its pre-1931 status as a republic in its own right which Georgia was against. In July 1989 in Sukhumi, the tension turned to conflict and the Soviet Army were called in to restore order. Georgia declared independence on 9 April 1991 with Abkhazia retaining their autonomous status. That was threatened in January 1992 when Eduard Shevardnadze became the country’s head of state following a military coup. He attempted to restore the constitution of 1921, before Abkhazia had been granted autonomy and so fearing they would be absorbed by Georgia, they declared independence on 23 July 1992.

Abkhazia Flag
The flag of Abkhazia.

The War in Abkhazia followed and Georgia sent troops to restore order. The Georgian Army was eventually forced back by the separatists. A ceasefire was signed in December 1993 ending the conflict. The separatists had achieved de facto control over Abkhazia and declared independence on 30 November 1994 although this was not recognised by any country.

In November 2003, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted in the Rose Revolution. The pro-western Mikheil Saakashvili swept to power declaring membership of the European Union and NATO as a political aim. This led to tension with Russia, by then under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, who had been increasing support of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian Ruble had been introduced as currency and Russian passports were issued to citizens. Following the independence of Kosovo from Serbia and subsequent recognition by a number of countries, Abkhazia and South Ossetia requested formal recognition from the Russian parliament.

Sokhumi is the capital of Abkhazia.

On 1 August 2008, South Ossetian separatists bombed a Georgian police lorry marking the opening of hostilities. At first, the fighting was between the Georgian Army and the separatists, however Russian troops entered South Ossetia on 8 August. A naval confrontation occurred between Russian and Georgian vessels on 10 August, beginning the war in Abkhazia. Under intense international pressure, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced the cessation of hostilities in Georgia on 12 August. A peace treaty was brokered by the European Council and it’s President-in-Office, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Russia began withdrawing its troops on 17 August but after it recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on 26 August 2008, the decision to withdraw was reversed with the Russians saying their presence was by invitation of the independent governments of both republics. In November 2011, the European Parliament passed a resolution acknowledging Abkhazia and South Ossetia as occupied Georgian territories. Abkazia is formally recognised by five UN member states – Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Syria.

Abandoned railway bridge in Abkhazia
A damaged bridge on the Abkhazian Railway.

Abandoned railway in Abkhazia
A damaged bridge on the Abkhazian Railway.

The Abkhazian Railway was a big casualty of the wars in the region dating back to before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The war of 1992-1993 destroyed the links to the rest of Georgia. Even after the bridge over the Inguri River was repaired in 1993, it was destroyed again soon after. The Russian blockade cut off the railway to Sochi and beyond leaving it abandoned for the rest of the 1990s. Russia’s increasing influence led to the repair of some of the railway and on 10 September 2004, a train from Moscow arrived in Sukhumi. It was the first such train to travel the route since the end of the Soviet Union. In 2009, Abkhazia signed an agreement with Russian Railways to manage its network. Additional sections of the railway were restored and improved and regular passenger services from Moscow and Sochi were reintroduced in 2011. The line to Sochi was further improved for the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup.

There has been talk in some quarters about re-opening the Abkhazian railway connection to Georgia and onwards to Armenia but given the political situation, it is unlikely to happen in the short to medium term.

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