STORY: ROADS TO RICHES? Print this page  |  Email this page   
By Molly Corso

The tie between Georgia’s crumbling roads and its moribund economy is a link increasingly cited by the Saakashvili administration. Fix the one, and you give the other a chance for a comeback, the reasoning goes.

And rehabilitation is the key word for 2005. “There is no economic development without development of infrastructure. First of all, I mean construction of roads,” President Mikheil Saakashvili said in a December 2004 speech outlining government goals for the coming year. “Almost no roads have been constructed in Georgia since its independence.”

Headlining the road projects is an estimated 2.5 billion euro ($3.2 billion) autobahn-style superhighway that would link the Black Sea port city of Poti in western Georgia with the Red Bridge border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Initial plans include the construction of two roads: one toll road and one alternative road. Once constructed, the superhighway could slice travel time from Poti to Azerbaijan by more than half, from some six to a mere 2.5 hours, Caspian Business News reported in August 2004.

One of the regions most likely to be strongly impacted by the autobahn project is Kvemo Kartli, home to the Red Bridge and a region that borders on both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Although no clear plan exists yet about the region’s role in the autobahn construction, Kvemo Kartli Deputy Governor Kakha Baratashvili stated that repairs are already underway on roads leading to the Red Bridge.

Moreover, the central government’s emphasis on transportation infrastructure, Baratashvili argued, has also allowed regions like Kvemo Kartli to repair streets within towns and villages – secondary roads that are often little more than cow paths. For instance, Rustavi, Kvemo Kartli’s administrative center, and a rusting industrial center with a population of some 155,500, will see 12 of its streets repaired completely, including replacement of underground sewage and water pipes, Baratashvili said.

But one Rustavi taxi driver was skeptical about the region’s plans. “In Rustavi there are no roads,” Temuri Chutkerashvili said. “None.” He added that he has not noticed any real repair work to date, expect for a few streets being re-asphalted. Baratashvili himself noted that the region’s roads should not be allowed to take priority over other problems.

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Nonetheless, Chutkerashvili believes the new autobahn could help the region. “Of course that will be good if they build that road,” he commented. “It will be easy to travel quickly from the West to the East; for those who have business that will be good.” That access could be long in coming. Finding the financing for the autobahn – to be built by the Italian construction company Torno International SPA – is an ongoing challenge, said Ubaldo Ciavaglioli, head of the economic and commercial office at the Italian Embassy in Tbilisi. One part of the project-- a 120-kilometer stretch of highway from Tbilisi to the West Georgian town of Khasuri -- -is being funded by the World Bank. Construction for that sector is scheduled to begin in 2006, according to Roman Dalakishvili, head of the State Department of Roads. As of May 2005, however, no exact date had yet been set for the overall road’s completion. For now, though, those who do have business in Rustavi are few and far between. In the Soviet era, Rustavi was a bustling industrial center that housed more than 30 large industries, including the Rustavi Steelworks, one of the Soviet Union’s largest industrial concerns. Today, the factory covers acres in a surreal tangle of abandoned buildings and rusting smokestacks. Official figures put unemployment in Rustavi as ofr 2004 at roughly 11 percent; a US Agency for International Development estimate for the same year puts the number at over 20 percent.

Privatization plans for Rustavi Steelworks and the Azoti chemical factory could conceivably increase the need for roads. The Russian gas giant Itera has expressed interest in Azoti, while companies from Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom are bidding on Rustavi. Azoti’s purchase is expected to be finalized by July, while Rustavi’s buyer should be decided during June, the government has announced.

At the same time, trade with Azerbaijan, to the south of Kvemo Kartli, has nearly doubled since the Rose Revolution. Imports vastly outstrip exports, however (In 2004, $157,702 in imports compared with $25,347 in exports, according to the Georgian Department of State Statistics.) To make it to Georgia’s Black Sea ports to the west, trucks now have to rely on a crumbling two-lane road leading to Tbilisi from Rustavi, a meandering highway more akin to a rural American State Route than a trade corridor.

The latest version of Georgia’s 2005 budget sets aside some $47 million for construction, rehabilitation, repair and winter maintenance of the country’s roads., according to Roman Dalakishvili, the head of the State Department of Roads,

Among the projects for 2005: a 90-kilometer highway connecting Zugdidi, Chkhorutsku, Tsalenjikha and Senaki in the western region of Samegrelo; a roughly 300-kilometer road from Tbilisi to Akhalkalaki, a town on the southwestern edge of Georgia that borders both Armenia and Turkey; and a $6 million mountain tunnel and $8 million highway that will cut travel time through the region of Ajaria from Tbilisi.

But even once Georgia completes its highway improvement plans, maintenance could still prove a headache. In 2004, Georgia spent $600/km for road maintenance, just 15 percent of the minimum amount spent in countries with comparable road systems, according to the World Bank. Despite the added revenue from privatization, Dalakishvili said the government anticipated on spending the same amount in 2005. The quality of the roads could have a sizeable impact on the countless kiosks and food stands that line Georgia’s highways. When summer traffic picks up, as Georgians head to the Black Sea, stand owners along the road that will be the site of the new highway to Poti say they hope the work on the roads leading West will mean a bigger improvement in their sales – and in their take-home pay. “If I go home now, I can’t buy one loaf of bread for 50 tetri. In my family I have eight people. This is how I feed those eight people. No one else works [in my family],” Maslini Khvedelidze, a fish stand owner along the Tbilisi-Batumi highway, said. In a 2004 World Bank survey, residents of five Georgian towns – Borjomi, Gori, Gurjaani, Kaspi and Lanchkuti -- ranked road conditions as their biggest concern after healthcare issues. One frequently heard concern from stand owners is that when the new highways are built, their stands will be pushed away from potential customers or removed altogether. “If we are far from the road, no one will buy anything,” said Lamara Gujabidze, who sells fish along a 300-kilometer highway that runs from the Turkish border to Tbilisi. “We earn money from the road.”

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Meanwhile, government officials, aware of Georgian highways’ shortcomings, argue that railroads are another viable option for trade. “The Georgian Railroad is not only important for the country of Georgia. It has regional importance as well,” said Dimitri Kemokidze, who oversees the Georgian Department of Railroads’ reconstruction plans. Last year, according to government statistics, nearly 15.5 million tons of goods were transported on the railroad to countries ranging from Azerbaijan and Iran to Central Asia. The majority, oil-related products, traveled from Azerbaijan to the ports of Poti and Batumi, officials say.

The railroad’s significance has not been lost on international aid agencies working to revitalize Georgia’s economy. “Georgia being a transport country -- or at least we think of it as a transport country -- the railway can be very important for a place like this,” said Joseph Downey, a lawyer at the US Agency for International Development who is involved in the agency’s work with the Georgian railroad. The fact that the railroad is double-tracked for nearly its entire length gives the railroad “a competitive strength,” Downey said, in the Caucasus transportation market. “There are lots of places that only have a single set of tracks.”

Already, regional neighbors are beginning to take notice. In December 2004, Economy Minister Alexo Alexishvili announced that Turkey was prepared to invest $200 million to enable rail traffic to travel from the Turkish city of Kars to the Georgian city of Akhalkalaki, in the southwestern region of Samtsikhe-Javakheti. Kemoklidze confirmed that the project is on the table, and that the Georgian and Turkish governments are negotiating the deal. On April 6, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan signed a protocol on the project.

By September 2005, according to Kemoklidze, the railroad should have a reconstruction plan ready for government approval, prepared in part with recommendations from USAID contractor Booz-Allen-Hamilton. Some reforms such as layoffs and the creation of a special service for passenger transportation have already begun. A more difficult issue could prove disposal of the railroad’s assets, which range from hospitals, kindergartens and a football stadium. “We think that the Georgia railroads will be concerned only with transportation [in the future],” said Kemoklidze. “We will not need some hospitals and kindergartens.”

-- With reporting by Kakha Jibladze

Editor’s Note: Molly Corso is a freelance photographer and writer based in Tbilisi.

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