Darial: An Opportunity for Georgian-Russian Cooperation?

Photograph of the Darial Gorge Disaster (Interpress News Agency)

Photograph of the Darial Gorge Disaster (Interpress News Agency)

Located along the Georgian Military Road, south of Vladikavkaz and just north of Mount Kazbek, one finds the famous Darial Gorge. Once celebrated in Lermontov’s romantic poem, The Demon, the Darial was the site of a terrible disaster on Saturday.

A major landslide originating from the Devdoraki glacier on the northern slopes of Kazbek, brought down a massive wave of debris and mud into the gorge. One Ukrainian citizen, a truck driver, was killed. Seven others are reported missing. Three trucks are reportedly buried in the debris. The landslide blocked the Terek river bed and destroyed part of the Georgian Military Road linking Georgia to Russia, the only overland link between the two countries given the unresolved Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

The disaster also halted the flow of natural gas from Russia to Georgia’s southern neighbor, Armenia, which heavily relies on this resource. Armenians also rely on the Georgian Military Road as a point of direct land access from Georgia to Russia, where many Armenians are migrant workers. The only other possible outlet would be from the Georgian port cities of Batumi or Poti on the Black Sea to Sochi in Russia via boat. These links are especially vital for Armenia, a country still blockaded by Turkey and Azerbaijan over the Nagorny Karabakh dispute. Consequently, for Armenians, Georgia is more than just a neighboring country. It is a lifeline.

Rescue crews were immediately mobilized at the scene of the disaster. 150 people were rescued, primarily “customs, border guard and police employees, as well as several foreign citizens, who are cargo truck drivers.” All were evacuated by helicopter. Twelve workers (all Turkish citizens), trapped in the derivation tunnel of the nearby Darial hydro power plant, were also rescued. The power plant, which is under construction, is highly controversial in Georgia. Georgian environmental activists say that building the dam could adversely affect the area’s ecology.

Georgian President Margvelashvili in the Darial Gorge (Interpress News Agency)

Georgian President Margvelashvili in the Darial Gorge (Interpress News Agency)

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and several of his ministers, including Georgian football superstar-turned-energy-minister Kakha Kaladze, arrived in the area to hold a meeting on the emergency.  Garibashvili left his helicopter to the rescuers and returned to Tbilisi instead by car.  President Giorgi Margvelashvili also went to the Darial to survey the damage. When he arrived from Tbilisi, he concluded that the mountain collapse was larger than the 2007 landslide in Georgia.

Significantly, the first foreign aid came from Russia.  Immediately following the disaster, contact was established with Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations.  The Russian Foreign Ministry has pledged to mobilize aid to assist Georgia in its recovery efforts.  To this end, it has given Georgia 18 metric tons of diesel fuel to “secure uninterrupted work of heavy equipment” to clean up the area affected by the landslide.  Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has thanked Moscow for its assistance.  On the morning of May 19, official Armenia has offered aid to Tbilisi as well.

Rescue Helicopter in the Darial (Interpress News Agency)

Rescue Helicopter in the Darial Gorge (Interpress News Agency)

From the Russian side, sending aid to the disaster zone is now much easier thanks to Moscow’s recent unilateral full reopening of the Georgian Military Road back in March. The road was closed completely in 2006 due to tension between Russia and Georgia’s then-President Mikheil Saakashvili. It was partially reopened in 2010, before being fully reopened in March this year.

The recovery efforts come amid a stalled Russo-Georgian rapprochement. During the Sochi Olympic Games in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Georgian President Margvelashvili to a direct meeting. It would be the first such meeting between the Russian and Georgian political leaderships since the 2008 war. Unfortunately, the process toward this meeting has been delayed by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. At a recent Prague meeting between Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, and his Russian counterpart, Grigory Karasin, the issue was reportedly discussed, though no date has been set for the actual meeting.

Meanwhile, in light of the crisis in Ukraine, the West has taken advantage of the absence of diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia and has redoubled its efforts to ensure that Georgia maintains a pro-EU and pro-NATO path. Unlike the previous Saakashvili government, which was categorically pro-Western, the present Georgian Dream government in Tbilisi has sought a balanced relationship between both Russia and the West.  This past week, Georgia’s Abashdize said that ideally, Georgia would have free trade regimes with both Russia and the European Union. Earlier in September, shortly after Armenia’s U-turn on the EU in favor of the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union, Georgia’s then-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, said that Georgia too may consider joining the Eurasian Union “if it will be advantageous for our country.” Though no longer in office, the Imeretian billionaire is still financially supporting the Georgian Dream government and is widely believed to be actively working with them behind-the-scenes.

Russia and Georgia need to seize the moment to restore relations and move forward. Cooperation on the rescue and recovery effort from the Darial disaster presents a good opening for renewed diplomacy on both sides.

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