Transportation and Telecommunications
Georgia's location makes it an important commercial transit route, and the country inherited a well-developed transportation system when it became independent in 1991. However, lack of money and political unrest have cut into the system's maintenance and allowed it to deteriorate somewhat since independence. Fighting in and around the secessionist Abkhazian Autonomous Republic in the northwest has isolated that area and also has cut some of the principal rail and highway links between Georgia and Russia.
In 1990 Georgia had 35,100 kilometers of roads, 31,200 kilometers of which were paved. Since the nineteenth century, Tbilisi has been the center of the Caucasus region's highway system, a position reinforced during the Soviet era. The country's four principal highways radiate from Tbilisi roughly in the four cardinal directions. Route M27 extends west from the capital through the broad valley between the country's two main mountain ranges and reaches the Black Sea south of Sukhumi. The highway then turns northwest along the Black Sea to the Russian border. A secondary road, Route A305, branches off Route M27 and carries traffic to the port of Poti. Another secondary road runs south along the Black Sea coast from Poti to the port of Batumi. From Batumi a short spur of about ten kilometers is Georgia's only paved connection with Turkey.
Route A301, more commonly known as the Georgian Military Highway, runs north for almost 200 kilometers from Tbilisi across the Greater Caucasus range to Russia. The route was first described by Greek geographers in the first century B.C. and was the only land route north into Russia until the late 1800s. The route contains many hairpin turns and winds through several passes higher than 2,000 meters in elevation before reaching the Russian border. Heavy snows in winter often close the road for short periods. The country's other two main highways connect Tbilisi with the neighboring Transcaucasian countries. Route A310 runs south to Erevan, and Route A302 extends east across a lower portion of the Greater Caucasus range to Azerbaijan. All major routes have regular and frequent bus transport.
Georgia had 1,421 kilometers of rail lines in 1993, excluding several small industrial lines. In the early 1990s, most lines were 1.520-meter broad gauge, and the principal routes were electrified. The tsarist government built the first rail links in the region from Baku on the Caspian Sea through Tbilisi to Poti on the Black Sea in 1883; this route remains the principal rail route of Transcaucasia. Along the Black Sea, a rail route extends from the main east-west line into Russia, and two lines run south from Tbilisi--one to Armenia and the other to Azerbaijan. Spurs link these main routes with smaller towns in Georgia's broad central valley. Principal classification yards and rail repair services are in Batumi and Tbilisi. Most rail lines provide passenger service, but in 1994 international passenger service was limited to the Tbilisi-to-Baku train. Because of fighting in Abkhazia, freight and passenger service to Russia has been suspended, with only the section from Tbilisi to the port of Poti still operative. Service on the Tbilisi-to-Erevan line has also been disrupted because the tracks pass through the area of armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Tbilisi was one of the first cities of the Soviet Union to have a subway system. The system consists of twenty-three kilometers of heavy rail lines, most of which are underground. Three lines with twenty stations radiate from downtown, with extensions either planned or under construction in 1994. The system is heavily used, and trains run at least every four minutes throughout the day. In 1985, the last year of available statistics, 145 million passengers were carried, about the same number of passengers that used Washington's Metrorail system in 1992.
Georgia's principal airport, Novoalekseyevka, is about eighteen kilometers northeast of downtown Tbilisi. With a runway approximately 2,500 meters long, the airport can accommodate airplanes as large as the Russian Tu-154, the Boeing 727, and the McDonnell Douglas DC-9. In 1993 the airport handled about 26,000 tons of freight. Orbis, the new state-run airline, provides service to neighboring countries, flights to several destinations throughout Russia, and direct service to some European capitals. Between 1991 and 1993, fuel shortages severely curtailed air passenger and cargo service, however. Eighteen other airports throughout the country have paved runways, but most are used for minor freight transport.
Georgia's Black Sea ports provide access to the Mediterranean Sea via the Bosporus. Georgia has two principal ports, at Poti and Batumi, and a minor port at Sukhumi. Although Batumi has a natural harbor, Poti's man-made harbor carries more cargo because of that city's rail links to Tbilisi. The port at Poti can handle ships having up to ten meters draught and 30,000 tons in weight. Altogether, nine berths can process as much as 100,000 tons of general cargo, 4 million tons of bulk cargo, and 1 million tons of grain per year. Facilities include tugboats, equipment for unloading tankers, a grain elevator, 22,000 square meters of covered storage area, and 57,000 square meters of open storage area. Direct onloading of containers to rail cars is available. The port primarily handles exports of grain, coal, and ores and imports of general cargo. Poti is ice-free, but in winter strong west winds can make entry into the port hazardous.
Batumi's natural port is located on a bay just northeast of the city. Eight alongside berths have a total capacity of 100,000 tons of general cargo, 800,000 tons of bulk cargo, and 6 million tons of petroleum products. Facilities include portal cranes, loaders for moving containers onto rail cars, 5,400 square meters of covered storage, and 13,700 square meters of open storage. The port lies at the end of the Transcaucasian pipeline from Baku and is used primarily for the export of petroleum and petroleum products. The port's location provides some protection from the winds that buffet Poti. However, strong winds can cause dangerous currents in the port area, forcing ships to remain offshore until conditions improve.
Sukhumi, capital of the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic, is a small port that handles limited amounts of cargo, passenger ferries, and cruise ships. Imports consist mostly of building materials, and the port handles exports of local agricultural products, mostly fruit. Strong westerly and southwesterly winds make the port virtually unusable for long periods in the autumn and winter. Sukhumi has been unavailable to Georgia since Georgian forces abandoned the city during the conflict of the autumn of 1993.
In 1992 Georgia had 370 kilometers of crude oil pipeline, 300 kilometers of pipeline for refined petroleum products, and 440 kilometers of natural gas pipeline. Batumi is the terminus of a major oil pipeline that transports petroleum from Baku across the Caucasus for export. Two natural gas pipelines roughly parallel the route of the oil pipeline from Baku to Tbilisi before veering north along the Georgian Military Highway to Russia. Pipelines are generally high-capacity lines and have a diameter of either 1,020 or 1,220 millimeters.
Historically, Georgia was an important point on the Silk Road linking China with Europe. Since independence Georgians have discussed resuming this role by turning the republic into a modern transportation and communications hub. Such a plan might also make the republic a "dry Suez" for the transshipment of Iranian oil west across the Caucasus.
In 1991 about 672,000 telephone lines were in use, providing twelve lines per 100 persons. The waiting list for telephone installation was quite long in the early 1990s. Georgia is linked to the CIS countries and Turkey by overland lines, and one lowcapacity satellite earth station is in operation. Three television stations, including the independent Iberia Television, and numerous radio stations broadcast in Georgian and Russian.
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