Evelina Gambino (PhD, Human Geography)
My PhD project seeks to examine and interrogate logistics’ development in Georgia. It does so by looking at two separate but interwoven levels: dominant narratives on infrastructural investments and the expectations and lived experiences of local people affected by these developments. Overseas fieldwork has constituted the main pivot around which my research has taken shape. While my project focuses in depth on two specific sites, the port of Anaklia in the north-west of the country and the Georgian hub for the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway line in the south-west, a large portion of my inquiry has been concerned with tracing the spatial, socio-economical and discursive relations between these sites and the broader logistical networks to which they belong. These networks are both global and regional and project lines of connections at once to desired futures – such as the inclusion into the Belt and Road Initiative – and to the past.
In the latest period of my fieldwork I have been concerned with tracing past infrastructural networks, interrogating their relevance for understanding contemporary developments. In particular I have travelled across the railway that used to connect Baku in Azerbaijan with Kars in Turkey, passing through the Armenian town of Gyumri. This railway provides the skeleton for the current BTK trainline on which my project focuses. However the contemporary connection diverges from the old one as it bypasses Armenia, a result of the still unresolved conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Since the conflict, in fact, the borders between Armenia and its neighbours – Turkey and Azerbaijan – have been shut and the rail connection suspended.
Thanks to an ESRC DTP fieldwork expenses grant I was able to spend some time in Gyumri alongside my local research assistant Shushanik Gazaryan. In this town, formerly one of the most thriving logistical centres of the Soviet Union, connecting the USSR with the outside world through Turkey, we were able to observe the traces of a different logistical system, one not based on the competition between different corridors, financed by international banks and private capital but centrally planned and built by the Soviet state as a way to distribute manufacturing across its vast space and manage trade channels with its exterior. Interviewing those who worked across that system, many of whom are now still employed in the railway, we collected stories of the transnational encounters that emerged across the railway, amongst workers from different countries and provinces of the Soviet Union, including Armenia and Azerbaijan. These accounts allowed us to reflect on the changing meaning of infrastructural connections and disconnections across the post-Soviet temporal and spatial divide. Most importantly visiting this former logistics hub allowed me to piece together the complex map of logistical connections within which the current hub of the BTK railway is coming into existence. This is a logistical map informed by past relations, at once social, economic and geopolitical that are translated into current arrangements. While some of these relations are made explicit in the justification of the current route of the train, as in the case of the conflict between Armenia and its neighbours, others are obscured. At the end of my overseas fieldwork, I will build upon these accounts and the spatial relations observed to piece together the diverse connections making up current logistical routes.