Will the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars Railway Become Uzbekistan’s New Connection to Europe?
On September 27, the head of Azerbaijani Railways Company, Javid Gurbanov, along with his Georgian and Turkish counterparts, Mamuka Bakhtadze and Ahmad Arslan, respectively, attended the first test run by a passenger train along a section of the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars (BTK) railway, from the Georgian capital to Akhalkalaki (in the country’s southwest). After the test train reached the final destination, Gurbanov declared that the BTK railroad is likely ready to begin regular operation (AzVision, September 27). Hence, the minister of foreign affairs of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov, during a joint press conference with Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze, in Tbilisi, stated that the official opening ceremony of the BTK will be held on October 30 of this year (Apsny.ge, October 10).
The 826-kilometer-long Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway connects Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia (and by extension forms an important link in the trans-continental transport corridor connecting Central Asia and China to Europe). The BTK railroad is being constructed on the basis of a 2007 Georgian-Azerbaijani-Turkish intergovernmental agreement. In its initial stage, the railway will carry 1 million passengers and 6.5 million tons of cargo per year. However, by 2023, its peak capacity will grow to 17 million tons of cargo annually (The Asian, October 18, 2016). Beginning in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, trains traveling along the BTK will stop in Tbilisi, pass through gauge-changing facilities in Akhalkalaki, and terminate in northeastern Turkey.
Taking into consideration the geostrategic importance of the project—the BTK, is the shortest route linking the landlocked Caspian basin with Europe—several countries, such as Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have expressed interest in this railroad. As such, there are plans to create regular ferry links across the Caspian Sea, from the ports of Aktau (Kazakhstan) and Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan) to Baku, where goods coming from East or Central Asia will be put on west-bound train cars (see EDM, January 14, 2014; October 2, 2015; April 13, 2016). “The BTK railway will connect the entire Turkic world as well as Beijing with the rest of the globe. This new corridor will enable Turkey to [eventually] transport 24 million tons of additional goods through its territory,” Turkish Minister of Transportation Ahmet Arslan emphasized earlier this month (Trend, October 5).
Particularly since the death (on September 2, 2016) of Uzbekistan’s long-ruling president, Islam Karimov, and the election of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyaev, Tashkent’s foreign policy has been evolving toward ever more open cooperation with regional neighbors (see EDM, May 24, June 27, September 12, 18). And growing signs of Uzbekistan’s desire to participate in the BTK railway, as an outlet for the country’s goods to European markets, clearly fits this pattern. The first discussions of the BTK involving Uzbekistani officials occurred on October 17, 2016, during Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov’s visit to Tashkent. In a meeting with Uzbekistani Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, Azerbaijan’s top diplomat specifically invited Uzbekistan to benefit from the upcoming Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway project (Trend, October 17, 2016). Moreover, on March 18, 2017, a trilateral meeting of the heads of the railway departments of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan was held in Tashkent (EADaily, March 29).
Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s participation in the BTK project strongly depends first on the successful completion of a railroad connecting the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi with Navoi. The latter city, located in central Uzbekistan, is the provincial capital of a region rich in natural gas, precious metals, uranium, and raw materials for construction (Ngmk.uz, accessed October 16). At that point, the development of regular ferry service between Turkmenbashi port and the new International Port of Baku at Alat will allow goods from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to be exported westward via the BTK railway. Early talks regarding the Navoi–Turkmenbashi transport corridor were held in Ashgabat in 2012, when then-president Karimov paid an official visit to Turkmenistan (TASS, October 2, 2012).
The new government in Tashkent led by President Mirziyaev endeavors to liberalize the local business environment in the country in order to enhance economic growth and foster overall development (see EDM, October 3, 2016; September 12, 2017). For instance, the government has reduced the compulsory sale rate of exporters’ foreign currency earnings from 50 percent to 25 percent (Azernews, October 4). Moreover, considering the fact that the China-led One Belt One Road initiative of overland road and rail corridors across Eurasia passes through Uzbekistani territory (see EDM, May 24), the benefits of joining to the BTK project are obvious for the country. Much more remains to be done in terms of building up the necessary infrastructure, putting in place the proper legal frameworks, and reaching political agreements with neighbors. But clearly, Uzbekistan is looking to take concrete steps to be able to make use of this geostrategically important railway.