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The Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad: a missing link between Europe and Asia 30 août 2006

Posted by Acturca in Caucasus / Caucase, Central Asia / Asie Centrale, Economy / Economie, Turkey / Turquie.
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Baku Today (Azerbaijan), 22/04/2006

by Taleh Ziyadov *

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) natural gas pipelines have transformed the strategic realities in the South Caucasus. As a result, the energy networks of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey have become more integrated, raising the significance of the East-West Transport Corridor even more.

Today, these states are ready to take on a new challenge by building the Kars-Akhalkalaki interstate railroad connection that will link the rail networks of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey and lay a foundation for a potential China-Central Asia-South Caucasus-Turkey-European Union transportation corridor. This project will not only boost continental container trade between Asia and Europe via the South Caucasus, but also further integrate the South Caucasus region with Europe.

Background: The idea of connecting the rail networks of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey was first discussed during the Joint Transport Commission meeting in July 1993. The initiative was later integrated into the Master Plan on the Trans-European Railway (TER) networks sponsored by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). In July 2002, the Ministers of Transport of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey signed a protocol confirming the route and at a February 28, 2005 meeting the parties agreed to conduct a feasibility study. UNECE lists this route among Priority 1 projects that could be funded and implemented rapidly by 2010. The realization of this project depends on the construction of a 98 km-long (60 miles) segment of rail from Kars in Turkey to Akhalkalaki in Georgia (68 kilometers in Turkey, 30 kilometers in Georgia, and the rehabilitation of the Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi line). The estimated cost of the project is about $400 million.

Today, there are two operational railroads in the South Caucasus, which are part of the EU-sponsored TRACECA initiative that links Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s transportation networks. These are the Baku-Tbilisi-Poti and the Baku-Tbilisi-Batumi railways. There is, however, no rail link between Georgia and Turkey. The construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad will connect Georgian and Turkish railroads and facilitate trade in the East-West direction. For example, a cargo from China could be delivered to Aktau (Kazakhstan) and then transported by railway ferries to Baku and shipped directly to Istanbul and onward to Europe via the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars-Istanbul rail system. Likewise, a shipment from Europe could be easily transported to the South Caucasus, Central Asia or China. Hence, Kars-Akhalkalaki serves as a rail connection that will eventually unite railway networks of China-Central Asia-South Caucasus-Turkey and the European Union.

The governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan have already made some progress in expanding the current TRACECA routes to Central Asia, which will be extended to China. In December, 2005, a container truck from Kazakhstan was sent to Georgia via Azerbaijan as a part of a pilot program. A 3,850-km (2406 miles) long Kazakh rail system from Aktau near the Caspian Sea to the city of Dostlik (Druzhba) near the Kazakh-Chinese border is currently operational. The length of the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars and the Kars-Istanbul sections are 826 km (516 miles) and 1,933 km (1208) respectively.

Implications: One of the major outcomes of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad will be the increased continental trade through the East-West Transport Corridor. There are various estimates regarding the volume of potential cargo shipments through this route. Most forecasts suggest that during the initial stage (the first two years of operation), the volume of transport will reach 2 million tons and in the following three years it could increase up to 8-10 million tons.

The construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railway will also open markets in the Mediterranean region and South-East Europe for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Central Asian states. It will increase the volume of container traffic through the South Caucasus and be a more secure and shorter way of reaching Asia or Europe. Goods and products from these countries could be shipped directly to Mersin, a costal Turkish port at the Mediterranean Sea, from where they could be transported by sea to the United States, Israel, Egypt or other North African and South European states. Turkish rail networks will also create an opportunity for uninterrupted rail shipments to and from Southeastern Europe.

In addition, the project has significant geopolitical significance. As was the case with energy projects, inter-state railways will bring along questions regarding common security threats and will require collaborative efforts to address these threats. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey will further integrate their security agendas to accommodate Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s quest for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership. The trilateral cooperation between Ankara, Baku and Tbilisi will move the three states into a more integrated transportation and security arrangements, thus cementing their ties with Europe and the United States. Since the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad is a component of the East-West Transport Corridor, both the United States and the European Union will benefit from the realization of this project. Occasional attempts by some U.S. and European legislators and officials, especially those under the influence of Armenian lobbing groups that oppose the construction of this railroad, could seriously damage American and European national interests and their states’ role in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey could finance the construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki project without external assistance. Yet, U.S. and European political and financial backing will strengthen their commitment to the regional development and increase their presence in the region, as it was during the construction of the BTC and BTE energy pipelines.

Armenia’s self-imposed seclusion by continuously rejecting to pull its troops from occupied Azerbaijani territories will further detach it from regional developments. Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly stated that they will not consider the Armenia-backed initiative to use the century-old Kars-Gyumri (Armenia)-Tbilisi railway unless Armenia ends its occupation of Azerbaijani lands. At the same time, Baku does not want to delay strategic and economic projects and wait until Armenia and Azerbaijan come to an overdue agreement in resolving the eighteenth-year old Karabakh conflict. Thus, the construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki project, which may start in the late 2006 or the early 2007, is likely to advance regardless of developments in the Karabakh peace process.

Conclusions: The construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad will address a missing link in the transportation networks connecting Europe and Asia. It will increase the volume of continental trade via Azerbaijan and Georgia and boost these states’ role as transit countries. It will also move Azerbaijan and Georgia closer to the Euro-Atlantic community and create new opportunities for American and European engagement in the region. The project will accommodate the EU-sponsored TRACECA initiative as well as the U.S.-backed East-West Transport Corridor and make the region a crossroads for Trans-European and Trans-Asian continental trade.

* Taleh Ziyadov is an independent analyst, who holds an MA form the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

China joined Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki Railway Project – Turkish Transport Minister

«Trend» news agency (Azerbaijan), 28.08.2006

China joined the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki railway project, Turkish Transport Minister Binali Yildirim told in his interview with “Zaman” Newspaper, Trend reports.

The Minister noted that Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki Railway Project had been drawn up at the beginning of 1960, adding that together with China, Kazakhstan also participates in the project. “In case of realization of the project, each person moving from Kars with railway may reach Shanghai,” the Minister emphasized, saying that on completion of the Marmaray Project, each Chinese citizen may travel to Great Britain.   

“The Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki railway will be ready within two years, and approximately 20 million tons of cargo will be transported through the railway annually,” the Minister stressed, spelling out that today the cargo transportation through all rail links of Turkey forms less than 18 million tons annually.

“The Project will change the face of all regions and help its prosperity,” Turkish Minister pointed out. 

In addition, the Turkish Transport Minister stressed that in relation to the problems with Armenia, the Eastern regions of the Country have shared closeness for many years. “Because of this, Caucasus and Asian countries were united for the railway transportations to Europe,” Yildirim said, mentioning that from a strategic point of view, the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki railway is very optimistic. The Minister once again mentioned the figure of $250 million that is needed for the completion of the project. “The stretch of 79 km up to the border with Georgia will be constructed at the expense of Turkey, but the 25 km stretch in the territory of Georgia at the expense of allocations by the Georgian Government. At the same time, works will be carried out for the modernization of all stretches from Tbilisi to Baku,” Yildirim stated. 

It was further stated that the engineering works within the project started in 2001, and in the first stage, it was announced of the necessity of spending $463 million on the construction of the rail link. “Even China offered low rate credits for the commencement of works. Peking Government particularly voiced its readiness to allocate credit for 13 years, with 5.5% annual rate. However, Turkish government refused to receive the credit, as it did not wish to provide State guarantee for the credit,” Turkish Transport Minister concluded.

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