Re­viv­ing an An­cient Route? The Role of the Baku – Tbil­isi – Kars Rail­way

The Diplomatic Insight - - Editor's Note -

hough the ini­tial idea about the Baku-Tbil­isi-Kars (BTK) rail­way project was raised in the early 1990s, it was not taken se­ri­ously due to re­gional in­sta­bil­ity and eco­nomic real­iza­tion of the Baku-Tbil­isi-Cey­han oil and the Baku-Tbil­isi-Erzu­rum gas pipelines in 2006, the idea of a rail­way con­nec­tion be­came real once again. The BTK, cover­ing 850 km with a ca­pac­ity of 5 mil­lion tons of cargo (upgrad­able to 15 mil­lion) per year and one mil­lion pas­sen­gers (upgrad­able to three mil­lion), and con­nect­ing Azer­bai­jan, Ge­or­gia and Turkey, was launched in 2007 (Kli­mas and Hum­batov, 2016:38; Uysal, 20 Oc­to­ber 2014). It was launched with­out any in­ter­na­tional back­ing mainly be­cause Ar­me­nia was left out due its oc­cu­pa­tion of nearly 20 per­cent of Azer­bai­jani ter­ri­tory af­ter a war in the early 1990s that ended in a Though ini­tially the plan was to be as a re­sult of fall­ing oil prices meant that it be­came oper­a­tional only on 30 Oc­to­ber 2017. Azer­bai­jan was the driv­ing force be­hind the BTK rail­way project. The BTK is an im­por­tant step in re­viv­ing the historical Silk Road. The Silk Road refers to an an­cient net­work of trade routes that was used from 130 BC, when Han China opened trade with the West, to 1453 AD when the Ot­toman Em­pire de­cided to end trade with the West and closed the routes. How­ever, the term is far more re­cent. It was coined by the Ger­man ge­og­ra­pher and trav­eler, Fer­di­nand von Richthofen, in 1877 AD, who des­ig­nated this net­work of trade routes ‘Sei­den­strasse’ (silk road) or ‘Sei­den­strassen’ (silk routes) (Mark, 28 March 2014). How­ever, the trade routes car­ried far more than silk. Trade in­cluded tex­tiles, spices, grain, veg­eta­bles and fruit, an­i­mal hides, tools, wood work, metal work, re­li­gious ob­jects, art work, pre­cious stones and a lot more. It car­ried ideas and peo­ple too (UNESCO, nd.). Ideas and cul­ture were trans­mit­ted chang­ing the face of Eurasia. Many of the cities along the Silk Road be­came hubs of cul­ture and learn­ing. It con­nected the Han Chi­nese Em­pire with the Ro­man Em­pire. Start­ing at Xi’an (Sian), the 4,000-mile (6,400-km) road, in reality a car­a­van tract, fol­lowed the Great Wall of China to the north­west, by­passed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (moun­tains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Le­vant; from there the mer­chan­dise was shipped across the Mediter­ranean Sea. Not many mer­chants trav­elled the entire route. In fact, the trade was han­dled by a se­ries of mid­dle men (En­cy­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­nica, 30 Oc­to­ber 2017). With chang­ing re­gional and geopo­lit­i­cal con­stel­la­tions, the his­toric Silk Road is on its way to re­vival, with a strong geopo­lit­i­cal mo­tive. In this re­spect, China’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI), which plans to im­prove Chi­nese rail and sea trans­porta­tion to better con­nect with the global econ­omy, strength­ens the fu­ture per­spec­tive of the BTK. The Belt and Road goes through 65 coun­tries, in­cludes 70% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, three-quar­ters of its en­ergy re­sources, a quar­ter of goods and ser­vices and 28% of global GDP—some $21 tril­lion (Camp­bell, 2017). Hence, the im­por­tance of the project is man­i­fold, rang­ing from eco­nomic to strate­gic in­ter­ests. Be­ing a part of tra­di­tional Silk Road route plays an im­por­tant role for freight and pas­sen­ger trans­porta­tion between Asia and Europe. The BTK in­creases the strate­gic im­por­tance of Azer­bai­jan by en­abling it to be­come a trans­port hub between Europe and Asia. Azer­bai­jan has al­ready se­cured its en­ergy in­de­pen­dence thanks to the Baku-Tbil­isi-Cey­han and Baku-Tbil­isi-Erzu­rum pipelines, both sup­ported by the West and transna­tional oil com­pa­nies such as BP and ExxonMo­bil. How­ever, the same sup­port could not be se­cured for the BTK rail­way project.

Map of the Baku-Tbil­isi-Kars Rail­way

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