Turkey enters Silk Road
Economic and strategic benefits of new railway that ensures Silk Road travels through Turkey
Last week saw the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which spent a decade on the agendas of the three countries involved. How will the project contribute to regional prosperity in terms of economic and international relations?
Why is it called the ‘Iron Silk Road’?
Let me remind you that the idea of the railroad was there long before the Silk Road discussion became so popular. After the Turkic republics in Central Asia became independent, Turkey sought ways to link with them. There were a number of routes; one went through Iran, another through Novorossisyk. Of course, you had to get shipments to Novorossisyk by sea before you could send them on to Central Asia by rail. There also existed the potential option of using the railroad between Kars, Tbilisi and Baku, then crossing the Caspian Sea on ferries before resuming with railway transport in what used to be called Krasnovodsk but is now renamed Turkmenbashi. The opening of this railroad would give Turkey and the Turkic republics an additional and effective way to link their transportation networks and therefore enhance their commercial, political and cultural relations. There was a set of problems, however, and one of them was the absence of a link between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. There was a railroad that crossed from Kars into Gumru (Leninakan, Alexandrapol) in Armenia that neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey wanted to use. Therefore, a new road had to be built from Istanbul to Azerbaijan through Georgia.
Will the route provide a reliable transportation option?
This link is longer than the one through Armenia but if you don’t have another reliable option, a slightly longer link is the only one you can use. The construction took longer than initially planned, but it has finally been completed. There may still be minor problems but nothing that can’t be overcome with relative ease. The critical thing is that the rail gauges between Turkey and Georgia-Azerbaijan are different because the Soviets used a different gauge for defense reasons. As you may recall, during the Second World War the different gauges constituted a major problem that had to be addressed so that allies could help Russia fight the Germans. Then a solution was found by developing railroad carriages with variable sized wheels so as to move from one gauge to the other without losing time. Clearly, for each problem, a solution may be devised.
How w ll Turkey benef t from the ra lway project?
The three countries link the new railroad with the Silk Road. As indicated, the initial concept was not a part of the Silk Road, as that idea had not yet been rendered into a concrete policy pursued by the Chinese government. But now that we have the OBOR (One Belt, One Road) project, the railroad is a natural candidate to become integrated into it. I think this link is important in two ways. Firstly, the Silk Road will go through Georgia and Azerbaijan with whom Turkey has excellent relations. Of course, it ensures that the Silk Road goes through Turkey. Secondly, it is a way of attracting Chinese investments in all these areas. In other words, the opening of this railroad is a hugely important launchpad for a raft of economic developments expected to follow.
Will the project isolate Armenia more than ever?
Politics sometimes determine economic activities just as economic activities may determine politics. In this particular instance, obviously the railroad passes Armenia by and Armenia is losing out on yet another front by being excluded from a major transport network. It is already isolated from much commercial and economic activity and its economic conditions are not improving. Its population is declining because of a lack of economic activity. Pipelines and railroads could have gone through Armenia, but its external politics have stood in the way. As long as Armenia insists on retaining the territories it took from Azerbaijan, and as long as it relies on its diaspora to form and conduct its policies toward Turkey, the isolation of Armenia is likely to continue. Neither Russian help on the military front nor the economic assistance collected from among the diaspora will be sufficient to make up for the income that lively economic activity would generate.
How will the completion of TANAP contribute to this?
We may treat the completion of the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline Project (TANAP) as a link to complement the railroad. These are transport systems of different goods, but they follow similar routes that offer symbiotic benefits. For example, it is easier to take care of the pipeline when you have a railroad nearby. One has to remember that the purpose of TANAP and the railroad is to ship goods to the west of Turkey from the Caucasus and Central Asia. So they may be viewed as part of a related set of developments that will bring greater economic prosperity to the region. TANAP is a means whereby Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and maybe, in the future, Turkmenistan will have yet another way of reaching Western markets and sending their gas and oil there. Understandably, this is of great importance since it reduces their dependence on Russia. We must remember that these countries are still very much under the influence of Russia, which tends to perceive them as its own backyard. Now there is nothing wrong with having great relationships with Russia but since the question comes down to the pricing of products and transit fees etc., having a number of options is clearly much better. The completion of the pipeline is also another step in Turkey becoming a critical route for the transport of energy from the Caucasus and Central Asia, maybe eventually from other places to the south of Turkey, world markets. I think the opening of the rail link and the near completion of TANAP are welcome developments that will enhance regional prosperity and Turkey’s role in improving its own economic wellbeing and its contribution to that of its neighbors.