Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have launched a direct railway linking their oil-and-gas-rich Caspian Sea regions, bypassing Uzbekistan. The new line promises to benefit "tens of countries" in the region, opening the remote areas to major markets, says Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan's state-run Kazinform news agency reports that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Nazarbayev opened the 869-kilometer stretch from Ozen in Kazakhstan to Etrek in Turkmenistan at their Bolashak-Serhetyak border crossing on May 11. The segment is designed to link up to the Iranian rail network.
"Not only will the new railway simplify exports of our goods but it will also attract transit shipments," Kazinform quoted Nazarbayev as saying at the opening ceremony. Reduced delays will offer the two sides “a significant competitive advantage."
Berdymukhamedov, who was in Kazakhstan on a state visit May 10 and 11, praised the new line, too. "Our project also means a connection to transport infrastructure in the eastern direction with access to such economic centers of global development as China, India and the Asia-Pacific," Kazinform quoted him as saying.
The two leaders also launched a new fiber-optic data line, which should link Kazakh networks with those of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, and Turkmen networks (such as they exist) with Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia via Kazakhstan.
Landlocked Central Asian countries are often burdened by broad transport rivalries and suspicions. While closely cooperating in building new export routes for their hydrocarbons, they often shy away from transport teamwork.
Uzbekistan is engaged in a massive railway construction program designed to increase self-sufficiency, recently opening direct links from the center to western Khorezm and Karakalpakstan and southern Kashkadarya and Surkhandarya regions. Previously, travel to these regions required traversing through parts of Turkmenistan on tracks built when both were republics within the Soviet Union. Tashkent is also seeking to link its densely populated Fergana Valley with the rest of the country via the Kamchik Pass, thus avoiding transit through Tajikistan.
The region’s poorer countries are eager for more connectivity, however. Kyrgyzstan dreams of becoming a railway bridge between China and Uzbekistan to bring development to its remote central areas. Tajikistan wants to break Uzbekistan’s transport blockade by building rail links to Turkmenistan and further to Iran via Afghanistan.