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Central Asian Transport Rivalry

Both Kazakstan and Uzbekistan are eager to be seen as a gateway between East and West
By Denis Galetov

Kazakstan is investing heavily in its road, air and rail network in a bid to offer commercial hauliers the optimum transit routes between Europe and South-east Asia.


Encouraged by the rapid growth of manufacturing industries in China, Iran and India, the former Soviet republic is determined to take maximum advantage of its geographical position and to build a reputation as the region's transport hub.


"Kazakstan has every intention of cashing in on its favourable location and establishing a solid position on the world transport market," said the Kazak minister of transport Karym Masimov.


However, some experts agree that the question has only recently been given high priority because of the growing competition between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan for regional pre-eminence.


"This rivalry is evident in many different areas - in politics, economics and even ideology," said Ryskul Gaziev, political correspondent for the Almaty Times.


"As far as transport is concerned, Tashkent has long fostered ambitions to monopolise the passenger and haulage industry between West and East. The recent opening of a large, modern airport marked an important step towards achieving this goal."


Kazakstan, however, has been quick to take up the challenge. Work has begun on a passenger terminal at Almaty airport whilst plans are afoot to build a new international airport near the town of Kapchagay, in the Almaty oblast.


Sergei Kulnazarov, general director of KazAaeroNavigatsia, said, "I believe the construction of an airport at Kapchagay will give a real boost to civil aviation in Kazakstan. It will allow foreign carriers flying between Europe and South-east Asia to shift their focus towards Kazak airspace. As far as Almaty airport is concerned, KazAeroNavigatsia easily has the capabilities to service two international airports."


Road haulage has become another area of rivalry between Kazakstan and Uzbekistan with both countries eager to provide the preferred gateway between East and West.


Kazakstan is also working to develop an outlet to the markets of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait and South-east Asia. Currently hauliers favour a route through Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan which circumvents Kazakstan and means the loss of valuable business.


Consequently, the Kazak government is pouring funds into the reconstruction of the Aktau commercial port, on the Caspian Sea.


Port director Taglat Abylgazin told IWPR, "According to the existing agreement, the second phase [of the project] will see the renovation of rail and road communications since without roads the port cannot work to its full capacity." The Asian Bank of Development, ADB, is keeping a close eye on transport developments in the Central Asian region. Van der Linden, director of programmes for ABD East, said, "Since 1996, this organisation has invested significant funds in developing the Central Asian transport sector."


Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is pursuing other initiatives. At a 2000 conference devoted to transport issues in Central Asia, delegates focused heavily on a project to build new railway links between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan. It is a project which the Kazak government views with a certain amount of caution.


The rail link could win Uzbekistan significant foreign investments as well as increased political leverage over its neighbours. There is also a danger that Uzbekistan will forge a partnership agreement with Turkmenistan and use its sea port to export goods across the Caspian, bypassing Kazakstan. Such an eventuality could have a disastrous effect on the port at Aktau.


Some observers, however, say there is cause for optimism. A lecturer at the Almaty State University department for international relations, said, "If we consider that control over strategic transport routes is a source of considerable diplomatic leverage, then Kazakstan has many more opportunities for bringing influence to bear on Uzbekistan than vice versa.


"At the present time, Central Asia has more commercial dealings with Russia than with any other country (80 per cent of its machinery comes from Russia, from aeroplanes right down to the nuts and bolts on a tractor). We should remember that all transport routes linking Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with Russia pass through Kazak territory."


Kazakstan is also actively rebuilding rail links from China to Western Europe as well as the intercontinental superhighway passing through Europe and the Caucasus, down into China and South-east Asia.


The European Union is offering technical assistance under the TACIS programme whilst other partners include Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The overall value of air, road and rail haulage from Europe to South East Asia and back is estimated at around $100 billion.


It seems likely that Uzbekistan will succeed in developing a transport link through Kyrgyzstan to China -- a major source of competition for Kazakstan. However, if Astana can improve its existing transport system, prove itself a reliable partner and forge concrete links with international hauliers, it should not suffer unduly from the Uzbek threat.


Denis Galetov is a political analyst in Almaty


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