BACKGROUND: The contemporary Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as Afghanistan – consider the development of alternative regional transportation and communication arteries as important to their national and regional strategy. The various initiatives in this regard gradually result in the revival of the Great Silk Road, and the development of new transport communication toward the east, west, south and north. Some priorities for the countries in the region include the development of transport corridors to seaports and international markets, as well as the construction of oil and gas pipelines. The countries also strive to provide efficient functioning of these routes, as well as developing alternative routes that provide redundancy. In the last two decades, a number of international transport and energy projects have been implemented. The development of transport communications in Central Asia is not only an economic, but also a political issue; there is also the influence of internal and external factors.
Since 1990, practically all Central Asian republics have worked to develop internal highways and railways to avoid reliance on neighboring countries for connections between different parts of their country. In addition, they have developed bilateral communication links. This stands in contrast to the Soviet period, when connecting points within a union republic frequently required road and rail networks that crossed into neighboring republics’ territory.
In the past two decades, Uzbekistan has constructed new highways and railways in order to modernize its infrastructure and increase its national and international transport communications. Several new large-scale national railway infrastructure projects have been implemented, including the Navoi-Uchkuduk-Sultanuvaystag railway with a length of 341 km and the Tashguzar-Boysun-Kumkurgan railway with a length of 220 km. These projects allow direct connections between different regions of Uzbekistan without needing to transit Turkmen territory, and these networks can also be used for Central Asian regional and international trade.
It is well known that the Ferghana Valley is the most densely populated area in Central Asia and is administratively divided between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. During the Soviet era, highway and the railway networks connecting the regions in the Valley belonging to Uzbekistan with the rest of the republic crossed the territory of Tajikistan. But in the 1990s, due to the civil war in Tajikistan, passenger trains were phased out – and for a number of reasons, these rail connections have never fully functioned even after the end of that war. Since that time, it has been strategically very important for Uzbekistan to have safe and reliable infrastructure for transportation and communication between the Ferghana Valley and the rest of the country.
IMPLICATIONS: Over 10 million people – over a third of the country’s population – live in the Namangan, Ferghana and Andijan regions of Uzbekistan. Against this background, it should be no surprise that the new railway project connecting Angren in the Tashkent region and Pap in the Namangan region is regarded as very important to Uzbekistan’s national strategy of internal connectivity. This project allows a considerable reduction of transportation expenses and increases the carrying capacity between Andijan, Ferghana, Namangan and other regions of Uzbekistan. The Angren-Pap line is only 123 kilometers long, but it crosses high mountainous areas, including areas with an elevation above 2000 meters, and is thus quite expensive. The cost of the Angren-Pap project is over $1.6 billion, and its construction has been made possible through a variety of sources. This includes more than $1 billion from "Uzbekistan Temir Yollari" (Uzbekistan Railways) and Uzbekistan’s National Reconstruction and Development Fund. A loan of an additional $350 million was secured from China’s EximBank, while the World Bank provided $195 million.
In June 2013, construction started, and by March 2016 more than ten new bridges and seven railway stations had been constructed, as well as a 19.1 kilometer long tunnel under the Kamchik pass built by a Chinese company, the China Railway Tunnel Group. The tunnel reportedly ranks eighth in the world by complexity of construction, and thirteenth by length.
The construction of the railway tracks on this line is carried out by "Uzbekistan Temir Yollari," and the rail line is scheduled to be operational in summer 2016. The company predicts 600,000 passengers and about 4-6 million tons of goods annually during the first year of operation.
While this railway will go a long way toward improving transportation inside Uzbekistan’s borders, it is not sufficient, and there are considerable needs for the whole of the Ferghana Valley in terms of railroads and highways. This obviously includes Tajikistan’s transit potential. Moreover, the Valley is important for the development of trade and communication links between China and Central Asia. A highway connecting Kashgar, Osh, and Andijan has been constructed, but the implementation of a railroad similarly connecting China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has come to face difficulties. The states have yet to formulate a common policy, and their positions diverge. Nevertheless, this project would connect well with the Angren-Pap railroad.
The development of strong transport corridors in the Ferghana Valley, including highways and potentially railroads connecting China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are part and parcel of the development of new routes linking the region to Asia and Europe. The synergies with existing and developing projects are potentially significant: for example, the improvement of connections between Central Asia and Afghanistan would contribute towards the future economic recovery of Afghanistan. Moreover, the development of transport communications between Central Asian countries and South and East Asia also are linked to this. These include connections such as Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Iran, Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan, and Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman-Qatar. Central Asian states, as well as Japan, the Republic of Korea and other countries believe that strong cooperation will contribute to closer trade ties, economic and investment relations between Eurasia, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time prospective plans for new transportation projects will depend on the balance of global, regional, interregional and national interests in the implementation of projects.
CONCLUSIONS: Uzbekistan, like other Central Asian republics, considers the development of alternative regional transport communications to be important to its national and regional strategy. Today's Central Asian states have become active participants in various projects to promote economic cooperation with countries of Europe and Asia. The Angren-Pap rail project has been developed on the basis of multiple partnerships, and will prove important for national connectivity and as well as for increased international communication. A well-developed regional transport system in the Ferghana Valley, and Central Asia in general, will increase the potential for regional interconnectivity as well as provide a good opportunity to develop international networks and trade, including cultural and eco-tourism and the Valley. At the same time, the project shows the need to target investments more widely with a view toward the reconstruction, modernization, and upgrading of the highways and railways; to develop cooperation in the sphere of customs convention and legislations within Central Asia, while simultaneously paying attention to security challenges. The states of Central Asia are gradually integrating into the world economy, but the volume of mutual trade within the region remains low and further growth is needed.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Mirzokhid Rakhimov, Ph.D., is a Visiting Fulbright scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, based in Washington D.C. He is the Head of the Department of Contemporary History and International Relations of the Institute of History of the Academy of Science of Uzbekistan.
Image Attribution: www.railwaygazette.com, accessed on April 19, 2016