Perhaps not surprisingly, the development of railways in Central Asia and of shipping routes and pipelines across the Caspian Sea are routinely characterized as elements of geopolitical competition among major outside powers, including Russia, China, Turkey, the United States, Iran and India (see EDM, February 19, 2013, May 23, 2017, March 21, 2019, April 23, 2020, December 15, 2020). But such a focus often overshadows the views and actions of the countries in the region, each of which is generally more concerned with boosting itself at the expense of regional competitors, even if that delays progress on vital projects.
That trend is intensifying as more routes are being discussed, more outside players participate in those discussion, and evidence mounts that certain regional accords designed to advantage all the countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus will not benefit them equally. This is prompting governments there to insist that their specific national interests be taken into consideration by the outside players certain to be the primary sources of funding for new rail and shipping lines. Indeed, the tensions among them and between them and those outside power were unquestionably evident at two intraregional meetings held in mid-July. The first of these, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, was devoted to the challenges and promises of regional interconnectivity initiatives in Central and South Asia (Kommersant, July 17); and the second, in Makhachkala, the capital of Russia’s Republic of Dagestan, focused on the fact that some ports on the Caspian are doing far better than others, leading to discussions about the possible privatization of the Dagestani port as well as expanded ties between Iran and the other littoral states (Finam.ru, July 9; TASS, July 12).
The situation in Central Asia is particularly acute. In part, this is because of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, leading to a reconsideration of north-south rail route plans there. But also, it is becoming increasingly clear that the differences within the region as far as existing rail lines are concerned make such discussions both problematic and potentially explosive—not only among the countries of region but also among various outside geopolitical competitors (Rhythm of Eurasia, July 12).
This diversity reflects the fact that Central Asia has long been a crossroads as far as trade is concerned. Moscow controlled much of the region until 1991, and so it built a rail network there corresponding to its needs. That legacy has provided a far better geo-economic launch pad for some of the region’s post-Soviet successor states than others. But now, other outsiders are involved, and the countries of Central Asia want a voice in where any new rail lines will go. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan already have extensive rail systems in place, but Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan do not. Moreover, Tajikistan’s system is broken into two parts, and Kyrgyzstan’s has stagnated since Soviet times, with not one kilometer of rail being laid. At the same time, all suffer from the tariff and non-monetary restrictions on the interstate transit of goods that were imposed after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Each of the countries wants to benefit from any new rail line, and some want to ensure that their regional competitors do not. Consequently, they have periodically come up with programs to boost themselves at the cost of others to such an extent that outsiders give up and do not proceed with any construction at all. Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, for example, have proposed building a rail connection between the two going through Afghanistan, so as to bypass their regional competitor Uzbekistan; and similar proposals mean that what are supposed to be “unifying projects” in fact “give birth to a whole raft of conflicts among the countries of the region,” according to the Rhythm of Eurasia portal. Outsiders find themselves caught up in these fights, as when Bishkek seeks to have China build a railway that will help integrate the north and south of Kyrgyzstan and promote the Kyrgyz Republic at the expense of Uzbekistan by laying down track using the international rather than the Russian standard gauge. That has delayed Chinese investment there and may, in the end, kill the project outright (Rhythm of Eurasia, July 12).
Most outside players want to develop routes that will benefit themselves and, in their eyes, the region as a whole rather than any one country, fearful that, otherwise, they might be drawn into regional conflicts. China has made that clear, and Russia is now insisting on the same approach, especially in the wake of the Taliban victories in Afghanistan—a development that makes alternative rail plans through that country unlikely to be realized anytime soon. Indeed, as the recent meeting in Tashkent highlighted, Moscow and Beijing are now arguing for a region-wide approach rather than a national one; but the Central Asian countries have not dropped demands for their individual interests to be taken into account (Gazeta.uz, June 2).
A similar situation exists regarding trans-Caspian shipping (see EDM, October 16, 2020). While the partial agreement on the delimitation of that inland sea has led to a growth in trade, it has not benefited all the littoral states equally, given differences in their land-based infrastructure. Russia has suffered the greatest losses in this regard (see EDM, May 23, 2017), and now it is thinking even more intently about privatizing its Makhachkala port. Baku and Ashgabat are already seeking to benefit from such a potential move by expanding still further their trade links with Iran (Kaspiyskiy Vestnik, July 21, 2021).
Neither the developments in Central Asia nor those around the Caspian Sea mollify geopolitical competition. Instead, they may even intensify such struggles, especially if outside players assume they can form useful alliances with one or more of the countries involved. But governments in the region are becoming increasingly demanding, and no one should assume that outsiders can draw up plans as if the region were a tabula rasa on which they can write as they please without regard to anyone else. In turn, Central Asian and Caucasus capitals are becoming ever more sophisticated in playing one outsider against another. Such “successes,” however are more often than not likely to delay any projects from being carried out and may, in the end, kill them, at great cost to themselves.