Shalva Chikhladze, Political Science Specialist and Sinologist
After gaining independence, the young Georgian state began to search for a political identity which would help it recover from the economic and political crisis and increase its importance to neighboring and non-neighboring states. Following the launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the TRACECA, the country’s political elite declared Georgia’s transit potential as one of the most essential and important components, playing a major role in promoting peace and stability. The recipe was simple: Georgia was becoming and would become essential for other countries, and this reliance was to be converted into income and security benefits.
The pipelines and geographical location did indeed make some contribution to the country’s economic and energy development; however, that this was not a sufficient enough tool for future advancement quickly became evident. Additional connectivity and economic integration in a wider regional context were necessary. Precisely for that purpose, during the meeting of Süleyman Demirel and Eduard Shevardnadze in 1996, the idea to start working on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars project with Turkey was endorsed, and a little later, the outlines of the construction of the Anaklia deep-water port also emerged. At the end of the last century and the beginning of the new, Georgia really had no opportunity to implement large-scale projects. Moreover, there was growing opposition in the neighborhood to the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK). Nevertheless, Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan began construction of the joint railway in 2007 to breathe new life into the regional cooperation, and although the completion of the railway was delayed several times, the official opening ceremony was held in 2017, four years after Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced the “Belt and Road Initiative.”
The Iron Silk Road and the pandemic
Since the outlines of the Chinese Global Initiative became public, many states have aimed to actively engage in the project. The countries of the South Caucasus and Turkey were no exception. At the G20 summit in 2015, Turkey and China signed a memorandum of cooperation aimed at bringing the “Middle Corridor” and “Belt and Road Initiative” closer together. Speaking at an international forum in Beijing two years later, President Erdogan strongly emphasized the need for cooperation between the two projects.
The Turkish journalists and researchers, to their credit, have done quite a good job in political and economic “branding” of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. The term “Iron Silk Road” is often used in Turkish publications and articles, focusing “BTK” as the main tool. In the long run, the “Iron Silk Road” opens up additional opportunities for Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan to implement new transport projects between the East and West. Incidentally, currently, railway transportation between Europe and China is mostly done via the Trans-Siberian Railway. While, in previous years container shipping was subsidized by political motives, the global pandemic provided us with a new reality. In particular, despite a number of problems in the transportation sector, during the pandemic, the railway service proved to be a relatively fast and efficient means of transportation. Both the Chinese and European sides attribute precisely to that the increased volume of container shipping between Europe and China.
Problems in the Georgian section of BTK
While Georgia’s political elite has declared the transit function almost as a holistic idea of the nation, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is still operating in testing mode. According to the head of the Georgian Railway, Davit Peradze, the railway will be fully operational by the end of 2022. According to the Ministry of Economy of Georgia, 2342 TEUs were transported from China through the Middle Corridor in January-October 2020, which is 35.1% more than in previous years. In addition, on December 23, 2020, for the first time in history, exported goods from Turkey were transported through Georgia to China, to the capital of Shaanxi Province Xi’an. The information is indeed gratifying, and gives extra hope for intercontinental shipping, but the delay of this cargo in the Georgian section is problematic. According to railway specialists, the train spent 21 hours on Georgian territory for technical reasons: namely, the composition of the track in Georgia, divided into two parts, meant the cargo needed to be reloaded onto locomotives operating on a relatively wider track, in Tbilisi, from there continuing on its way to Azerbaijan. It is a little more than 8000 km from Turkey to Siana, which takes about 12 days for a train to cover, of that, it stops for about a full day in Georgia, because the Georgian section is on difficult terrain and at the moment locomotives in Georgia are not able to carry the composition without division.
“Chaos is a ladder” – the pandemic brings new opportunities
On the one hand, the global pandemic has created serious problems for the world economy; yet, on the other hand, certain opportunities have arisen, especially in the shipping area. In particular, increased railway traffic between Europe and China has created a kind of container congestion at the Kazakh-Chinese border. According to the world-famous railway web portal railfright.com, due to the increased volume of freight at the Kazakh-Chinese border, more specifically on the Alashankou/Dostyk section, some companies have started shipping via trailers, consequently creating huge traffic jams and forcing authorities to restrict the movement of trucks. The situation on the Alashankou/Dostyk section is a good indication of the opportunity that can be gained if the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars is effectively managed and its technical capacity were to improve.
Major railway routes connecting China to Europe
The “Nakhchivan Corridor” and the “slip” of Chavushoglu
The Nakhichevan exclave was deprived of communication links with the rest of Azerbaijan after the Karabakh War. Azerbaijanis living in the area had to cross into Iranian or Turkish-Georgian territory to reach Baku, but this is likely to change. In particular, on the basis of a bilateral agreement, Armenians undertook the obligation to open the state border and let Azerbaijani cargo pass in the direction of Nakhchivan through a special corridor. A few weeks ago, the Turkish Foreign Minister also noted that the China and Central Asian states have the opportunity to use the new transport corridor through Karabakh, which he hopes will be created after the agreement enters into force. Following Chavushoglu’s statement, the agencies reported that the project between Turkey and Azerbaijan, which will pass through Nakhchivan, will be called the “Turkish Gate” and will facilitate communication with Central Asia and China. The author also talks about the BTK and develops the idea that integrating these projects is, to some extent, possible.
It is noteworthy that in the near future, it is unclear how and under what conditions the road connecting Karabakh and Nakhchivan will be put into operation. Every private or state company is interested in stability and sustainability in shipping. Yet, the geography of Nagorno-Karabakh is an additional serious challenge, hence it is difficult to perceive any major advancement in this direction in the near future. At the same time, Chavushoghlu’s “slip” should not be ignored. It is necessary to resume construction of the Anaklia port, which has been suspended thus far, and to solve the technical problems on the Georgian section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars track, which prevents Georgia from being more actively involved in the transportation process between Europe and China.