05.05.2019 Author: Dmitry Bokarev

Russian Railway Tracks Stand the Test of Time in Central Asia


Russia plays an important role in the Eurasian railway system. Eurasia is traversed by the Trans-Siberian Railway — the world’s longest network of railways — connecting Moscow with Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. Russian rail technologies and specialists from Russia are highly appreciated and sought-after all over the world. Hence, Russia’s state-owned railway company Russian Railways (RZD) has been invited to work on design, construction and modernization projects for transport networks in India, Israel, Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, Serbia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Russian Railways has traditionally partnered with Central Asia’s former Soviet Republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), whose railway networks are of pre-revolutionary Russian and post-revolutionary Soviet origin.

The region’s railway system collapsed as the USSR fell apart in 1991. Thus, the Central Asian railway network which sprung up and branched out at the end of the nineteenth century to encompass the full expanse of Central Asia (all the former Soviet Central Asian Republics apart from Kazakhstan), broke off into independent Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek Railways with the dissemination of the USSR.

A lack of centralized leadership, the post-soviet economic crisis, as well as complex relations which emerged between the newly independent States and their internal conflicts have reduced connectivity in the regional transport system. The railways began to fall into disrepair. Nevertheless, the Central Asian States weathered the crisis of the 1990s and their railways were still there after the storm, which they then managed to expand a little further and even link up with other States: in 1996, Turkmenistan and Iran connected their railways. Two decades after the fall of the USSR however, the railway network in Central Asian States was still generally developing at a slow and unstable pace.

In 2013, China launched its transport and economic initiative, the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR), which provided the impetus for rapid and large-scale development in this sphere. The aim of the OBOR initiative is to integrate the world’s economies and create a global transport network to link the planet’s major land and sea routes. The OBOR subproject, known as the New Silk Road (NSR), is designed to link Eurasia’s land routes, primarily focusing on its railways. The main aim of the NSP is to bring Europe and East Asia closer through a link in Central Asia. China decided to connect the Central Asian railways with its own, and to modernize, expand and extend them. Having received support from Central Asian governments, China began making massive investments in Central Asian infrastructure.

It should be noted that the primary focus of the railways in Central Asia and Kazakhstan, which had been created as links in a unified Soviet transport system, was to connect the region with Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these links helped the Russian Federation to stay connected with each of the newly independent States, to remain an important trading partner and hold onto this sphere of influence. Contrary to what many experts had expected however, Russia did not view China’s arrival to build a New Silk Road in the region as trespassing on Russia’s territory. The Russian Federation welcomed China’s help in developing Central Asia, Kazakhstan and the entire Central Asian region, as the Russians recognized that improving the economy and living standards for the local population could only help strengthen regional security and reduce the threat of international terrorism. Moreover, Russia would like to be involved in the New Silk Road due to the country’s own interests, and the Trans-Siberian railway has the potential to become one of its main branches.

Although at the same time, it would be unwise if Russia were to grant China free rein in Central Asia. Russia’s position needs to be considered when developing the region’s infrastructure. The situation with the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway project will be telling.

Out of all the Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan’s railways have been extended the least and have deteriorated the most. One would think that Kyrgyzstan would welcome any new railway project. The idea of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway was indeed initially met with enthusiasm when it was proposed in the 1990s. The China National Machinery Imp. & Exp. Corporation planned to build the  railway. Back in 2003, ten years before the One Belt, One Road Initiative was set to get underway, China invested $2.4 million to conduct a project feasibility study. The Chinese promised Kyrgyzstan great benefits: after extending the new railway from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, and then further on to Europe, the significant shortcut from China to the West on land was sure to gain popularity among Chinese carriers, and their transit would begin to bring up to $200 million into Kyrgyzstan on an annual basis. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan would gain access to the sea.

Upon careful consideration of the draft however, both Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Federation found a number of issues, and questions were raised.

Firstly, Kyrgyzstan’s economy would not feel a great boost due to the proposed route for the railway: based on the plan, it would cut through a narrow section of Kyrgyzstan from East to West, from Torugart to Kara-Suu. Therefore, rails would only be laid in a small part of the country, and the railway would not make a significant improvement to Kyrgyzstan’s domestic transport system. In addition, many experts believe the estimate that transit would generate $200 million on an annual basis is greatly exaggerated.

Secondly, the transport corridor would pass though southern Kyrgyzstan near the city of Osh, which is close to the border with Uzbekistan. It is important to remember that a large number of ethnic Uzbeks live in southern Kyrgyzstan, and relations with the Kyrgyz population have been through turbulent times. Osh, sometimes referred to as Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, was at the center of bloody Uzbek-Kyrgyz clashes which broke out in 1990 (the Osh riots) and 2010 (the South Kyrgyzstan riots), where thousands of people died. Only military intervention could bring an end to the riots.

There is evidence that radical Islamist ideas being spread from extremists in neighboring Uzbekistan are currently gaining popularity among the ethnic Uzbeks living in southern Kyrgyzstan. Theoretically, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekastan Railway could strengthen the link between troubled areas of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan’s extremist underground, and if conflict were to break out again, weapons for illegal armed groups could be supplied by militants along the route from Uzbekistan to Osh. This theory should not be dismissed, given that during the Osh riots in 1990, the police and the army only just about managed to hold off several thousand people from Uzbekistan, who were intent on breaking through the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border to help their relatives  annihilate the Kyrgyz people in Kyrgyzstan. Thus, beginning to construct the railway in the Osh Region and connecting it with Uzbekistan, while northern Kyrgyzstan where the capital Bishkek is located does not have such a connection, could change the balance of power in Kyrgyzstan and give various extremists a reason to intensify their illegal activities.

Finally, it is unlikely but still can not be ruled out that if conflict were to break out between government forces and extremists in southern Kyrgyzstan, railway embankments and other structures in the railway network which cuts southern Kyrgyzstan off from the North of the country could be exploited by illegal armed groups to create their own line of defense against government forces.

The railway which Kyrgyzstan is genuinely interested in, both economically and in terms of security, would have to stretch from the north to the south, connecting Bishkek with the most remote southern areas.

Thirdly, the cost of building the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway was estimated at over $1.3 billion back in the 1990s, and now the figure is already being set at about $7 billion. Kyrgyzstan does not have this kind of money, so the country would need a loan from China which would increase Kyrgyzstan’s sizable debt. Apart from this, the Chinese expect to gain greater access to Kyrgyz mineral deposits in return for their loan, including gold.

Thus, Kyrgyzstan would lose out in the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan project based on what the Chinese have proposed, and it could theoretically even pose a security threat to Kyrgyzstan. Like any other country in the region, Kyrgyzstan’s security has a direct impact on Russia’s security. Given Russia’s proximity to its neighbors in Central Asia, where there is a constant threat of war and terrorism, the Russian Federation must remain vigilant at all times. It is not clear whether Russia has had anything to do with the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan project being postponed indefinitely.

The project was brought up again this spring on March 28, 2019 when Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a state visit to Kyrgyzstan. Many important agreements were signed during the Russian President’s visit, including a memorandum of cooperation on projects to develop the rail network in the Kyrgyz Republic. The document was signed by the Russia’s Ministry of Transport and Russian Railways, and by Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Transport and Roads and the Kyrgyz state railway company Kyrgyz Temir Zholu. China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway re-emerged among many other promising projects in the memorandum. Kyrgyzstan has requested that Russian Railways work on constructing it instead of Chinese companies. No plans have been outlined by Russian rail workers yet. Perhaps they will review the shortcomings in the Chinese plan and adjust the route. The railway could be built down through Kyrgyzstan from north to south. It could be connected to the route to Kazakhstan, which is the only railway connecting Kyrgyzstan with Russia. In any event, the desire Kyrgyzstan has expressed to work together with Russian Railways would create great opportunities for the Russian Federation. Although Russia is not prepared to compete with China or its One Belt, One Road Initiative, it is also not going to abandon Central Asia, and good transport corridors are necessary in order for Russia to maintain an influence in the region.

Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”