Construction of a new route linking oil and gas giants Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran is grinding slowly towards completion. Though initial estimates on project had it fully operational as early as 2011, recent headway on the project in Turkmenistan, the last remaining 90 kilometer stretch of the nearly 900 kilometer (559 miles) railway, is expected to be finalized by October of 2014. The ambitious project will seek to circumvent Russia’s North-South Transportation Corridor and reduce the necessary amount of rail needed to connect the cities of Gorgan in Iran, Uzen in Kazakhstan and Bereket in Turkmenistan by 600 kilometers.
Once completed, the railway is expected to provide another viable route that connects the Caspian Sea with the Persian Gulf, thereby facilitating easier access for vendors of commodities in Central Asian nations to the Iranian market. The route is almost expected to bolster already formidable relations between Iran and its Turkmen partners, who already constitute Iran’s second most important trade partner outside of China, and foment the lucrative exchange of natural gas, oil and petrochemical products, including textiles. The possibilities surrounding further development of Central Asian railway products are expected to significantly augment. Railway extensions heading northward to connect with Russia’s railway system and further west to link up with Turkey’s own rail system could evolve in the future, provided that the existing railway is successful. Collaboration with China, whose presence in Central Asia has become increasingly evident, is expected in the future as well, as Beijing seeks to co-finance railways linking Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, conjuring up romantic notions of a New Silk Road.
Doubts surrounding the railway’s success still exist. The ability for the route to reach its maximum potential will be determined in part by the ability of states to transact business with Tehran, thus placing the success of the railway, as well as all similarly auspicious joint-infrastrTecture events, in the hands of the Iranian Foreign Ministry and its ability to negotiate a deal that frees the Iranian economy of encumbering sanctions.
- In a sweeping anti-terrorism maneuver designed to retaliate against the authors of an attack earlier this week, an Afghan taskforce comprised of National Police, National Army and members of the country’s intelligence carried out a simultaneous attack against the Taliban in nine provinces, killing 76 members of the terrorist group. The attack has been described as a success by members of President Karzai’s government, and decried by those who believe the strike was conducted for political reasons, as April elections approach. In a related piece of news, President Obama directed the Pentagon to begin planning for a complete withdrawal of US forces, arousing suspicion that sustained efforts to come to an agreement with the Afghan government have once again been stymied.
- The government of Kazakhstan has continued to prioritize development as it moves to capitalize on the discovery of large oil and gas deposits on its territory. President Nursultan Nazabayev announced that the country will allocate 1 trillion tenges ($5.4b USD) towards the economic development of the country. Citing an apparent inability to access external funding and loans at affordable interest rates, the Kazakh president stated that the funds will be directed primarily towards small and medium size businesses, as well as the further “industrialization and implementation of infrastructure projects in the country.” The announcement came in tandem with the news that a new, domestic Kazakh airline will be launched to promote internal travel, as well as renewed efforts to pursue a productive relationship with China. The construction of a grain terminal, as well as supplies of wheat, sheep wool and Chrome, was among the issues proposed in which Astana can enhance cooperation with Beijing.
- Uncertainty reigns in Ukraine, as the search for more loathed former President Victor Yanukovych continues. The whereabouts of the former president remain unknown, though a sundry of possible locations have been proposed as possible destinations, the most obvious being Russia. The location of the former president is not, however, the most salient of issues marked by uncertainty, as uncertainty over a future president remains endemic. Interim President Oleksandr Turchinov had promised a new government by Tuesday, but the establishment of the interim government has ultimately been delayed. Protests in the largely Pro-Russian Crimea constitute another source of concern for any future government, as protests over the deposed president left one dead, and led to the amassing of Russian military forces along the Ukrainian border.
- The presence of Central Asian fighters amongst the ranks of rebel factions Syria has been an ongoing source of foreboding for many Central Asian nations whose secular governments believed to have eradicated Islamic extremism within their countries. The Uzbek terror group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been described as active both in joint-operations with the Pakistani Taliban and Islamist rebels in Syria, while Tajik security agencies revealed as far back as May that young Tajik men had traveled to the war-stricken nation ostensibly to provide humanitarian aid or seek religious training. The Tajik government has expressed consternation over a rise in Tajik insurgents fighting in Syria, though many question the validity of numbers issued by the Syrian government, some even going so far as denouncing it as blatantly misleading.
- On a lighter note, Tajikistan announced the launch of its first social networking website. Parta.tj already claims more than 800 users, and has developed a Russian-language interface for users who had clamored for an alternative to the Russian Vkontakte, the leading Russian social networking website and the recipient of nearly 60 million visits daily.