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BTK Railway, Set to Open Next Month, Makes South Caucasus Hub For Eurasian Trade

Transporting cargo from a Pacific seaport in eastern China to the other side of Eurasia quickly and effectively was once a wild and far-fetched idea. Not anymore, thanks to the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway, that is expected to go online in October, caspiannews.com reports.

“The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line bears great importance for the region, given the fact that freight transportation from Asia to Europe, and backward, will get easier and cheaper,” Chairman of the Baku-based think tank Center for Economic and Social Development, Vugar Bayramov told Capsian News.

The 826 km (513 mi)-long railway will provide an overland route from the Caspian Sea’s western coast, in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, continue through Tbilisi, Georgia, and end in Kars, located at the eastern end of Turkey. There, it will connect with Turkey’s broader rail system, where cargo and passengers can continue westward onto Europe.

With Central Asia and China to the east, Turkey and Europe to the west, Russia to the north, and Iran and the Middle East to the south, the BTK railway is situated in the middle of an emerging trade corridor that stretches from China to Europe. That corridor, known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), is a network of rail and sea lines that link western China to Europe, and traverse an area where more than 70 percent of the world’s population is located as well as 75 percent of energy resources and 70 percent of global gross domestic product.

Conceived in 2007, the project aims to boost investment and trade opportunities with Asia. Delivering goods from the Far East to Europe will now be possible in just 15 days, down from the current travel time of 25-30 days.  The BTK contributes to a network that is twice as fast as routes by sea and half the price of air cargo.

The new line’s initial capacity is about one million persons and 6.5 million tons of freight, with the potential to increasing capacity to three million passengers and over 17 million tons of cargo.

Azerbaijan, the largest South Caucasus country situated along the western shore of the Caspian Sea, has invested over $670 million in the railway’s construction. Baku expects to become a major transit hub for Eurasia and within the Caspian region, and receive large paybacks from the investments it has made in the project’s realization. Mahir Humbatov, an expert and author at the Center for Strategic Studies in Baku, forecasted in a 2016 Forbes report that Azerbaijan can expect to gross $170 million from the BTK alone

For Turkey and Georgia, the BTK line reflects an unparalleled opportunity to boost their economies, as well as gain significance in European trade. Officials in Ankara believe that the BTK railway plays a crucial role in growing Turkey’s $857 billion economy, and turn the country into a major hub for Eurasian commerce and transportation.

The project has been beset with setbacks, however.  In April, Turkey’s Transportation and Communication Minister Ahmet Arslan announced the BTK would be operational by June. But the date has been pushed back due to a landslide in Georgia earlier this year that made construction impossible for some time.

Giorgi Badridze, a former ambassador of Georgia to the United Kingdom and Senior Fellow at Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, believes that the launch of the BTK is not just a commercial issue but will have geopolitical effects as well.

“If part of the Chinese container traffic is diverted from, say, Iran, to the South Caucasus corridor via BTK, this would clearly have geopolitical implications. It would make perfect sense for the Chinese if they consider Central Asia and South Caucasus as an alternative (addition) route for some of its cargo,” Badridze told Caspian News.

“China’s historic success in the last 30 years was largely determined by economic cooperation. Therefore, it would make perfect sense for the Chinese if they consider Central Asia and the South Caucasus as an alternative route for some of its cargo. If this becomes the case, Azerbaijan and Georgia, in cooperation with Turkey, would only increase their international geo-economic significance for both our eastern and western partners.”

The BTK rail line acts as an alternative route to the existing Kars–Gyumri–Tbilisi railway, which runs through Armenia and has been out of service for nearly 25 years. The route was abandoned in 1993 due to strained relations between Turkey and its eastern neighbor Armenia. Also in a sign of solidarity with its Turkic regional neighbor, Turkey closed its border with Armenia due to the latter’s war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno Karabakh region.