Baku, April 3 – Oil pipeline routes have attracted far more attention, but two enormous railroad projects – one going north-south between Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan, and a second backed by the West going east-west between Europe and Central Asia – may play an even larger role in defining the geopolitics of Eurasia.
Each of these projects will change the geopolitical position not only of their immediate participants but of many other countries as well, and the competition between the two is likely to have an even broader impact, possibly determining the rise and fall of the great powers in south-central Eurasia.
In 2000, Moscow pushed the idea of North-South route with Iran and India, but despite intense media speculation, not much happened. Now, however, Russian, Iranian and Azerbaijani officials have decided to take “concrete action,” Nezavisimaya gazeta reported yesterday (http://www.ng.ru/cis/2008-04-02/7_iran.html).
The heads of the three national railroads agreed in Tehran last week to work out plans for the completion of a rail line linking Kazvin, Resht and Astara in Iran with Astara in Azerbaijan, thereby putting in place the final piece of the larger North-South network.
The project, which is projected to cost approximately 600 million U.S. dollars and to take 18 months to two years to complete, is to be the subject of an intergovernmental agreement now being prepared for signature in about a month, the Moscow newspaper said.
Not only will the new route reduce by 800 km the overland route between Europe and the Indian Ocean and thus permit a dramatic increase in freight traffic up to 20 million tons a year, but it also will, as the Moscow paper underlined, entail significant “geopolitical and geo-economic consequences.”
The countries taking part in this project will be drawn closer together, with Russia, the largest and most powerful of those, gaining influence over both Azerbaijan and Iran – and over Europeans interested in shipping goods via this land route to southern Asia and the Far East.
But perhaps the most interesting impact of this North-South corridor will be on Armenia, a country that is not part of this consortium and that is currently isolated both economically and politically because of its conflict with Azerbaijan over Karabakh and other parts of Azerbaijan that Yerevan’s forces occupy.
Earlier this year, Russia purchased Armenia’s railroads, and many thought that it might press for the settlement of the Karabakh dispute in order to make that property profitable by allowing for the passage of cargo not only into Azerbaijan and Turkey but more generally as well.
But if Armenia is able to complete a rail spur through Zengezur and thus link its system with Iran and the broader North-South project – something Yerevan could not do except with massive Russian assistance – that would allow Armenia to escape from its isolation and Russia to reap a profit from the railroads there it owns.
In that event, Yerevan would be under significantly less pressure to end its conflict with Baku and would likely become even more intransigent. That in turn could prompt Azerbaijan to consider using military means to recover the occupied territories, something it has in any case threatened to do. (See http://www.ia-centr.ru/expert/787/.)
All these possible consequences from the North-South rail route are compounded by the possibility of the construction of an East-West one linking Western Europe with Central Asia., according to Moscow analysts. But exactly how depends on the route of the latter, they say (http://www.ia-centr.ru/publications/791/ ).
One possible route would pass through Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, while another would follow a more southerly along what was once the Great Silk Route bypassing in whole or in part the Russian Federation and tying even Afghanistan to the West.
Moscow would have few problems with the first route. In fact, it might be a primary beneficiary. But the Russian government is very much against the second, seeing it as an effort to freeze Moscow out of Central Asia and to provide the launch pad for expanded American and West European influence.
According to Moscow analysts, NATO is discussing which route to push on the sidelines of its summit in Bucharest. In the view of some, the alliance may come out for the “Russian route” in order to use it as a bargaining chip with Moscow as it seeks to expand its ranks to include Ukraine and Georgia.
But according to others, the alliance will press for the southern route in order to limit Russia’s influence. Any decision or even a decision not to decide on this rail project will thus have enormous consequences for power relations in Eurasia, especially given the planned completion of the alternative and Russia-dominated North-South route.
UPDATE for April 4 – An Azerbaijan analyst warns that Russia’s north-south rail corridor threatens the operations of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars route that Baku has committed itself to and that represents a major part of the West’s preferred east-west rail network