With new railroad, the world shrinks and Russia gets choked

With new railroad, the world shrinks and Russia gets choked
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On Oct. 30 the world awakened to a new “Orient Express” railroad — and it wasn’t a movie. It is a real railroad.

A 20-year-old dream now carries goods and people from China to Europe, Europe to China, without using a square inch of Russian territory.

Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met in Baku, Azerbaijan, for the opening ceremony of the 500-mile-long rail line. Starting at the newly constructed Baku-area harbor, it runs north to the Republic of Georgia, west through the Georgian capital of Tbilsi and west to Kars, in eastern Turkey.

Funding for the track-laying came mostly from Azerbaijan’s State Oil Fund (SOFAR) and Turkey. Georgia’s war with Russia, after Russia invaded north Georgia in 2008, drained Georgia of money; Azerbaijan loaned Georgia interest-discounted millions for its share of the project.

Despite no American aid in its construction, the United States should be ecstatic over the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway for three reasons:

  1.   European allies of the United States were punished by Russia for imposing trade sanctions. The sanctions were to penalize Russia for essentially invading the Ukraine but in response, Russia prohibited transit of European goods through Russia to China and Asia by the only railway from Europe to China.
  2.   Certain petrochemical products can be shipped by rail to complement natural gas through the $46 billion Southern Gas Corridor, under construction, that will deliver natural gas to Greece, Albania and Italy. That pipeline will join the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, opened in 2005, which terminates in Turkey and fills oil tankers destined for ports around the world, including Israel.
  3.   The new railway eliminates expensive ocean shipping to and from Asia, costs half the price of air freight, and bypasses economic and political interference from Russia.

It should be noted that American aid for the project was blocked by congressmen in Washington, D.C., who were heavily lobbied by the Armenian lobby. It claimed the project would further isolate landlocked, poverty-stricken Armenia, cause it heavy economic damage, and was a waste of money because existing Soviet-era railways in Armenia could be used between Azerbaijan and Turkey. Those railways had been shut down in 1992 when Armenia invaded Azerbaijan and occupied Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh province as well as seven bordering Azerbaijan provinces. It still occupies one-fifth of Azerbaijan.

The Armenian government also heavily pressured next-door Republic of Georgia using its alliance with Georgia’s northern neighbor, Russia, as a club. It failed in its heavy-handed “diplomacy” despite a portion of Georgia being occupied by “ethnic” Russians.

Cheering for the railway’s inauguration are millions of Chinese, as well as the people of Central Asia’s Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Joining the Chinese and Central Asians are Western Europeans and the United States.

The railway can carry one million passengers and 6.5 million tons of freight in its first year. Future double-tracking at key locations will increase annual passenger capacity to 3 million passengers and up to 17 million tons of freight by 2034.

Said Turkey’s President Erdogan: “The most important leg of the Middle Corridor Project (to unite Europe and Asia via Anatolia) has been fulfilled with the first service of the BTK railway … Baku-Tbilisi-Kars is part of the Great Silk Road and it is important that we have implemented this project using our own funds … We are declaring the establishment of a continuous railway link from London to China.” 

Azerbaijani President Aliyev said: “The opening of the railway is of historic and strategic significance ... the shortest and most reliable link between Europe and Asia.”

The newly constructed port at Alat, just over 30 miles south of Baku proper, is the rail head for the railway, which this observer visited in 2016. It can handle five tons of cargo today and will triple capacity by the middle of 2018. Rail tracks lead onto incoming ships from around the Caspian Sea, and loaded freight cars are attached to locomotives and are on their way to Georgia and Turkey where they can be reloaded onto ships in the Black Sea or rail lines into Europe from Istanbul.

According to reports, “Trains can depart from cities in China, cross into Kazakhstan at the Khorgos Gateway, be transported across the Caspian Sea by ferry to the New Port of Baku and then be loaded directly onto the BTK and head to Europe.”

Wade Shepard wrote in Forbes Magazine that the new railway is in "the heart of the emerging Eurasian supercontinent — a massive market that makes up 65 percent of the population, 75 percent of energy resources and 40 percent of the GDP in the world.”

Economic benefits and progress for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey from the new railway can and will make life better for the three nations; additionally, it can benefit millions of others beyond measure.

If ever there was a “win-win” situation, the railway is it. Left out is the one South Caucasus country — Armenia — that has, since the 1990s, illegally occupied 20 percent of its neighbor Azerbaijan with military forces.

The United States of America should be politically euphoric beyond imagination. The new East/West, West/East “Silk Route” is as important to the world as was the completed Transcontinental Railroad in the United States 150 years ago.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of “The Armenian Lobby" (Berkeley Press, 2017) and “The Mexican Border: Immigration War and a Trillion Dollars in Trade" (Floricanto Press, 2016). He formerly wrote for the New York Times News Service.