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Friday 3 July 2020

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The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway is still missing the Kyrgyz connection.

The big problem with the announcement in early June that the first freight train had left the Chinese city of Lanzhou bound for the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, is that the railway link in Kyrgyzstan needed for the trip is not yet done.

Not even close to being completed.

It would seem the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway is just another of those grand projects conceived decades ago that might never be built.

But in this case there is some hope it will be realized -- though it will probably have to wait for better times in a world economy.

Alternative Travel Plan

To compensate for the lack of a full Kyrgyz link on this project, a new "road-rail" combined-cargo transport line has been devised.

The train that left Lanzhou station in China's northwestern Gansu Province on June 5 is carrying a load of some 230 tons of electrical appliances worth about $2.6 million.

The train first traveled to Kashgar in the western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. From Kashgar, the goods were loaded onto trucks for the journey westward across Kyrgyzstan to the city of Osh, where they were reloaded onto a train headed for Tashkent. Part of that route used the Pap-Angren railway line in Uzbekistan that the Chinese helped build and which opened in early 2016.

The Angren-Pap railway
The Angren-Pap railway

The loading and unloading of goods, along with the trucking operation, will be repeated when the train from Tashkent leaves for China due to carry some 525 tons of Uzbek cotton worth some $1 million.

At least the Chinese train's departure seems to have reawakened the Kyrgyz to their unfinished business.

On June 17, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov held a meeting with Foreign Minister Chingiz Aidarbekov, Transport and Roads Minister Janat Beyshenov, and Vasily Dashkov, the head of the state railway company Kyrgyz Temir Zholy, to discuss railway issues that included the line from China to Uzbekistan.

Jeenbekov reportedly described the railway line connecting China and Uzbekistan as one of the largest and most strategically important projects for Kyrgyzstan.

On June 18, according to the Kyrgyz Temir Zholy website, "construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will start in a month," and company head Dashkov said he didn't see any "particular obstacles" but rather just a "few points [to conclude]."

But that message disappeared from the website on June 19.

The head of Kyrgyz Temir Zholy's Railway Design and Construction Department, Zhamshitbek Kalilov, later said the June 18 post was a misunderstanding and said there is no way construction will start in July.

Not Kyrgyzstan's Route

Kalilov said talks with Chinese and Uzbek officials were continuing, mainly by videoconference due to the coronavirus, but he mentioned there were still issues with financing and the perennial problem of track-gauge size.

The CKU railway has been discussed since the latter part of the 1990s.

The prime ministers of China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan all met at the Kyrgyz-China Irkeshtam border post on July 21, 1997, to open the crossing.

They said at the time they would also soon open the Andijon-Osh-Kashgar highway, though the highway only started being used to ship goods in early 2018 -- when they promised a railway would also connect the three countries.

In June 2001, Kyrgyz Transportation and Communications Minister Kubanychbek Jumaliev announced an agreement had been reached for construction of the CKU railway line but it was more than six years later -- in January 2008 -- that China's Xinhua news agency reported construction of the railway had begun and the line would be completed in 2010.

Since then, the project was often mentioned when Uzbek or Kyrgyz officials met with Chinese officials but little progress was made on finishing it.

In 2017, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev spoke about the railway project, objecting to the fact that the proposed railway line would not make any stops in Kyrgyzstan.

Atambaev proposed the railway take a different route than the one planned, so that trains would also serve the remote Kyrgyz towns of At-Bashi and Kazarman, a significant deviation north from the original plan and one that Atambaev admitted would add $1.5 billion to the cost of building the railway.

Kalilov indicated the route was still not completely agreed upon. In March 2018, when Kalilov was transport minister, he said China was insisting on the shortest route possible through Kyrgyzstan.

That likely means through the Irkeshtam crossing, some 230 kilometers nearly due west from Kashgar, and the route that trucks currently use as part of the road-rail link.

But Kalilov said Kyrgyzstan was exerting "all efforts so that the railroad goes through the pass at Torugart," which would run some 165 kilometers north from Kashgar before turning west into Kyrgyzstan and head toward Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyzstan does not have the extra $1.5 billion Atambaev mentioned and, in the June 18 message briefly posted on the Kyrgyz Temir Zholy website, Dashkov said the railway through Kyrgyzstan had an estimated price tag of some $4.5 billion.

The line is not long, only some 450-500 kilometers, but it passes through the mountains, sometimes at altitudes of 2,000 to 3,500 meters.

That means it will require the construction of nearly 50 tunnels -- and more than 90 bridges. A very tall order for any country but especially one like cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan presents a huge challenge for any transportation project.
Kyrgyzstan presents a huge challenge for any transportation project.

Dashkov said that when it came to money, "the Russian and Uzbek sides are ready to help us."

It was a curious statement, as neither of those countries are in a financial position to spend that kind of money on construction of a railway through Kyrgyzstan and, in Russia's case, it is difficult to see why Russia would spend money on a project that would provide a trade route between Asia and Europe that avoids Russian territory.

That said, there were reports at the end of November 2019 that Jeenbekov said Russia had provided Kyrgyzstan with 200 million rubles (then worth some $3.15 million) to prepare the "technical-economic basis" for the CKU railway, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in April 2020 there were talks with China about Russia's participation in building the CKU railway.

The Best Route West

Reports at the start of June about the opening of the road-rail, combined-cargo transport line claimed that if and when a railroad did go through Kyrgyzstan, it would be the shortest route for China to trade with Europe and the Middle East.

Currently, the main railway line connecting China to Europe and the Middle East runs through Kazakhstan's Khorgos crossing and one report said that by shipping through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan the route would be "295 kilometers shorter than through Khorgos." It also claimed that "compared with the traditional route [through Khorgos], the time saved would be as much as five days."

That prospect might not be appealing to Kazakhstan, but several other countries stand to benefit from such a route if the CKU line is extended further westward.

One report said the extension would run through Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey to Europe, while another said the route would run through Turkmenistan and, by ferry, across the Caspian Sea to Istanbul and to Europe.

Ideally it could split and do both, though any railway line through Afghanistan would face the same security problems that have for more than 20 years prevented construction of electricity lines and natural-gas pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan.

More immediately for China's interests, the completion of the CKU line would open a line to the Mingbulak oil field in Uzbekistan. Mingbulak is best-known for being the site of possibly the worst inland oil spill in history. An explosion at a well in early March 1992 led to some 285,000 tons of oil being spilled, which helped fuel a fire that burned over an area of more than 60 hectares for some two months.

The site was abandoned until the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) signed a deal in October 2008 (that runs until 2035) to reopen and develop the field. Work was suspended again in 2015 due to the low price of oil on world markets, but resumed in 2017, and the CNPC believes there is more than 30 million tons of oil there and that Mingbulak can eventually produce some 4,000 barrels per day.

Not a huge amount, especially for China's needs, but it is less than 500 kilometers from China's border.

As it stands now, the only way to transport it is via road. But Mingbulak is located in Uzbekistan's Namangan Province, as is the Pap railway station that is on the CKU railway line.

And assuming Kyrgyzstan can convince China, Uzbekistan, and whoever might be funding the railway's construction to include some train stops in Kyrgyzstan, Transport Minister Beyshenov claimed in August 2019 the railway line could help Kyrgyzstan open up new mining sites that would allow Kyrgyzstan to export more coal, gold, aluminum, iron, and other resources.

Kyrgyzstan almost surely will not start construction of its segment of the railway line anytime soon.

But the CKU railway is one of the last two major projects connecting China to Central Asia that remains incomplete (the other is Line D of the Turkmenistan-China natural-gas pipeline.

And the proposed extension of the railway to Europe and the Middle East -- one day far off in the future -- will always be appealing to more countries than just China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, contributed to this report

On June 23, the Birinchi Mai district court in Bishkek found former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev guilty of corruption for aiding in the illegal prison release of a crime boss while Atambaev was serving as president and sentenced the former head of state to 11 years and two months in prison.

Worse is probably on the way for Atambaev. The 63-year-old head of state faces a raft of charges -- including over the alleged murder of a security-force commander -- stemming from his armed standoff with security forces at Atambaev’s compound in early August 2019.

But his conviction and sentencing raise questions about the future for presidents of Kyrgyzstan.

Atambaev is not the first president of Kyrgyzstan, and all of Kyrgyzstan’s previously elected presidents have faced legal problems.

Askar Akaev, ousted in the 2005 revolution, was investigated for corruption and separate charges for his alleged involvement in a police crackdown on protesters in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Aksy district in 2002 that resulted in the deaths of six demonstrators. Members of Akaev’s family have been charged with crimes; Akaev has not, although Kyrgyzstan’s security service still wants to question him.

Akaev remains in Russia, where he fled after he was chased from power.

Kurmanbek Bakiev, who fled into exile during the 2010 revolution, was convicted in absentia in 2014 of abuse of power and sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Bakiev fled to Belarus and remains there.

Atambaev is therefore the only former Kyrgyz president to stand trial in Kyrgyzstan.

How Atambaev Differs From His Predecessors

But there are some other differences between Atambaev and those two previous Kyrgyz presidents.

Akaev and Bakiev were investigated after they had fled Kyrgyzstan for crimes they committed while in office.

Atambaev was convicted of helping cut short criminal kingpin Aziz Batukaev's prison stay, but that investigation started while Atambaev was still in office.

Batukaev was convicted of several crimes in 2006, including the murders of a Kyrgyz lawmaker and two associates along with an Interior Ministry official, but was ordered released in 2013 on the basis of medical documents declaring that he had leukemia.

Former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev is living in exile in Belarus.
Former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev is living in exile in Belarus.

The documents testifying to Batukaev’s illness were exposed as fakes soon after Batukaev fled Kyrgyzstan to Russia.

Though Atambaev’s name came up during the extensive investigation, there was no public indication when Atambaev left office in late 2017 that he would be charged with any crime, although it was clear investigators wanted to question him as a witness.

Atambaev’s legal problems effectively started once he appeared to be clinging to power.

Atambaev stepped down as president in November 2017, the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another in Central Asia.

Tricky Succession

Many felt Atambaev had always intended to continue to rule through his anointed successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov. But after Atambaev started publicly offering advice to Jeenbekov, it quickly became apparent that the new head of state had no intention of being a front man for Atambaev.

Atambaev criticized Jeenbekov, questioned his policies and appointees -- the latter often coming at the expense officials Atambaev had left in office -- accused Jeenbekov of imposing family rule on Kyrgyzstan like that of Akaev and Bakiev, and said Jeenbekov had deceived him when Atambaev selected and promoted him as his successor.

The public rants brought increasing negative attention to Atambaev, who had already made enemies inside Kyrgyzstan by locking up some of his most vocal political opponents during his last years in power.

Atambaev refused to obey subpoenas from the Interior Ministry, where officials wanted to question him about Batukaev's release. He said he would not recognize parliament’s decision in June 2019 to strip him of his constitutionally guaranteed immunity from prosecution. Then in July 2019, just two weeks before the raid on his compound, Atambaev flew to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin in what was clearly an attempt to frighten opponents back in Kyrgyzstan.

Video Captures Kyrgyz Ex-President's Surrender To Security Forces
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WATCH: Video Captures Kyrgyz Ex-President's Surrender To Security Forces

Putin was seemingly too shrewd to be lured into an internal Kyrgyz political feud and chose to speak alone at a press conference in Moscow after meeting with Atambaev; he called for stability in Kyrgyzstan and support for President Jeenbekov.

The raid on Atambaev’s complex on the outskirts of Bishkek came on August 7, with Jeenbekov and others in the Kyrgyz government having seemingly lost patience with Atambaev.

On the face of it, Atambaev’s imprisonment is a bad sign for the current and future Kyrgyz presidents.

Only Roza Otunbaeva, who was an unelected interim president, has ever left office without subsequently facing charges.

There are those who question whether Atambaev received a fair trial or will receive a fair trial once he faces charges related to the raid.

And it is essential that Kyrgyz authorities ensure that justice is served.

But Atambaev’s case might also be an exception, fueled by his lack of self-restraint and insistence on trying to run the country after his term was over.

So the real lesson here might be about overconfidence in handpicked successors and a refusal to let go of power once a six-year, constitutionally limited, single term expires.

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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