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Central Asia: Turkmenistan Pushing North-South 'Trade Corridor' With Iran

Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov (center) and Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Tehran on June 15 (epa) PRAGUE, June 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The issue of transport routes between Central Asia and Iran was the focus of talks between Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Iranian leaders in Tehran on June 15-16.

Plans for such a transport corridor have been around for decades, but a lack of coordination and political infighting among countries have hampered the effort.

Fresh impetus to begin working on a transport corridor from Iran's seacoast to Central Asia was given during Turkmen Berdymukhammedov's trip to Tehran, where he discussed such plans with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders.

The project has been around since the 1990s but, like many other regional plans and agreements, it has yet to be implemented.

Getting The Plan Started

"We have many suggestions regarding the communications system, especially regarding the railway project that the two brotherly countries would build together and [that would] reach second and third countries [beyond Turkmenistan]," Berdymukhammedov said.

Russian news agencies reported that the regional transport routes will be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the representatives of the Caspian littoral states in Tehran.

While Iran has access to the sea, the Central Asian's lack of proper transport links to Iran is one of the major problems hampering their economies.

All five Central Asian countries are landlocked and depend on neighboring Russia and China to import and export goods.

Other Routes

Afghanistan is a potential way to link the Central Asian transport routes to a seaport, by way of Pakistan. However, the ongoing security risks in the country have ruled out Afghanistan as an option for the foreseeable future.

The Central Asian leaders have sought various alternatives, such as reviving the route of the ancient Silk Road. However, none of the various projects that have been proposed have been implemented.

Many experts see the North-South project through Iran -- a so-called trade corridor -- as the best answer to Central Asian transport problems.

And political support seems to be slowly building. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev supports the Turkmen-Iranian agreement to include Iran in a regional railway project, the Turkmen President's Office said on June 18.

Buri Karimov is the head of the administrative department at the CIS Road Construction Council, which deals with the North-South project in the former Soviet countries.

Karimov tells RFE/RL that the North-South corridor that currently links Russia and Kazakhstan to the European transport routes could be further extended towards the other Central Asian countries.

An Old Project

He adds that the project aims to build several transport routes -- including roads and railways -- that would connect Central Asian countries to at least two southern seaports: Bandar Abbas in Iran and Karachi in Pakistan.

"[Kazakhstan also] wants to connect the corridor -- through Astana -- to the Trans-Siberian route on one side and through a new 'Kazakhstan-Western China' project to western China on the second side," Karimov said. "The other Central Asian countries also want to extend the corridor towards Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan by building a new link from Tashkent -- or Bishkek -- and crossing Tajikistan."

The project has been around since the 1990s but, like many other regional plans and agreements, it has yet to be implemented.

During the various meetings, Central Asian leaders have pointed to the strategic and economic importance of the regional transport routes and the necessity of bilateral and multilateral cooperation to build roads and railway links.

In reality, however, the countries present more problems to each other than assistance and cooperation.

Unfriendly Neighbors

For instance, from time to time Uzbekistan -- mostly, without prior warning and with no explanation -- closes its borders to Tajikistan's transport vehicles and trains. Kyrgyzstan's southern regions face similar problems with Uzbekistan during the winter.

A visa regime between some of the Central Asian countries and the lack of cooperation between the customs systems creates additional problems. As a result, the countries try to use alternative -- usually less convenient -- routes to bypass each other's territory.

The shortest bus route from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, to the country's Ferghana Oblast, passes through Tajikistan. Uzbekistan discontinued the bus route between Tashkent and Ferghana in early 1990s, citing security reasons.

Rahman Alshanov is an economy professor and the head of Turan University in Almaty. Alshanov told RFE/RL that the Central Asian countries have failed to restore order in their existing regional transport routes.

"All of the different kinds of money extortion have to stop," he said. "All those unnecessary customs and police posts should be taken away. Nowadays, every person who has a police stick runs to the roads and tries to stop a cargo vehicle [in order to demand some money]. And drivers try to avoid the main roads. There were some 25 traffic police stations along the Almaty-Tashkent route. They were removed. Every unnecessary post has to be moved away decisively."

Realizing The Importance

The neighboring countries usually argue and disagree over the exact path of the transport routes, similar to their differences over other regional issues, such as water and energy supplies.

Buri Karimov says that each of the five Central Asian countries has a different idea about the potential railway that would be built between Russia in the north and Afghanistan in the south, crossing through Central Asia. Each country wants the main railway to pass through its own territory in order to get the maximum transit route benefits.

Despite the existing problems, however, it seems that the countries have realized the great importance of the trade corridor and the negative impact of further delays in implementing the project.

Karimov said transport officials in all the Central Asian republics have agreed to set up a special body that would deal with the coordination of the North-South project.

It is perhaps the first step in the eventual realization of the project.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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