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Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan: All Transport Need Not Lead To Russia

Prague, 29 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's transport system suffers from shortcomings that are a typical of the Soviet legacy. The main priority is to create international links in directions other than Russia.

Two years ago, a rail link was officially opened between Turkmenistan and Iran. The 300-kilometer link allows rail traffic to pass from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the Iranian port of Mashhad on the India Ocean.

Turkmenistan also has signed an agreement with Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia to upgrade rail and ferry links passing all the way from the Caspian Sea port of Turkmenbashi to the Black Sea.

The EBRD has approved a $30 million loan to modernize the Turkmenbashi port, which is seen as an important link along the route between Georgia's Black Sea coast and Central Asia. The bank says that without rehabilitation, some of the Turkmenbashi port facilities will cease operation within three years. The EBRD says a well functioning port would enable Turkmenistan to reduce its dependence on exports of oil, gas and cotton because new markets could be developed for other export products.

The EBRD has approved a $50 million loan to help upgrade 350 kilometers of road from Ashgabat to Mary in eastern Turkmenistan. Work is underway to improve the highway from Ashgabat to Turkmenbashi, and to build a rail and highway bridge across the Amu Darya River near Chardjou.

For now, Turkmenistan's economy relies heavily on a pipeline from its southern natural gas field of Korpedzhe to Kurt Koy in northern Iran. It is the first export pipeline to send gas directly outside of the former Soviet Union. Its importance has been amplified by disputes between Ashgabat and the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom over use of pipelines passing through Russia. In 1993, Gazprom blocked the route to Turkmen exports outside of the former Soviet Union. Since March of 1997, Turkmenistan has not sent any gas through the Russian pipeline route.

Turkmenistan's territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over Caspian Sea oilfields has raised concerns about future cooperation between the two countries in other infrastructure projects. Hopes for a gas export pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan have been delayed by fighting between the Taliban Islamic militia and northern opposition forces.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan has managed to build an international airport at Ashgabat. A second runway, costing about $48 million, was completed early this year . The French firm Thomson-CSF is modernizing the air traffic control center at a cost of $23 million.

Uzbekistan: Trade Corridors Seek More Independence From Russia

Uzbekistan also is searching for a trade corridor that brings it more independence from Russia. In February, President Islam Karimov decreed that exports of the country's main agricultural crop, cotton, should use the trans-Caucasus corridor more often instead of being transported by train through Russia. The goal of that effort is seen as a way to give the landlocked country more export options. Most cotton exports this year are expected to pass through the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti -- putting more pressure on Georgia's port infrastructure.

Compared to other Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan has a relatively extensive transport network. Central Asia's only underground metro system is in Tashkent. But much of Uzbekistan's highway network is in need of repair. With increasing truck traffic, the EBRD says upgrades also are necessary in the most heavily traveled areas.

The EBRD also says that Uzbekistan's railroad system will require "carefully focused investments" to achieve financial self-sufficiency and to recast its operations for a market economy.

Feasibility studies have been started on road and rail projects but financing has not been finalized.

Improvements are underway at Tashkent Airport. These include an upgrading of the air traffic control system and the resurfacing of runways to allow poor weather landings. Airport modernizations at Samarkand, Bukhara and Urgench also are underway.