After around five years of construction, Turkmenistan opened its $1.5 billion port at Turkmenbashi City on the Caspian Sea coast on May 2.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, rarely one to downplay the importance of a project, said the new port would become an important maritime link for trade to the Black Sea and Europe, to the Middle East, and to Asia.
Yes and no.
The new port is arguably essential for Turkmenistan, as it adds a new and badly needed new trade route for the country.
But it is likely to remain limited mainly to Turkmenistan’s exports and imports, because it has competition on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea.
Turkmenistan has billed itself as a trade crossroads of Eurasia for years. That might be geographically correct, but Ashgabat's isolationist policies have turned the country more into a black hole of intercontinental trade routes.
More than a quarter of a century into its independent history, Turkmenistan is not much better connected to the outside world than it was when it was a Soviet republic.
For years, Ashgabat relied on revenues from exported natural gas. Since the gas was shipped by pipeline, it was easy for the Turkmen government to close off its borders and isolate the country.
The fall in world prices for gas and oil from the record heights of half a decade ago has crippled Turkmenistan’s economy. The Asian Development Bank said in a September 2016 report that “Turkmenistan’s economy relies heavily on oil and gas, which account for over 85 percent of the country’s exports."
The problem is, some 88 percent of Turkmenistan is desert and there is relatively little else the country can export. But Turkmenistan has been working on selling its gas and oil in new forms.
There is a second gas-to-liquids plant under construction at Ovadan-Depe (also the site of Turkmenistan’s most notorious prison), which should convert gas into diesel and gasoline, and chemical plants and the country's two refineries are producing polyethylene, polypropylene, sulfuric and nitric acids, and ammonia, all products that can be shipped by container on rail and/or tanker.
The new port also includes a shipbuilding and repair yard. Turkmenistan has been purchasing tankers from Russia’s Krasnoye Sormovo Shipyard (at least nine, each reportedly capable of carrying six types of petroleum products simultaneously). Some of Turkmenistan’s tankers have been delivering oil to the Russian Caspian port at Makhachkala; but other Turkmen tankers have been delivering oil to Baku, where is it pumped into the Baku-Makhachkala-Novorossiysk and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines.
The tankers from Krasnoye Sormovo are 7,100 tons, but Turkmenistan’s new port plans to be able to eventually handle some 25 million tons when it reaches full operating capacity.
The Turkmenbashi port will probably never operate at that capacity because of the Aktau and Kuryk ports in Kazakhstan.
The third of Kazakhstan’s three new terminals at the Aktau port started operating in 2014 and raised its capacity to some 19 million tons annually. (Aktau made the news recently when Kazakhstan’s government suggested the United States could ship supplies bound for Afghanistan through Aktau.)
Kazakhstan has also been investing money in a new port at Kuryk, some 60 kilometers south of Aktau. The Kuryk port, intended mainly to handle oil from Kazakhstan’s Kashagan field, aims to have a capacity to handle some 7 million tons of cargo annually by 2020. And Kazakhstan has been building new railway lines, including those that connect to China.
After exporting their own goods, and importing cargo needed domestically, the ports in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are competing to ship goods bound from and receive cargo bound for China and other East Asian countries, part of Beijing’s One Belt One Road global trade-network project.
The difference is that Kazakhstan borders China, and Kazakhstan clearly sees its ports playing key roles in the transportation of goods between China and Europe. Turbek Spanov, the deputy chief of transport and roads in Kazakhstan’s Mangistau Province, said in October 2017 that the Kuryk port would be “an important link of the Trans-Caspian international transport route...one of the promising transport corridors in Eurasia, which runs from China through the territory of Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, and Georgia with the subsequent exit to the European countries."
The Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, launched at the end of 2014, foresees transporting some 15 million tons of cargo annually by 2022. Chinese goods headed west currently can go by railway in Russia or Kazakhstan. (There is a project for a railway line from western China to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.)
To reach the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, trains from China need to turn south along Kazakhstan’s railway network.
The terminal station of the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway in Kazakhstan is Uzen, which is about 90 kilometers east of Kuryk -- meaning goods from East Asia being transported by rail to east Caspian ports would pass Aktau and Kuryk before reaching the start of the railway line to Turkmenistan and Iran.
There is another part of the Caspian transit corridor that needs to be considered: the new port in Azerbaijan, near Baku.
The Baku International Sea Trade Port at Alat is replacing the old port at Baku. In 2017, the volume of freight traffic increased by some 31 percent and totaled some 4.4 million tons.
The first phase of the Alat port is due to be completed this year and will bring capacity to some 15 million tons annually. When the second phase is completed, the port should be able to handle some 25 million tons of cargo.
From Baku, much of the cargo would go by rail through the Caucasus to Turkey and the Black Sea. It’s no surprise that when the new Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway was inaugurated in late November 2017, the prime ministers of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were in attendance for the opening ceremony, as was a delegation from Turkmenistan.
That railway line plans to be able to carry some 17 million tons of cargo annually when it reaches maximum capacity. Azerbaijan clearly has preference in shipping its goods, with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and possibly Iran, vying for remaining space on the line going west.
There are other railways leading to Georgia’s Black Sea coast. There are four ports operating on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, two of which specialize in liquid cargo. One is at Batumi. Kazakhstan’s state-owned KazTransOil manages Batumi. And there is the port at Kulevi. The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) operates Kulevi. So even here, Turkmenistan is in an unfavorable position regarding its Caspian neighbors.
One last note on the railway lines and Turkmenistan’s new seaport. Berdymukhammedov has offered Uzbekistan use of the port facilities, but last year officials from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, including the heads of the state railway companies, met several times to discuss shipping Uzbek goods through Aktau and Kuryk.
Turkmenistan’s new seaport is useful to Turkmenistan, though it might be a while before it makes back the $1.5 billion spent on it.
But in the end, it risks joining the Tejen-Serakhs-Mashhad railway, once touted as the “junction of the planet,” and the new $2.5 billion international airport in Ashgabat as white elephant projects.