Tashkent preparing for ‘transit war’




February 5, 2010, Dilshod Ashurmatov
TCA correspondent

Uzbekistan is redirecting goods that used to be transported through Tajikistan, and the latter is planning to build a railway to bypass the neighbor.

An international logistics center was opened in mid-January in the Uzbek city of
Angren (Tashkent region). The center is located at the Ablyk railway station to receive and process all cargo, and then deliver it to the Andijan, Namangan and Ferghana regions of eastern Uzbekistan by truck. The Angren Logistics Center corporation, established in mid-2009, will manage the center.

The center was created in order to completely abandon rail transportations through
Tajikistan. Goods which had previously been delivered to the Ferghana Valley by rail through the Tajik city of Khujand will now be transported via highway through the Kamchik Pass. This almost doubles the length of the route, which by rail is 110 kilometers.

Moreover, substantial funds were required to establish the center. In the first stage, founders of the center already invested nearly US $15 million. However, it was just the beginning, as a large investment will be required to build the automotive fleet. 250 containers-haulers worth $36.5 million will be purchased for the center by the end of 2010. The Uzbek-German JV MAN Auto-Uzbekistan, which was launched in September 2009 in
Samarkand, will supply vehicles, the first major order for the enterprise specializing in the production of MAN trucks with the capacity from 15 to 50 tons.

However, the project’s initiators believe that their investments will be repaid. According to the operating company, 4.2 million tons of cargo, including products from the GM Uzbekistan automobile plant, the Ferghana oil refinery, and the large chemical companies located in the region, will be transferred through the new logistics center in 2010. Transportation volume is expected to increase by 50 percent in 2011.

Incentives will help increase the cargo traffic through a new logistics center. For example, Uzbekiston Temir Yullari (Uzbekistan Railroads) has cut in half the tariff on cargo delivery from any part of
Uzbekistan to the Ablyk station. However, some experts believe that founders of the new cargo hub were thinking about economic benefits last of all.

Maneuvers in a transportation war

After the
USSR’s collapse, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been in close captivity, an economic and geographic interdependence that sooner or later had to burst out of its slow boiling cup of contradictions.

Late in 2009, both countries accused each other of violating the energy supply regime of the Central Asian United Energy System, and each country constructed transmission lines in the border regions in a show of energy independence. This year the independence of transportation systems will be checked.

It all started with mutual accusations. On the one hand, Uzbekiston Temir Yollari reported that
Tajikistan forced Uzbekistan to suspend rail service between the Ferghana Valley and other regions of Uzbekistan.

“At normal speed, trains traverse the transit section in about one hour. However, customs officers and border officials in Tajikistan create unreal problems at border crossings, complicating the situation with unjustified inspections and delaying trains for up to six hours,” said Akmaljon Abbasov, acting head of the Namangan rail station, in an interview.

On the other hand, the Tajik side asserted that
Uzbekistan has sharply reduced the number of freight trains through Tajik territory. The Tajik Ministry of Transport noted that the Uzbek side had made no complaints. Meanwhile, the Tajik Ministry is developing its own strategy to construct railway lines connecting Kyrgyzstan, China and Afghanistan but bypassing Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan knows that story well. In 2004, the Tashguzar-Boysun-Kumkurgan railway line was built, connecting southern Uzbekistan with its other regions while bypassing Turkmenistan, at the cost of over $400 million. However, in the current situation, Tajikistan will have difficulty finding the funds for such a construction project.

Tashkent will have its own difficulties completely abandoning transportation through Tajik rail lines. The highway through the Kamchik Pass, located at an altitude of 1.2 kilometers, has always been very busy, and with the additional trucks carrying good that had previously moved through Tajikistan, this road will be too congested. Moreover, in winter heavy snowfalls often close this route.

Political ambitions

According to Ilkhat Tushev, analyst of Central Asia Investments,
Uzbekistan's decision to bypass Tajikistan when transporting goods to the Ferghana Valley has its political context. “Now, Dushanbe directs substantial resources, including funds raised from cargo transit, to major construction projects, particularly the construction of the Rogun and Sangtuda hydropower stations, to Tashkent’s discontent,” said Tushev. “Uzbekistan, in its turn, is looking for new leverage to halt that construction.”

This spring the Uzbek government will submit to the parliament a bill to suspend a number of agreements of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). Among the agreements to be officially suspended are a number on transit. In October 2008,
Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov made a request to suspend the country’s membership in the EurAsEC, a request which was granted. The main reason for the suspension of Uzbekistan's membership in the post-Soviet economic bloc was Tashkent’s discontent with the conditions of the formation of the Customs Union, established within the EurAsEC. (The Customs Union currently includes Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can join it the future.) Thus, the construction of the new logistics center and the refusal from cargo transit through Tajikistan may be a strategic move in the upcoming ‘transit war’.