Middle Corridor: Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan's gateway to Eurasian trade

Editor's note: Ruslan Izimov is an expert at the Institute of Philosophy, Political Science and Religious Studies of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

In recent years, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have played central roles in the development of the Middle Corridor, also known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TMTM). This route has always been one of the most promising alternatives for diversifying Kazakhstan's export routes. Over the past thirty years, Kazakhstan has made attempts to expand its capacities in this direction. However, until recently, objective circumstances related to the greater throughput capacity of other corridors limited the significance of the TMTM, through which only a small portion of transit cargo passed along the China-Caspian-Central Asian region-Europe route.

The war in Ukraine and its consequences have given new impetus to old projects. Changes in Eastern Europe and sanctions against the Russian economy have created significant obstacles for transit through traditional routes. For example, while the volume of shipments from China to Europe via Russia had been growing in recent years, reaching record levels in 2021, transit volumes decreased by nearly a third in 2022. Under these conditions, the Middle Corridor has regained relevance. Whereas previously, Central Asian countries viewed the TMTM as a means of diversifying export routes, China and EU countries are now showing increased interest in this route, adding further significance to the project.

Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan remain the main drivers of the TMTM project. Thanks to coordinated measures and fruitful negotiations at the highest level, Astana and Baku have already implemented several important initiatives to expand the potential of the Middle Corridor. In 2022, President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev instructed measures to ensure the safe and uninterrupted export of domestic products, emphasizing the priority of the Trans-Caspian route. He tasked "KazMunayGas" with developing an optimal implementation plan, including the possibility of attracting investors from the Tengiz project.

There are many problems on the path to developing the Middle Corridor. These include geopolitical risks, technical issues, and political challenges. Experts note that infrastructure limitations and the low throughput capacity of railways, ports, and port stations on the Caspian Sea remain unresolved. Despite the measures being taken, the throughput capacity of the Middle Corridor remains less than 10% of that of the northern route.

Another issue is the weak interaction between transport participants (railways, transport operators, port administrations, and off-dock terminals). Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan set a good example by regularly holding meetings to coordinate transport policy, but this work needs to be extended to all TMTM participants.

The lack of ferries for rail and road transport also creates significant difficulties. Underdeveloped infrastructure and a multimodal transport model lead to increased transportation times. Currently, there are only 13 ferries operating on the Baku—Aktau and Baku—Turkmenbashi routes.

Geopolitical factors have both positive and negative effects on the Middle Corridor. Traditional northern routes are frozen due to the war in Ukraine, and the TMTM has become a beneficial project for most global and regional powers, including the USA, China, Russia, the EU, and Iran. However, in the medium and long term, the Middle Corridor may not align with the interests of some global players.

To turn the TMTM into a fully-fledged alternative route between East and West Eurasia, more extensive coordinated measures are needed. It may be timely to revisit ambitious projects such as the construction of a bridge or tunnel across the Caspian Sea, which would address several key issues facing the Middle Corridor. China periodically expresses interest in such large-scale projects, and in 2015, the Chinese Consul General in Almaty even mentioned the possibility of building a bridge-tunnel across the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan play key roles in the development of the Middle Corridor, facing numerous challenges and problems. However, their efforts and the interest of other global and regional players create prospects for transforming the TMTM into an important alternative route between East and West. To achieve this goal, infrastructure must continue to be developed, interaction between transport participants improved, and ambitious projects like the construction of a bridge or tunnel across the Caspian Sea considered.

(If you possess specialized knowledge and wish to contribute, please reach out to us at [email protected]).


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