The 35th meeting of the Berlin Eurasian club took place on 18 October in the centre of Brussels. Hosted in collaboration with the Eastern Committee of the German Economy and the Embassies of Kazakhstan in Brussels and Berlin, the event brought together the high-level representatives of the Kazakh government, the EU institutions, think tanks, companies from Kazakhstan, EU member states and other countries working in relevant markets.
The first half of the meeting was dedicated to the Middle Corridor, a transport route connecting China and the EU, passing through Kazakhstan and thus bypassing Russia. Building on EU’s Global Gateway project, the representatives from both the Central Asian country and the European Union highlighted how the collaboration between the two can enhance connectivity worldwide.
1. The Middle Corridor and the EU Global Gateway project
Kazakhstan fits perfectly in the Global Gateway project, highlighted Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Roman Vassilenko. The Transcaspian route, now called the Middle Corridor, started in 2013 and has been of particular importance this year, providing an alternative route of connecting Asia and Europe.
We are offering Kazakhstan’s central geographical location as a potential to turn the country into a logistics hub.Roman Vassilenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan has been the most important partner from Central Asia to the EU this year and although it is not a direct neighbour, the EU “stands ready to support you”, stressed Michael Siebert, Managing Director for Russia, Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Regional Cooperation and OSCE of the European External Action Service, adding that the further effective implementation of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Kazakhstan and the EU is of particular importance.
The European Commission needs to recognise the Middle Corridor as a top priority project, since there are many opportunities to arise from the cooperation between Kazakhstan and the EU, stressed Deputy CEO of Kazak Railways (KTZ) Anuar Akhmedzhanov, while Peteris Ustubs, Director for Middle East, Central Asia, Asia and Pacific in the Directorate-General for International Partnerships, reinforced the EU’s commitment to Kazakhstan and the further development of the Middle Corridor.
“On behalf of the government, I can only say that we are prepared to work with our partners, to welcome investors, where we think foreign investment is needed, and share our vision. Only together we will be successful in removing the mentioned bottlenecks”, added Vassilenko.
2. Development plans
There are 13 international transport corridors passing through Kazakhstan, amounting in 2021 to 123.7 million tonnes of materials transported through the country, 83.5 for export, 19.2 for import and 21 tonnes just transiting, highlighted Almaz Idyryssov, Deputy Minister for Industry and Infrastructure Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
So far this year, the Middle Corridor contributed to a 6% reduction in transport through Russia compared to last year and Kazakhstan has concrete plans for further developing the route in the country. Specifically, 3 sections of railway are to be built by 2025: 836km between Dostyk and Moynty, which will increase the capacity if the site 5 times, 106 km from Maktaral to Darbaza and a further 73 km to bypass the busy city of Almaty.
Anuar Akhmedzhanov also highlighted that, since more and more of their customers pay attention to the CO2 emissions of the transport modes they choose, they are switching locomotives from diesel to gas and electric.
As far as sea transport is concerned, Idyryssov indicated a container hub will be built in the port of Aktau by 2025 and 10 new ferries will be purchased to increase the capacity of cargo shipment through the Caspian Sea.
Despite Kazakhstan’s best efforts, Idyryssov pointed out that the bottlenecks along the corridor should be addressed by all countries on the route, for example the capacity of the port of Baku also needs to be improved.
3. Need for further improvement
Despite all the promising expectations Heinrich Kerstgens, a special representative from the Rhenus Group, pointed out that the capacity of the Middle Corridor is still less than 10% of the north route.
As the relations between the EU and China are strengthening, there will be a lot of intermediate traffic, so it is good to have alternative routes, but the Middle Corridor still has too many bottlenecks.Heinrich Kerstgens, special representative from the Rhenus Group
It can take up to 3 months to get containers across the Middle Corridor, which for many of Rhenus’ clients is unacceptable, so they are returning to the northern route. At the same time, they do not trust passing through Russia again, so they are, quite literally, at a crossroad.
Dr Johann Killinger, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Hamburg and Executive Partner at Buss Group GmbH, supported this view. The north route is simpler, while the Middle Corridor is still too expensive, too long and too difficult, its capacity needing to be greatly increased.
However, he stressed that regardless of whether the north route comes back or not, the development of the Middle Corridor should remain a priority for Kazakhstan, along with the other countries along the route, as well as the European Union and the rest of the international actors who could profit from this alternative passage.
“Now is the time for all of us to work together. There are many many issues to work on in all the countries along the route of the Middle Corridor and fixing them is not something that will be easily or quickly done, but it is something that needs to be done. After so many years of relatively slow development of this corridor, now there is a lot of effort put into its development, by private and public partners alike”, Vassilenko concluded the first half of the meeting.