Kazakhstan: A Journey from Land-Locked to Land-Linked Destination

A land-locked country has a geographical limitation of not having its territory connected to the ocean. Kazakhstan is the largest land-locked country in the world that has the most distant spot from the oceans. Kazakhstan is among 48 countries that are deprived of access to the sea. Nearly 90 percent of world trade is carried out through maritime routes but land-locked states do not have the opportunities for this cheaper form of trade. However, Kazakhstan has transcended its landlockedness challenge by implementing a pragmatic policy framework of multi-mode corridors and transportation routes.

Muhammad Rafiq.

The transport system inherited by Kazakhstan since its independence in 1991, neither provided access to external markets nor formed a single internal market. The fragmentation of transport routes reflected the fragmentation of the economy. However, the policymakers of Kazakhstan have transformed the country from land-locked to land-linked. Realizing the geo-strategic location between Europe and China as well as between Europe and South Asia, Kazakhstan has developed its potential as a transit link with these regions. A transportation network of railways, highways, airways, and marine routes and corridors has been established in a vast expanse of Kazakhstan with linkages to internal and external markets.

The Caspian Sea borders Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan. Being conscious of the significance of marine trade, Kazakhstan uses its sea capacity to the maximum by modernizing the Aktau port. Nearly a third of the turnover in the Caspian Sea trade takes place through the Aktau port. To enhance the shipping capacity, the Kuryk and Bautino ports are also being upgraded by Kazakhstan with multipurpose terminals, transshipment facilities, and access to the railway. These ports are important to the Middle Corridor or Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) facilitating multi-modal cargo from the European Union (EU) to the Baku port, from the Baku port to Kazakhstan’s Aktau port, and then to China and vice versa. Further, Kazakhstan has also developed a number of its foreign port assets like the Baku Grain Terminal, a Black Sea port of Batumi in Georgia, a grain terminal in Latvia’s Baltic port of Ventspils, and a Kazakh-Chinese terminal in the Pacific port of Lianyungang. Under its deftly chalked-out strategy, Kazakhstan is able to build a diversified port infrastructure for the maximization of marine trade.

To enhance its economic potential, Kazakhstan has always kept alive its quest for alternative trade routes. The Arctic trade route is another example. Kazakhstan and Russia are keen to develop the shipping potential of 4,250 kilometers long, broad, and deep Irtysh River that originates in China’s Xinjiang province, runs through the inland river ports of Semei and Pavlodar in Kazakhstan and, then after merging into Russia’s Ob River, flows north into the Arctic Ocean, at Sabetta port in Russia. The feasibility of the project was tested successfully in 2016 when two huge chemical reactors were transported from South Korea to the Pavlodar port through the Northern Sea Route and the Ob-Irtysh river system. Currently, 150,000 tonnes of cargo transportation is going on this route, as lumber and timber products from Russia’s Omsk Region are delivered to Kazakhstan via the Irtysh and crushed stone, sand, and gravel mixes are sent back to the Omsk. Thus, the Arctic trade route can open Kazakhstan to the maritime economies in East Asia and Europe.

Kazakhstan is also part of the Quadrilateral Transit and Trade Agreement (QTTA) along with Pakistan, China and Kyrgyzstan that is an alternative gateway for Central Asia to the warm waters of Gowadar port, by completely circumnavigating Afghanistan, in case of instability. QTTA would link land-locked Central Asia to China’s Xinjiang region, which is connected with the Karakoram Highway toward the seaport of Gowadar.

Even in the most difficult economic times, continental-scale investments were allocated and attracted for the development of diversified communication networks. In the pipeline field, approximately 10,715 kilometers of oil and gas pipelines have been laid down in Kazakhstan. The Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) has become the main route of Kazakhstan’s oil supplies.  New Kazakhstan-China transport corridors were created to export oil and gas to one of the largest markets in the world. Then, the Omsk-Pavlodar-Shymkent-Chardzhou pipeline crosses the country from north to south.

Presently, there are 90 airspace routes with a total length of 83,876 kilometers that pass over the territory of Kazakhstan. The key destinations include cross-polar routes-USA and Canada, Europe-South East Asia, Europe-China, and Asia-China. These air corridors are also playing a significant role in regional and global connectivity.

Since independence, nearly 2,700 kilometers of railways have been built in Kazakhstan. Railway sections of Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran and Zhetygen-Korgas were established to accelerate the delivery of goods between China and Europe. Distance of hundreds of kilometers was curtailed with the construction of new roads connecting Zheskazgan-Beineu, Arkalyk-Shubarkol, Aksu-Degelen, Khromtau-Altynsarin, and Shar-Ust-Kamenogorsk. This road network interlinked the northern, central, western, and eastern regions of the country. With the necessary infrastructure, the capacity of the Aktogai-Dostyk, the key transit area was also increased. These developments have revamped Kazakhstan into a transport hub of Eurasia. Additionally, the state infrastructure development program Nurly-Zhol 2020-2025, is going on with an investment of $3.9 billion. The project aims to build, repair, and renovate the local roads with priority to international corridors running through the country. 

During the first three decades of independence, Kazakhstan planned and developed a prudent transport strategy, keeping in view the inherent landlockedness of the country. Successful implementation of this strategy has made Kazakhstan, a global transit power with international maritime trade, and transport routes, major ports, and gateways linked by overland transport corridors as well as continental footholds. Consequently, Kazakhstan has positioned itself economically as the intersection point of an east-west rail, pipeline and highway system linking China and Europe on one hand, and South Asia and Europe on the other. Therefore, it can be said that Kazakhstan has made great strides from being a land-locked country to a land-linked nation. 

The author is Muhammad Rafiq (Pakistan, a senior banker based in Kazakhstan, with a keen interest in Central Asian studies.

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