Trans-Caspian Route to Become Game Changer in Asia-Europe Connectivity, Says Top European Official

ASTANA – The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) can be a game changer in the connectivity between Asia and Europe, said Henrik Hololei, Hors Classe Adviser, Directorate-General for International Partnerships, European Commission, in an interview with The Astana Times.

Henrik Hololei. Photo credit: Euronews.

This is the third time the top-ranked official has traveled to Kazakhstan within the last five months. The purpose behind his meetings with representatives of the Kazakh government and private sector is to address practical implementation of the projects for the development of the multimodal route. In this regard, Hololei also visited the ports of Aktau and Kuryk on the Caspian Sea. 

Key actions for the TITR development

“Over the last year, we have actually been doing a lot. The discussions have been very intense and also very productive. I believe we have a solid understanding, with clear commitments from both sides regarding the significance of the corridor and the necessity of implementing its projects,” he said.

Hololei referenced a study on sustainable transport connections between Europe and Central Asia undertaken by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) last year. 

The EBRD identified what it termed as the Central Trans-Caspian Network (CTCN), traversing through southern Kazakhstan, as the “most sustainable option” for forging links between Central Asia and Europe.

The projects on hard and soft infrastructure along the corridor worth approximately 16 billion euros [US$ 17.4 billion] need to make it function in a competitive, efficient, sustainable, smart, affordable, and predictable way,” said Hololei. 

One of the most recent significant developments was the announcement of a 10 billion euro (US$10.2 billion) commitment from European and international financial institutions to bolster the capacities of the TITR. Last January, an investment forum in Brussels provided a venue for European and Central Asian partners to embark on an importantmilestone in their partnership.

“In Brussels, 600 people – representatives from governments, the private sector, banks, and like-minded countries – held intense discussions. Each Central Asian country, including Kazakhstan, hosted their own side event to discuss opportunities, showcase their businesses, and clarify what is feasible and what is not,” he said.

Hololei added the EU has engaged in discussions with every Central Asian state, particularly Kazakhstan, given that the corridor traverses a significant part of its territory. 

The next step, according to him, will be the establishment of a permanent coordination platform with the purpose to oversee the implementation of the projects. 

The development of this idea is under discussion with Kazakhstan’s foreign and transport ministries, as well as with their counterparts in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Upon reaching agreement on this initiative, the sides plan to draw up a coordination plan. 

“We hope to finalize the coordination plan in a month’s time so that we can launch it before summer. This would be a perfect platform for facilitating and also monitoring the implementation of the projects,” he said. 

Hololei particularly highlighted the importance of participation of financial institutions and partners, which are ready to invest in the corridor in accordance with internationally recognized terms, including the European Investment Bank(EIB), EBRD, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and Islamic Development Bank (IsDB).

The objective is to align perspectives between counterparts regarding key priorities and find ways on how best to advance them collaboratively.

It is imperative for the key stakeholders to strengthen connectivity within the Central Asian region through the Global Gateway initiative, the EU’s strategy aimed at investing in infrastructure projects worldwide, Hololei believes.

The EU’s approach in cooperation with partner countries aligns with the Global Gateway strategy, a key strategy in deepening and widening our cooperation,” he noted. 

Priority objectives 

The performance of the transportation corridor linking Europe and Asia through the South Caucasus and Central Asia, also known internationally as the Middle Corridor, depends on critical investments in digitalization, trade route diversification, the road and port transshipment improvement, and resolving operational inefficiency.  

We need to ensure smooth border crossings and the implementation of digital systems across Central Asia, including the digitalization of freight documents,” said Hololei. 

“It is essential to reach consensus on a unified regulatory framework. We certainly need to increase cooperation between countries and facilitate the establishment of a regulatory framework,” he added. 

The TITR, according to Hololei, is a “very important tool in facilitating and accelerating regional integration and economic development.” 

“We also need further trade facilitation. Special attention should be paid to digitalization and removing existing barriers that hinder the efficiency of the corridor. In logistics, time is crucial, and reducing time also reduces costs. Therefore, we must cut down the administrative bureaucratic layer and benefit from a seamless and well functioning corridor,” he said. 

“Of course, there are also many issues related to the availability of vessels in the Caspian Sea and wagons that need to be addressed comprehensively. It is important to have a comprehensive view on how to achieve it,” he added.

Prospects for EU-Kazakhstan cooperation in other areas

Apart from transport and logistics, European and Kazakh partners forge sustainable solutions in energy, digitalization, and critical raw materials.

“We maintain active cooperation in other areas. One of them is energy. Making the energy sector more sustainable, supporting the deployment of renewable energy, and also supporting the modernization of the energy sector in Kazakhstan remains definitely a very important area of cooperation,” said Hololei.  

Kazakhstan and the EU continue to develop projects on digitalization, as well as to explore cost-effective and sustainable supply of critical raw materials and decarbonization of energy production. 

Kazakhstan has become the first Central Asian to have signed a memorandum of understanding with the EU on cooperation in critical raw materials. The cooperation has, in fact, already effectively started,” he said.  

Hololei anticipates that cooperation in critical raw materials will also emerge as a key area of focus in the coming years, as there is a “clear connection to the TITR, as a functional corridor is essential for exporting products.” 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) play a central role in every project undertaken by Kazakhstan and the EU. “They are definitely at the heart of every project, as sustainability is deeply embedded as the mainstream approach,” he noted. 

Upbeat view on reforms in Kazakhstan

When asked about the impact of reforms in Kazakhstan, Hololei said they “make the country more competitive, more striving, and raise the quality of life of every citizen.” 

“We have noticed the reforms, which have been carried out in Kazakhstan. The country is clearly on the path of modernization. We are closely monitoring all of these developments and stand ready to assist the Kazakh government in advancing the reform agenda,” he said. 

First and foremost, every challenging discussion underscores the importance of mutual understanding.

“We sometimes do have difficult discussions, but we have to be honest with each other. That is what friends do,” he noted. 

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