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Kyrgyzstan: new “Road of Contradictions”

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Kyrgyzstan may soon become part of a new Eurasian railway route, which, due to its ambiguity, has already received the unspoken name “the road of contradictions”.

So, China is laying a railway to Europe through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Why Beijing needs this, given that the existing routes are much shorter and they are functioning successfully, is an open question. Nevertheless, the project has been approved and in Kyrgyzstan itself, it is regarded as strategically important. Bishkek expects that this road will connect the north of the country with the south. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan will be able to realize its potential as a transit country for China, Asian countries and Southern Europe.

However, there is also an opposite point of view.

In order to fully assess the possible economic and geopolitical risks associated with the construction of a railway line and understand how appropriate it is for Kyrgyzstan, it is necessary to first answer several key questions.

Firstly: is the railway construction project economically profitable? There has been a lot of controversy about this. There are many because the theoretical assumptions of certain statesmen did not coincide in any way with the specific practical conclusions of economists. According to the calculations of the latter, Kyrgyzstan will begin to benefit from this road no earlier than four decades later, in 2056. This is under an ideal operating scenario and one hundred per cent accuracy of economic forecasts.

The problem is that technically this project is quite complicated. The mountainous landscape of the country significantly increases the cost of the project and its payback period. And if we consider that Kyrgyz officials trust themselves more than the figures and calculations of specialists and often try to take into account their own interests, then the economic effect may move years away from the projected dates.

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By the way, the fact that 3 feasibility studies have been compiled for this project over the past 16 years suggests that everything is not so smooth in the financial part. In general, answering the first question, we can confidently say that there will certainly be a positive effect for Kyrgyzstan. Only it is not known when. As a quick and effective economic measure that will affect the well-being of ordinary citizens, this project is clearly not suitable.

The second question is: what difficulties stand in the way of the implementation of this project? There are a lot of them and you can write a separate article about it. The main difficulty is technical. It is related to the track width. In the post-Soviet space, it is 1,520 mm. This standard is also partially valid in other countries of the world. But Beijing is building roads on the European model with a narrower gauge of 1,435 mm, and since this project is funded by China, the track will be made according to its standards. This means that this road in the Kyrgyz territory will be virtually useless for other infrastructure schemes.

And now the logical third question is: if the road is unprofitable in the short term, if it does not actually increase the transit capacity of Kyrgyzstan due to the difference in track, then why is it needed at all? In this way, the authorities of the republic hope to establish cooperation with an influential neighbour and attract Chinese money to the country. However what kind of money can we talk about if the payback period is measured in four decades, and you can’t count on creating new jobs due to construction? China always employs its own workforce on such projects.

And another important question: why does China need this, given that there are already similar routes, and they are successfully functioning? Considering that the route through Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, which means that construction and transportation will cost much more? Considering that this route, unlike the alternative ones, involves crossing four borders? The answer is simple. China’s goal is not so much the road itself as the expansionist policy of which it is the lever.

In exchange for participation in the project, Kyrgyzstan gives to China several metal deposits on its territory for development. This is Beijing’s political strategy, which has been successfully tested in other countries of the world and has received its name – China’s “concrete and railway diplomacy”. And as part of the implementation of this diplomacy, Kyrgyzstan provides China with mineral deposits, and China builds a road in exchange. That is, deposits of rare metals (including gold) and other minerals are being taken from Kyrgyzstan, and they will leave a road that may also pay off.

Considering all of the above, it is obvious that the project of this road is not as profitable as it may seem.

Yes, Kyrgyzstan needs to establish cooperation with China. But not at the cost of their own deposits. Yes, the republic needs a North-South road. But transport communications within the country should correspond in their technical parameters to the routes from neighbouring regions of neighbouring states.

Otherwise, what’s the point of them?

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