The Romanian Presidency held its High Level Conference to mark the adoption of the new EU Strategy for Central Asia – Connectivity for sustainable development at the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest today. Speaking at the High Level Conference, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Roman Vassilenko, highlighted the critical aspect of connectivity and its role in sustainable development.
Vassilenko noted that Kazakhstan has been a steadfast supporter of continued expansion of interregional dialogue with the EU, recognizing not only its potential for bringing Central Asia and the EU closer together, but also its capacity for making a contribution to increased cooperation between the countries of our region.
Speaking of the region, Vassilenko said:
“We expect that connectivity in its broadest sense will become one of the key elements of the new EU Strategy for Central Asia, which should be adopted in the very near future. We urge our European colleagues to actively involve Central Asian partners in developing appropriate programs for the development of our region, which are already being established within the framework of the new budget period of 2021-2027”
The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke of Kazakhstan’s economy, noting the geographic hurdles to growth that being the largest land-locked state in the region. “These factors, together with the demanding realities of globalization, have meant that issues of transit and logistics have become vital to our diplomacy. This turns the attraction of foreign investments, integration of innovative technologies into our economy, and the promotion of Kazakh exports into some of the main priorities of our government,” he told the audience. “The future of economic connectivity and cooperation between the EU and Central Asia will primarily depend on our ability to create and maintain efficient intercontinental trade flows. The pace at which we meet this objective will be determined by the quality of infrastructure, ease of doing business, and transportation costs and logistics that set the framework for inter-state economic collaboration,” Vassilenko explained, setting the stage for what the future holds between his country and the European Union.
The Minister affirmed that Kazakhstan has succeeded in creating an efficient and modern national transport infrastructure and in promoting greater economic integration, suggesting that this strategic programme has allowed Kazakhstan to capitalize on its geostrategic location and succeed in linking its national development programs with those of neighbouring countries.
“A good example is the connection between the $24 billion Kazakh national “Nurly Zhol” (Bright Path) infrastructure development program and the Belt and Road Initiative. This integration has created synergies between transportation and logistics systems and formed a new infrastructure network for transcontinental shipments,” Vassilenko continued. Kazakhstan has been implementing the Nurly Zhol programme since 2015 to stimulate the growth of trade flows across the country by linking it with global infrastructure networks. Nurly Zhol provides for large-scale transportation and infrastructure projects, and has seen the completion of the Western China – Western Europe road transportation corridor.
Discussing the digitisation of infrastructure, the Minister explained that “Our connectivity strategy involves using both inland and sea ports to achieve maximum results from our location and modern transportation infrastructure. We are equally focused on introducing digital solutions in this area, for managing processes and improving services based on blockchain technologies.”
Not just a transit corridor
Vassilenko sees an opportunity to go beyond framing the region as a transit corridor between Europe and Asia, “On the contrary, our region seeks to use the expertise of global partners such as the EU to achieve effective modernization, develop our logistical potential, attain economic diversification and, as a result, improve Central Asia’s integration into the global economic system.
“Over the past decade, Kazakhstan has invested approximately $30 billion in its national transportation infrastructure. We have plans to invest an additional $8.4 billion by 2020. This will complement the already dynamic development of our trade routes in concert with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in which our country plays a vital role. It will also breathe new life into transcontinental shipping routes between Asia, Europe and among countries across the Eurasian space.
To put this into perspective, transporting goods by land has distinct advantages over other transport methods. Journeys by rail from China to Europe across Kazakhstan are three times faster than by sea, and almost 10 times cheaper than by air. Joint plans and projects worth more than $10 billion are currently being implemented across the wider region. These are focused on developing infrastructure towards the Caspian Sea and the ports of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, as well as the Georgian and Turkish ports on the Black Sea. They are expected to contribute to delivering the speed and technological interlinkages that are required to meet the growing demand for goods and produce.
As a result of all these multi-national efforts, transporting goods within the Eurasian area over distances of 10,000-12,000 km takes just two weeks by train on average, which serves as a stimulus for increased land-based shipments of goods between European and Asian markets.
The strategic goal of the realization of the transit potential of Kazakhstan is the development of container transportation by trains. Today, Kazakhstan’s national railway company (Kazakhstan Temir Zholy) serves more than 15 transit routes between China and Europe.”
Kazakhstan has seen continued growth in the volume of container transit traffic passing through its territory, going from 346,000 TEU containers in 2017, to 537,000 in 2018. The Minister said the plan for this year is to attract up to 1 million TEU container traffic passing through Kazakhstan.
From land-locked, to land-linked, and Greater Eurasia
Vassilenko turned the tables on his country’s geographic disadvantages, suggesting there are connectivity benefits to be made:
“Earlier in my remarks, I used the term “land-locked” when referring to Kazakhstan. This term sometimes carries negative connotations due to perceived developmental challenges from a lack of access to open waters and, in some cases, resources for investment. This, of course, is not always the case.
Kazakhstan leverages its geographic location as a positive asset. For this reason, Kazakhstan is increasingly seen internationally not as land-locked but rather as land-linked, acting as a connecting bridge between continents, countries and cultures.
Bearing in mind the EU’s potential for facilitating greater compatibility between regional economic and transport networks, I would like to note that our country remains committed to the idea of Greater Eurasia, a concept coined by the First President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. It seeks to create mutually beneficial synergies between the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative. In a recent interview, President Tokayev gave his full support to the idea of the Greater Eurasia.
These initiatives correspond fully to Kazakhstan’s drive to position Central Asia as the main strategic bridge between the largest markets in Europe and Asia, which have a combined population of 4.4 billion people. Our region played this role in the past, and can fulfil it anew with increased regional economic and political cooperation.
While there are numerous political and technical challenges that remain to be resolved – from dealing with the impact of reciprocal Western and Russian sanction policies, to improving railway infrastructure where wide gauge rails meet narrow gauge rails, or to expanding the use of the Black Sea and Baltic Sea ports – we strongly believe there is no alternative to further growth of transcontinental trade. Undoubtedly, this growth will benefit all countries of the EU and Central Asia, and that is why Kazakhstan has consistently worked and will continue working to solve these issues by developing the concept of connectivity.”
Speaking for his country, Vassilenko said that Kazakhstan welcomes the adoption of the new EU Strategy on connecting Europe and Asia, which is aimed at providing effective, sustainable and equal conditions for connecting the Eurasian continent, highlighting that “Kazakhstan has great interest in the Strategy and is ready to join in its practical implementation in the interests of all parties involved.”