It is striking how quickly the role of the South Caucasus countries, above all Azerbaijan and Georgia, in international transit has increased. This is all the more so at a time when experts were pessimistic about the prospects for growth in international transit traffic through the South Caucasus two years ago, amid a Corona Virus pandemic. And in Yerevan and Moscow they hoped that China would continue to direct its main commodity flow towards Europe via Russia.
The situation changed dramatically with the Russian aggression against Ukraine. What Russia had feared would happen has happened. China diverted 240 million tonnes of cargo traffic to Europe via the South Caucasus.
Beijing has refused to transport all types of goods through Russia in order to protect exporting companies from international sanctions. The transit of goods from China via the East Siberian Railway and via the ports of Novorossiysk and Murmansk has come to a halt.
Alternatively, China has urgently launched a rail route to Germany that bypasses Russia. The route passes through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The route crosses the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea by combined rail and sea transport. On 13 April 2022, the first train left the city of Xi'an, but beyond that, experts believe the route will become the busiest and busiest in Eurasia.
The sharp increase in transit traffic across the Caspian Sea has led to maximum utilisation of the ports in Kazakhstan (Aktau) and Azerbaijan (Alyat), through which the main 'trans-Caspian' cargo flow of Chinese goods runs.
Georgia's seaports of Poti and Batumi have never been more in demand. They have significantly increased the volume of cargo handling and are working at the limit of their capacities. According to Irakli Danelia, head of MAERSK Business Development in the Black Sea region, since the start of the war in Ukraine interest in Georgia's port infrastructure has increased several times over. We are talking mostly about customers from Europe and China:
"A week after the war, Ukrainian ports stopped accepting commercial vessels. Also in the Russian port of Novorossiysk cargoes are temporarily suspended due to sanctions imposed on Russia. Significant shifts are taking place in the Black Sea region, new opportunities are emerging. Interest in Georgia as a transit country has increased" - notes the expert.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway also works in an emergency regime. In the first 3 months of 2022 alone, the number of containers carried on the BTC line exceeded last year's figures by 78.2%, with the biggest increase coming in March, already after the start of the war in Ukraine.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway has received orders for cargo and containers from China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and South Korea. To these is added the flow of rail freight from a virtually 'blocked' EU and Black Sea and Baltic Sea Russia. Russian cargoes are now simply forced to go through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, where the Russian Federation has the only 'window' left to the west after its aggression against Ukraine.
To improve trans-continental logistics, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Kazakhstan have already signed a quadripartite declaration on the functioning of the East-West Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor. The document notes the important role of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad in promoting competitive transportation between Europe and Asia, and underlines the importance of construction works to increase the capacity of this railway line.
In addition to loading the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, Georgia is in active negotiations with the Kazakh side to transport additional volumes of oil and oil products through the Georgian transport corridor via Georgia's Black Sea ports. In particular, in 2022-2023 it is planned to transport about two million tons of oil and oil products of Kazakh origin through the Batumi oil terminal.
Congestion of Georgian ports is growing exponentially, there are long queues of trucks at Georgian borders, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway works at full capacity and this is just the beginning. Georgia has a real opportunity for an economic breakthrough by sharply increasing its demand for international transit traffic.
Only Armenia is so far left out of all the international routes and projects taking place in the South Caucasus. But it also has a chance, and it is up to the prudence of the Armenian authorities to take advantage of it. It is about the quickest possible launch of Zangezur corridor, first of all, the accelerated construction of Meghri railway segment, announced recently by Armenian Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
Russian Railways (RZD), which controls the Armenian railways, is the most interested in the Zangezur corridor. Today there is no doubt that the Russians will find the necessary investment resources for the rapid construction of the road through Zangezour. However, the main thing is that Armenia and Azerbaijan should conclude a peace treaty on the basis of recognition of territorial integrity and inviolability of internationally recognized borders.