When Russia is in the news regarding its highways, the news is almost inevitably a scathing review of either the general state of disrepair, or of the outdated traffic management policy (along with the occasional Looney Tunes-esque theft). The June 2019 announcement of the Meridian Highway project, however, has captured the attention world-wide of dreamers and handwringers alike.
A privately-funded venture led by Alexander Ryazanov, an ex-Gazprom deputy chief, this highway will link Belarus and Kazakhstan with approximately 1,240 miles of roads passing through many of Russia’s so-called Rust-Belt provinces. Operating under the aegis of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the project is expected to represent the missing final link in overland transit between Western Europe and China. Most analyses have naturally centered on the economic and political interplay between Europe and China, but what about the oft-overlooked third partner in the scheme? It seems that the Meridian Project has the potential to breathe new life and possibilities into Central Asian cooperative and integrative processes.
The underlying arithmetic of building and improving routes to heighten speed and decrease cost for consumers and suppliers holds up in this example for both European and Chinese consumers and producers, but Kazakhstan itself also obviously stands to benefit from its involvement in the project. Increased tonnage translates to greater transit payments for the ambitious Central Asian giant, while potentially attracting even more Chinese investment in infrastructure and leading to the growth of service industries to accommodate greater traffic.
This potential for increased growth related to such routes is particularly worth noting because the Kazakh segment of the line (constructed in 2016) is not a simple lateral road across the country, but instead a twisting route that goes through Almaty in the East to Aktau near the Caspian, or through Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan to then finally wind back north towards the border with Russia. The Meridian Holding Company rectified its early mistep of planning to send the route through the border town of Sagarchin by realizing that the project could cut significant costs by incorporating the already established routes through the more eastern border town of Mashtakevo. However, this still does nothing to change the fact that there is no obvious speedy Kazakh connection to take immediately on to China.
This is where things get really interesting, because the existing route takes the (expected) massively increased tonnage right by the newly developing Shymkent-Tashkent corridor and brand-new Border Trade Center linking Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. We suddenly have knock-on effects of the Russian improvements potentially directly leading to more efficient trade into Uzbekistan, a country which has been rapidly re-establishing economic relationships with neighbors and more distant partners. This fits in perfectly with Uzbekistan’s general push to be a transport hub for the region; a boon for labor migrants, tourists, and shipping alike.
Additionally, while there has not been a lot of love for the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Meridian has the potential to re-inject some dynamism into the relationships between the member states and potential suitors. For one, the three countries directly connected to Meridian (Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan) are the original founders and most prominent economies of the union. This means that goods shipped along the three will be able to avoid price-raising tariffs and customs, in addition to the speed boost and increased connectivity provided by Meridian. This brings us to another Central Asian state (and as of 2015, a member of the EAEU) who may be able to benefit from knock-on benefits of the highway: Kyrgyzstan. While there is no high-speed connection that currently exists between near neighboring cities Bishkek and Almaty as part of the Belt and Road framework, it would be quite simple to strengthen infrastructure and working relationships (hopefully avoiding past catastrophic delays) and thus tap into the now gargantuan and thus cheaper Meridian network.
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan both have their own complex history regarding membership in the EAEU, but both parties might not be able to ignore the mounting pressure to join. With Tashkent in particular making positive moves toward aligning tarrifs and other trade obstacles, this involvement would simultaneously improve logistics with China, Russia, and Western Europe, complementing a renewed trade interest in the region. With Shavkat Mirziyoyev recently remarking, “It is necessary to fully consider the consequences and make a decision that will meet our interests,” it seems that Uzbekistan fears being left out of customs agreements levelled between its smaller neighbors. If anything, improved communication and trust between partners could help target issues that have long dogged the Union and the region, such as Kyrgyzstan’s (now illegal under the rules of the EAEU) re-export of Chinese goods.
To stretch yet another proverbial question, if a pothole is fixed on a Russian highway, will anyone hear it? The answer here seems to be affirmative, as the countries of Central Asia stand to benefit directly and indirectly from this new development. A quicker link to Russia and the West positively affects Kazakhstan, while also giving impetus to its own infrastructure programs in domestic connections and with its neighboring trade partners. As a reinforced backbone of the Eurasian Economic Union, Meridian also serves to stimulate economic opportunities and integrative discussions in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Most of the Central Asian nations have a complex relationship with Chinese investment and repayment as part of their own infrastructure projects, and this opportunity allows them to take advantage of the process without further indebting themselves. While the geopolitical ramifications of Meridian capture headlines, the economic possibilities offered by the project may end up giving the Central Asian states more flexibility and dynamism in pursuing their newly-burgeoning cooperative initiatives.
Austen Dowell is a Research Associate with the ERA Institute, focusing on analyzing regional affairs as part of the Central Asia Watch project.