At a recent interview with a local radio station on September 19, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov stated that Russia’s participation in the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project had been discussed at the highest level. The railroad project, conceived of almost 25 years ago, has long been delayed by Kyrgyzstan. How adding a fourth country, with no direct linkage to the line, will help restart the project is unclear.
Jeenbekov assured that he secured Moscow’s participation in the project at the highest level and that active talks are underway among China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia in a 3+1 format. He also suggested that Russia’s participation was contributing to the progress of the project. Furthermore, his unwavering political commitment to the railroad project was clear as he spoke about the negative effects of border closures as a result of the pandemic and how an international railroad could have softened the blow.
It has been a couple of years since Russia’s participation in the railroad project was first mentioned. Jeenbekov announced Russia’s participation on June 27, 2018, at his address to the Jogorku Kenesh, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament. He said he had discussed the project at his recent meeting with the Russian leader and that the parties were discussing the specifics of their roles in the project.
A year later, on November 25, 2019, Jeenbekov reported that Russia had politically committed to the project following his discussions with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and that Russia had already invested 200 million rubles (around $3 million) in a technical feasibility study of the railroad project.
The feasibility study included information on the areas the railroad would pass through and a highway that would parallel it. The study also included information on mine sites to become accessible as a result of the new routes and a plan on the transportation of minerals. A representative of the Kyrgyz Railway, the country’s railroad developer, added that if earlier the Russian side had limited itself to considering engineering matters and supplying building materials, then now it promised to consider the possibility of direct financing.
These developments indicate that Bishkek is moving beyond its indecisiveness on the railroad project and that Jeenbekov is committed to the implementation of the project. The actual value of Russia’s participation, however, remains unclear — will it help supply negotiating power, technical expertise, or finances to fund the project? Russia’s participation in the project becomes even more suspicious factoring that it has no direct economic benefit from the project. The railroad does not pass through Russian territory and runs contrary to Russia’s current monopoly for transiting Chinese cargo to Europe by opening an alternative route for Beijing.
Russia’s involvement in infrastructure projects in Kyrgyzstan does not have a good track record. Bishkek had to suspend two hydropower projects after Russia failed to allocate the promised funds in 2016. While it is true that Russia has little interest in constructing infrastructure, it is definitely interested in maintaining its influence in the region. The railroad project will have geopolitical significance and this perhaps explains Moscow’s interest in being included.
The most salient issue with regard to the railroad project is the financing of the Kyrgyzstan segment, which has been the main reason for delays in the implementation of the project writ large. The overall railroad project is estimated to require $4.5 to $5 billion, but the cost of the Kyrgyzstan segment is unclear. Bishkek does not seem to have a viable financing plan as of now. In the latest official statement about the financing of the project, Uzbekistan and Russia were listed as financial partners, but none have issued a definitive official statement confirming the plan.
Jeenbekov’s September comment is the latest reiteration from the Kyrgyz leadership regarding Russia’s participation in the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project. But uncertainty abounds, rooted in Bishkek’s undecided positions in the past (which led to delays of the project), Russia’s history of abandoning infrastructure projects in the country to which it had committed, and the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project running contrary to Russia’s own dominant transportation position in the region.