The Middle Corridor: how Europe can transform Central Asia

Central Asia is a tough neighborhood. A colonizer to the north, an economic juggernaut to the east, international outcasts to the south, and continent-wide distances, it sometimes seems impossible to integrate this economically diverse and culturally rich region without getting in trouble with its neighbors. However, the region did not indulge the whims of these neighbors. In recent years, the Central Asian region, once one of the least integrated in the world, has made great strides in increasing regional trade. Now that the process of regional trade and integration is underway, the European Union can give impetus to this process through strategic investments in supporting the development of logistics to move resources, products and human capital through the “middle corridor” across the Caspian, over the Caucusus, and through Turkey to Europe.

For thousands of years, the route from Asia to Europe was overland through the countries of Central Asia. Indeed, China and the Asian Development Bank have spent a lot of time and effort to recreate this route. However, it is a mistake to consider the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus as transit points and not as a destination in themselves for the European Union’s strategic investments. From cotton and fabrics produced in Uzbekistan to the natural resources of Kazakhstan and the potential for significant development of tourism and cultural exchanges, the Middle Corridor will provide Central Asia and the Caucuses with opportunities to diversify their markets and attract investment. responsible for a wide range of European firms. This intermediate corridor, envisioned as a way for the European Union, Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey to come together, as opposed to an overland route for Chinese goods, would bring prosperity, peace and opportunity to every nation along of the hallway. From gas pipelines to digital networks, the Middle Corridor countries have enormous potential as a market and partner for the European Union.

On August 12, 2018, the five states bordering the Caspian Sea signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, resolving ambiguous territorial claims since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The agreement allows a direct link between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan under the Caspian. These shipping routes are already being expanded given Russia’s obstruction of Kazakh oil using the Caspian Pipeline Consortium pipeline, which transports a significant portion of Kazakhstan’s oil production to all points to the west. While Russia and Iran say any pipeline would have to be approved by the five littoral nations, the legality of their claims is ambiguous at best. With the support of European financial, insurance and technical capabilities, the pipeline can provide throughput diversity to Central Asia while providing Europe with greater diversity of energy suppliers and critical material resources.

In its weakened state and moral standing in the region, the Russian Federation cannot bear the burden of securing peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This represents an opportunity for the European Union to promote peace through trade in the Caucasus in consultation and coordination with the still contentious partnership with Turkey. Following a model developed in the Western Balkans, Europe may seek to link the nations of the Caucasus and Turkey through economic integration and trade facilitation. The European Union must make Armenia’s participation an imperative. Armenia cannot be left out of the middle corridor, otherwise it would probably seek closer relations with Russia or Iran, and the corridor would be under constant threat. While the conflict between Armenia and its neighbors dates back centuries, only prosperity and the interdependence of trade and investment can begin to resolve it. The European Union has devoted a great deal of time and resources to being a partner in the negotiation of peace. The added factor of trade and investment can further incentivize parties to take the next step.

As the node of this intermediate transcontinental corridor, Turkey plays a vital and unique role. Commercial ties between Turkey and many countries along the corridor are already deep and diverse. With the addition of targeted deployment of European capital and strategic support, Turkey could be both a beneficiary and a key player in the middle corridor. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are already looking at the budding progress of this relationship outside of the commercial sphere, with Kazakhstan and Turkey sharing intelligence and potential arms deals. For more than a decade, the European Union has hesitated in its relations with Turkey. The middle lane is an opportunity to give this relationship shape, purpose, and direction.

While many may scoff at the idea of ​​the Middle Corridor due to the complex politics and relationships along the way, the opportunity to bring prosperity, peace and progress is there if one chooses to enter it. Russia’s war in Ukraine will end in defeat for Russia one way or another. His material and moral authority as a broker in his “near abroad” is almost non-existent. Shifting the dialogue around the middle corridor from bringing Chinese products to European markets to connecting Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe allows the European Union to play a clear role in the development new markets for its products and services while ensuring peace and prosperity along the corridor. Complexity and danger abound in building the Middle Corridor, but nothing is worth doing easily. The Middle Corridor is the 21st century project for Europe.

Eric Hontz is Director of the Center for Accountable Investment at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).

Picture: Reuters.

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