By Marina Romanova
According to the national railway operator, Kazakhstan Railways is setting up a cargo airline in partnership with national carrier Air Astana. The first national cargo airline will begin to operate in 2017 with China, Europe, Iran, Russia and Turkey among its first destinations.
The new transportation project aim is to strengthen Kazakhstan’s competitiveness in the world. The Kazakhstan railways described the project called Rail-Air as a “new product of intermodal transport by rail and air transport.” It is expected that cargo airline will become “an alternative to the existing, but slower supply chain Sea-Air from South East Asia to Europe via Dubai”, said the railway operator.
Currently, Kazakhstan main air carrier, Air Astana, provides freight services using the baggage compartments of its aircraft. The airline is also using partnerships with other carriers, Russian Aviation Insider explains.
The cumulative traffic of Kazakh carriers increased at the end of last year by 7.3% as compared to the previous year’s results. In 2015, some 5.9 million passengers traveled with the country’s airlines, against 5.5 million in 2014. The traffic has been demonstrating steady growth for several years now, according to the Civil Aviation Committee of Kazakhstan’s Investment and Development Ministry.
On the contrary to passenger traffic, cargo volumes continue to decrease for the third year in a row: from 24,000 tons in 2013 down to 19,600 tons in 2014 and 17,000 tons in 2015. Last year’s results showed a 13 percent year-over-year decline.
Earlier in July 2016, Karaganda cargo terminal declared secure by European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), confirming that its handling procedures for cargo and mail carried to the EU meet the Union’s security requirements. EASA validated Karaganda in keeping with a series of EU regulations, which establish the security requirements for non-EU airports and carriers involved in the transportation of cargo and mail to EU countries. The validation inspection at Karaganda covered, among other things, the airport’s infrastructure and security system.
Located 212 km away from Kazakhstan’s capital city, Astana, the airport strives to become the country’s central multimodal cargo hub. The hub’s existing infrastructure allows for the processing of up to 18,000 tons of freight annually. According to national market studies, the main way to boost revenues is by serving foreign cargo aircraft transiting through Kazakh airspace with a technical stop at Karaganda.
In September this year, Astana airport also opened a cargo facility with a new customs post and storage facilities.
As one of the kazakh-tv.kz reports read, amount of the cumulative investment in transport infrastructure in Kazakhstan will make up more than 12 trillion tenge (around US$35 billion) by 2020.
The local media speculates that The Silk Road’s revival could become a great opportunity for the country to win part of the transit flow, which aims to increase infrastructural, economic, and political connectivity between more than 65 countries across Eurasia, covering, according to the Chinese media, half the population, 40 percent of the GDP, and 75 percent of the known energy resources in the world.
The transit potential of this international route will be worth more US$24 billion a year.
The New Silk Road vs. One Belt – One Road Initiative
So far, Kazakhstan’s major contributions to China’s Belt & Road initiative, or as it often called in Central Asia, the New Silk Road project, is Western Europe-Western China Highway (WE-WC). The Kazakh portion of WE-WC Transport Corridor is funded by the World Bank and regarded as the largest single investment in the fund’s history. The Western Europe-Western China Highway will stretch from the Yellow Sea coast of China, the port of Lianyungang all the way to the port at St. Petersburg, on the Baltic Sea in Russia, 8,445 kilometers away and connect China with its main trading partner – the European Union.
As Forbes correctly outlines, the Belt and Road initiative, which is “often referred to as a Chinese economic diplomacy and geopolitical positioning — something that Chinese president Xi Jinping and Co are selling to Eurasia”, are basically only used by the PRC government, the international media, and academics. While the people who are actually contributing to the emerging network of economic corridors stretching from China to Europe tend to call it by the name they’ve been using for over a decade: the New Silk Road.
The Forbes is also pointing out to the fact that Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been talking about reconstructing the Silk Road for a good chunk of his 26 year reign, Azerbaijan held a Silk Road revival conference in 1999, and Belarus contributed to the discussion about the subject matter since late 90s.
According to the azernews.az, national main air carrier, which itself called Silk Way, has launched charter cargo flight to Prague on November 3rd, 2016 for the first time. In this regard, Azerbaijan’s civil aviation has announced itself as “an official air carrier of the Great Silk Road project connecting East and West.”
One of the Kazakh think tanks involved in expertise and negotiation around the project is also called The Silkway International Institute of Logistics and Business.
Though, some Kazakh media seem to dislike any of the used names for the project. For instance, The Astana Times has recently offered the brand new, apparently compromise name for the initiative – The Silk Road Economic Belt, which anyway promise to turn the country into the logistical heart of Eurasia.
Kazakhstan has almost completed the Western Europe-Western China project on its territory and connects it to the Chinese part. From now on it depends on Russia when WE-WC will start to operate in a full scale.