Spotlight on Geopolitics

The project of the century

In the 19th century, the Suez Canal was the main engineering project meant to facilitate international trade between continents. In the 20th century, the honour went to the US, for building the Panama Canal and thus shortening trade routes by leaps and bounds. In our century, we’re about to witness the launch of the Eurasia Canal project linking the Caspian and the Black Seas. If completed, the canal’s length (650km) will be 3 times that of the Suez (193km) and 8 times that of the Panama (77km). To this end, a Kazakh-Russian working group will submit a formal proposal in the next few weeks.

After boom times ended for Kazakhstan in 2006, president Nursultan Nazarbayev advanced the proposal to build the Caspian-Azov Sea canal, which, in his view will transform his country – the only landlocked major oil producer – into a maritime power and will enable it to become a transit hub for oil and manufactured goods between Russia, China and Europe. Access to the “seven seas” by Caspian bordering states will indeed improve their geostrategic position and economic performance.

The canal’s length would be 650km, passing through Dagestan, Kalmykia, Stavropol and Rostov provinces in Russia. It would take about 5 years to build, at an estimated cost of between 4.5 and 6 billion euros.

In 2008, Vladimir Putin warmed up to the idea and declared that “the canal will qualitatively change the Caspian bordering countries geopolitical position and allow them to become maritime powers”.

Critics of the project contend that the existing Baku-Ceihan, Atyrau-Samara and Baku-Novorossiysk pipelines are underutilised and could handle the amount of oil Central Asian republics are exporting to the world markets. Still, by shortening the existing water routes from Asia via Russia to Europe by a full thousand kilometres (based on the Volga-Don canal), the Eurasia canal could bring Russia and Kazakhstan around 3 billion euros in merchandise transit fees every year. The shorter route is probably one reason why China has expressed an interest in funding the project.

To be sure, president Nazarbayev has other economic reasons for advancing the project, as well. Kazakhstan’s economic performance is anemic, unemployment is high and a public works project of this magnitude could go a long way towards addressing both problems. Nazarbayev is considered a successful political leader, who completed the building of a brand-new capital for his country, Astana. His political legacy for Asia, and indeed the world, could very well be the Eurasia Canal. (sources: Eurasia Daily Monitor, IMF, Izvestia, Sunday Times, BBC)

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