World Bulletin/News Desk
It is still hard to compare it to examples in other developed Turkish provinces but the centuries-old streets of Kars are now frequented by young and ambitious entrepreneurs more than ever before, giving early signals of an economic recovery which locals have long hoped for.
Underlying these growing hopes for an economic leap are some ongoing infrastructure projects in this long-neglected corner of the country. Standing out among other examples, such as Eastern Turkey's largest airport terminal, is a railway project.
The local government shares a similar optimism to this end. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railroad, which is currently under construction, has started attracting investors from around the region to Kars months ahead of its planned completion in December, Kars Governor Eyüp Tepe told Today's Zaman in Kars on Wednesday.
The completion of the BTK project, popularly known as the Iron Silk Road, is of crucial importance to Kars, once a critical trade hub sitting at the crossroads of Caucasus trade.
A relatively underdeveloped province near the Armenian border, problems between Ankara and Yerevan, along with the lack of new border gates to benefit from trade with Georgia and Azerbaijan, have long undermined Kars' potential to grow.
“We have faith that the BTK will see the region regain its historic importance to eventually prosper. … We are establishing an Organized Industrial Zone [OSB] on an area of nearly 1 million square meters in Kars to serve as a logistics center for the BTK,” Tepe said. He said the details of the project would be made public in July.
The governor added that an Azerbaijan-based company had earlier told him that they planned to build their own logistics center in Kars and had requested an area of around 130,000 square meters. “This will possibly be allocated to them separate from the planned OSB. … We are currently working on the details here,” Tepe said.
Ankara is now expected to finalize the procedures to publicize the land for the new OSB in Kars. Part of the land is currently a pasture in Kars, where animal husbandry is widespread.
The BTK will connect to both one of Turkey's busiest ports, Ceyhan in Adana, as well as the İstanbul Bosporus undersea tunnel project Marmaray, due to enter into service this October, strengthening Kars' aspiration to use its geopolitical position to become a global commercial transportation hub.
The province already undertakes a similar role in energy: The South Caucasus pipeline (Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum) that supplies Azerbaijani gas to Turkey travels via Kars.
The owner of a large Turkish logistics firm, who was accompanying Tepe and Bozkuş on Wednesday and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was also interested in joining the OSB project. “We could use Kars as a hub to transfer goods between Ceyhan and Central Asian markets,” he said.
‘Russian-backed Abkhaz railway no alternative to BTK'
The BTK remains a critical project for the countries involved as it will connect Europe to Central Asia while dissolving the Russian railway monopoly in the Caucasus.
Three years after its kick-off, the project was about 60 percent complete in 2011. It, however, fell behind schedule due to prolonged procedures in the Public Procurement Authority (KİK).
The BTK's trial runs are expected to start in the first half of next year. The envisaged annual number of passengers to be carried by the BTK railroad line is 1.5 million while the projected annual amount of freight is 3 million tons.
Some have argued that the planned rehabilitation and expansion of the Abkhaz railway, a Russian railway that connects it with Armenia, threatens to undermine the strategic importance of the BTK.
“The BTK's projections go well beyond that of others in this region. … We are preparing for a project that will serve a much wider region than this Russian-backed project,” Tepe said.
Observers earlier argued that the BTK appears to be the new playground of a diplomatic battle between Russia and Turkey to gain geostrategic advantage in the Caucasus. Armenia and Azerbaijan have already chosen their own sides, leaving the new Georgian government largely indecisive.
Georgia's new government said in December that it had agreed to finalize the construction of tunnels along the Kars-Akhalkalaki segment of the BTK. A day later, citing economic concerns, Tbilisi said it would review the BTK in December. The construction of the tunnels, however, began last month.Last Mod: 03 Mayıs 2013, 10:10