The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway, connecting Azerbaijan to Georgia and Turkey, was inaugurated on October 30 when two freight trains carrying goods from Kazakhstan were set in motion from the Azerbaijani port of Alat. The project has been in the making for over a decade. Estimates of its cost vary between $1bn and over $3bn.
In attendance at the inauguration, the presidents of Turkey and Azerbaijan and prime ministers of Kazakhstan, Georgia and Uzbekistan, praised the new connection as the fastest way to connect through to London from Beijing by land. Part of China's One Belt, One Way infrastructure programme, the BTK provides a solution to transport freight across Asia and Europe with no need to pass through Russia or Iran.
According to a statement issued by the EU delegation in Baku, the ralway represents a major step in interconnecting Central Asia, Europe, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
“This is at the heart of the Eastern Partnership as well as of the Central Asia strategy. The EU has always supported projects aiming at improving connectivity with its neighbouring partner countries. With further improvements of transport links between Turkey and Bulgaria as well as between Azerbaijan and Central Asia, this project will provide a fast and reliable land connection between Europe and Asia along the ancient Silk Route,” the statement said.
Positioning themselves as transport nodes between their bigger neighbours also enhances the geostrategic importance of the two small countries in the South Caucasus. Squished between Turkey, Iran and Russia, both Georgia and Azerbaijan have had ambivalent relations with Russia in recent years; Azerbaijan's relations with Iran have also been frequently strained. By creating a "golden triangle" of economic cooperation with the only large neighbour that has not been threatening, Turkey, Baku and Tbilisi are hoping to strengthen their relative importance in the region.
Furthermore, in Baku's case, large-scale infrastructure projects like BTK and the upcoming Shah Deniz II gas project, which will provide gas for Turkey and Europe, also help to boost its economy and links to the outside world to the detriment of neighbouring Armenia, with which it has been at odds for almost three decades over the Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway region.