The first integrated rail and ferry line between Russia and Turkey officially opened on Tuesday, inaugurating what officials say will be a new chapter in trade between the two countries and the region at large.
In a Tuesday ceremony at the Turkish Black Sea port of Samsun, Transport and Communication Minister Binali Yıldırım and his Russian counterpart, Maksim Sokolov, spoke to the press on the importance of the line, which will be the most direct trade corridor between the two Black Sea neighbors. Yıldırım said that the agreement will see as much as 200,000 tons of rolling stock this year, a number which he estimated would reach around 300,000 tons in five years. “This line will help us reach our trade targets, which is not an easy task but something I'm sure can be achieved,” said Sokolov.
The two countries have a mutual goal of increasing their trade volume to “$100 billion by 2015,” said Yıldırım. The highly ambitious figure comes as Turkey-Russia trade amounted to around $33 billion last year, a 10 percent gain on trade volume in 2011. While much of that was due to buyouts and a Russian contract to build a nuclear power plant in southern Turkey, both governments have said that closer trade links carry major opportunities for upping trade.
The trade line will have broader benefits for the region too, said Yıldırım, who told the Anatolia news agency: “This is not just a transport network between Russia and Turkey. This is a critical line for goods from the Balkans passing through Anatolia, and goods headed to Central Asia or the Middle East.” The Samsun ferry terminal, construction of which began in 2005 and cost around TL 10 million, connects to railways at the port of Kavkaz in Russia, and will later see service to the port of Varna in Bulgaria and Poti in Georgia.
The current Turkey-Russia route will also open up markets for both countries, allowing Russia easier access to the Middle East and Central Asia, and Turkey access to the former Soviet bloc. Trade officials in Russia have said it will help ease trade for the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), a set of countries in those regions which pledged to promote freer cross border trade in 1993.
The project will also ease railway trade with the opening of a facility in Samsun to change wheel carriages according to rail gauge, which is different in the two countries.
Russia and Turkey meanwhile are looking to capitalize on each others' growth to survive recession elsewhere. Turkey grew 2.5 percent in 2012, while the Russia government says its economy grew by 3.4 percent last year. The numbers are better than those in Europe, which saw an overall contraction of around 2.3 percent in 2012.
Despite intense disagreements over the political future of Syria, the two powers have pledged in recent months to also boost trade by adopting a streamlined customs process. Russia has also been keen to emphasize its economic relations with Turkey because Ankara is one of the largest buyers of its natural gas and oil. Turkey bought around 2 million tons of crude last year and 27 billion cubic meters of natural gas.
“Russia firmly holds second place in the world among Turkey's trade and economic partners,” Russia President Vladimir Putin said in December. Echoing that sentiment on Tuesday, Sokolov said, “This railway is a historic step in this partnership, brining economic integration and new possibilities for commerce.”