Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan, hosted the seventh Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan. In this conference, held on Tuesday and Wednesday (14 and 15 November 2017), the representative of 44 regional countries and 38 international organizations had taken part.
At the head of government delegation, the Second Afghan Vice President Sarwar Danish attended this two-day conference and discussed the issue of investment, trade, and transport of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries and other countries in the region with the officials of the countries and organizations.
One of the main events in this conference was the signature of the “Lapis Lazuli Road” agreement between Afghanistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
Here you would read about the process of RECCA, the impacts of its previous conferences on Afghanistan particularly the recent one, and the “Lapis Lazuli” agreement.
Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan was an initiative of the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2005 and its first meeting was held on 5 December 2005 in Kabul.
Since 2005, seven conference of this series are convened. The second conference was held in 2006 in New Delhi, Indian Capital; the third was held in 2009 in Islamabad, Pakistan; the forth was held in 2010 in Istanbul, Turkey; the fifth was held in 2012 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan; the sixth was held in 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan; and finally the seventh (the most recent) was held in 2017 in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
RECCA was established to strengthen regional economic cooperation, establish regional coordination for the implementation of significant infrastructural projects and plans focusing on Afghanistan and finally to ensure the interests of all members.
After 12 years, RECCA has now evolved into an efficient economic gathering and is one of the major economic conference in the region and is held with the participation of the representatives of more than 70 countries and organizations in the region and discusses the infrastructural projects. Given the high presence of the senior officials of the countries, this conference great importance is attached to this conference and considering the link of common interests, this conference is a reducer of political, security, and economic challenges.
How much are the commitments of RECCA fulfilled?
In the past six conferences of RECCA, many commitments and agreements are made including attention on agriculture, expansion of agricultural industry, trade, and transit transport, urging foreign investment in the region and particularly in Afghanistan, common utilization of waters, struggle against narcotics, developing short-term economic projects, effort to eliminate mistrusts between the regional countries to provide the way for economic cooperation, cooperation of the regional countries with Afghanistan to transform this country as the center of energy in the region, the repatriation of Afghan migrants and construction of refugee camps for them, construction of regional roads and railways, extraction of mines, etc.
The Istanbul Process (Heart of Asia), the beginning of TAPI gas project, CASA-1000, the inauguration of Atamurad-Aqina railway, the Khwaf-Herat railway, the Chabahar port agreement, the Lapis Lazuli Road agreement and some others are the achievements of Afghanistan from this conference.
However, despite the importance of this conference, most of the promised projects and pledges made in this conference have remained on the paper and, except for some of them, less has been than to implement them. If the commitments and vows made in RECCA are implemented properly, on the one hand, the infrastructures of Afghanistan will be constructed and, on the other hand, Afghanistan will be transformed into the center of regional transit, trade, and energy in the region. Therefore, there is a need for the existence of a secretariat in Kabul for the proper execution of the commitments made in this conference. However, one of the reasons for the non-implementation of the commitments of this conference is the existing oppositions between the member countries of RECCA for instance, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
The Seventh RECCA
In the seventh RECCA, the participants discussed the progresses made on the commitments made in the sixth RECCA, strengthening of cooperation between traders and investors in the region, recognition of challenges and obstacles, assessment of the financial needs and investment opportunities in relation with the regional projects, facilitating trade and transit, energy projects, communications, transport, and women empowerment projects.
In the first day of the conference, one of the important meetings was on regional trade and another important event which was termed a new event in the history of RECCA was the meeting that aimed at empowering women in areas of trade.
Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan also delivered her speech and in her speech termed RECCA as an efficient framework for the establishment of regional cooperation and integration and said that the Afghan women’s role in trade was then more evident and that by working shoulder to shoulder with women, they would strengthen the bases of the Afghans households and finally community and the region.
In the second day of the conference, the Lapis Lazuli Agreement was signed between Afghanistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. After signing the agreement, the Afghan acting Minister of Foreign Affairs said that the signature of this agreement was a result of joint efforts made by the countries in the region and the world to strengthen the regional solidarity and expand trade through investment on infrastructures, and improvement of cooperation and coordination.
Overall, all members of RECCA were focused on major economic projects and security concerns in the region and the discussion on the implementation of major regional projects including TAPI, CASA-1000, Lapis Lazuli, and some other projects was the main goal of this conference.
The Lapis Lazuli Road and its significance for the region
Based on the studies of Independent resources, this way, which goes back 2000 years ago, was one of the main roads of the Silk Road. At that time, the Afghan precious stones including Badakhshan’s lapis lazuli were being transported to Europe, Balkan, and the Mediterranean countries through this road and that is why its name was the “Lapis Lazuli Road”.
The scheme of Lapis Lazuli Road was an Afghan initiative in 2014, which was welcomed by the stakeholder countries. The Lapis Lazuli Road starts from Afghanistan and passes Turkmenbashi port of Turkmenistan, Baku city of Azerbaijan, and then Tiflis in Georgia, then the Black Sea and then Turkey and this way connects Afghanistan with the international waters and the Europe.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country and needs to find water ways for its trade and transit. The security and other challenges in the Indian Ocean rout urged this country to look for alternative ways for trade and transit purposes.
The Lapis Lazuli Road is one of the priority projects of RECCA and its signature is one of the significant achievements of RECCA. The following points are important about this project:
First, the Lapis Lazuli road is a cheaper, closers, and safer route for Afghanistan to get connected with Europe, because from Afghanistan to Turkbashi port and from Baku to Turkey, there exists railways.
Second, China’s $40bn investment is also a good opportunity for the implementation of this scheme.
Third, this rout is much economized compared to the transition of goods through Pakistan.
Fourth, it can connect the Central Asia Countries with China and European countries through Afghanistan.
Fifth, it will reduce Afghanistan’s reliance on Pakistan and Iran for the transition of its goods.
Sixth, the Lapis Lazuli Road is also a good opportunity for Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia because their engagement with Europe decreased their dependence on Russia.
Nevertheless, lack of security and stability in Afghanistan, doubts about the cooperation of Iran and Russia in the implementation of this scheme, and unlikeliness of the transition of goods and other services in the countries that want to use this scheme are the main challenges on the way of this project.