President Raisi helicopter crash site; image Iran State Media

What Does Raisi’s Death Mean for the Caspian Sea Region?

By Robert M. Cutler

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter accident on May 19 will have significant effects on Iranian domestic politics and foreign policy. These include not only Iran’s relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan directly, but also indirectly through the Trans-Caspian International Trade Route (TITR, also called the “Middle Corridor”) and the International North–South Transit Corridor (INSTC). Despite conspiracy theories, the only reasonable alternative hypothesis to an accidental crash is that the pilot intentionally ran the helicopter into the mountain head-on at full speed. Both possibilities may be subsumed under the category “Act of God”.

Raisi was working to normalize relations with Azerbaijan and was seen as a potential – even likely – future Supreme Leader of Iran, succeeding the 85-year-old Ali Khamenei, who is in poor health. Now, however, it is not out of the question that his death leads to a reorientation of Tehran’s foreign policy and a wave of radicalization. The outcome will depend upon the obscure machinations of the theocratic and security-service elite, for which the formal organizational and constitutional arrangements set the framework but do not determine the result.

The Iranian president is not the most powerful individual in the country’s political system, but he is still influential. Raisi had sought to improve ties with Azerbaijan, including water projects on the Aras River and discussions about transportation links. These initiatives may now face delays or even reversals. Yerevan’s strategic significance for Tehran’s relationship with Moscow and its broader regional ambitions will not diminish; indeed, their bilateral military-industrial cooperation has only grown since Russia’s re-invigoration of its war of aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. At the same time, Tehran’s relations with Baku are more complicated, for myriad present-day and historical reasons, not least but not only concerning the Azerbaijani minority in Iran.


The South Caucasus and Trans-Caspian Implications

Armenia and Azerbaijan are nevertheless persevering in their bilaterally-based practical cooperation and peace negotiations, now proceeding without third-party mediation. The most recent high-level meeting in this process took place between their respective foreign ministers in Almaty on May 10–11. These significant discussions followed talks between them in Berlin in February of this year, and they took place in the context of ongoing efforts to delimit and demarcate the two countries’ common border.

Delimitation refers to drawing and describing lines on maps, whereas demarcation is the process of installing physical markers on the territory. Demarcation has already begun in the sensitive Tovuz region, and the Russian contingent assisting Armenian border guards under a bilateral agreement has already been withdrawn. In April, as a result of this process, Armenia returned four villages to Azerbaijan.

Unresolved issues involve territorial claims against Azerbaijan in Armenia’s constitution and the reopening of regional transit routes. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s initiative for the necessary constitutional reforms, along with his border-demarcation initiatives and continuing peace negotiations, have provoked anti-government protests in Armenia, fueled by the irredentist and xenophobic segments of the diaspora, which are the best established, most lavishly funded, and most vocal. The Pashinyan government is, as a matter of state policy, trying to mobilize other segments of the Armenian diaspora in favor of a “state-centered, pro-state” approach. They have a lot of work in front of them.

The reopening of the Zangezur Corridor, across southern Armenia from Azerbaijan proper to its exclave Nakhchivan (which has a border with Turkey), would not just improve commerce and communications between these two. It would also improve Russia’s connections with Turkey via Azerbaijani roads and rail, as well as further promote the development of the TITR. Raisi’s death, by contrast, complicates the implementation of the INSTC, which passes through Azerbaijan from Russia to Iran, and then southward to the Iranian port of Chabahar, whence shipping connections are possible to the rest of the world and India in particular.


More Problems for the North–South Corridor

The leadership vacuum created by Raisi’s unexpected death also puts into question the degree of commitment of the government to the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which relies on Azerbaijan as a key link between Russia and Iran. The attendant uncertainty around the political succession means that there could be delays in decision-making processes, stalling negotiations and potentially even reversing agreements critical to advancing the INSTC.

As mentioned above, Raisi was seen as a stabilizing figure who sought to work with Azerbaijan, which is a crucial partner in the INSTC. A less committed successor president, or one even hostile to Baku, could strain relations and restrain the corridor’s progress. Political infighting and potential public unrest could also delay the implementation of infrastructure projects and international agreements. Even if the semblance of political stability is re-established, still investors and international partners might hesitate to provide necessary funding.

For all these reasons, Raisi’s death and the succession crisis around it threaten to place further obstacles to the implementation of the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), an infrastructure scheme that would link Russia to Iran and potentially to India via the Chabahar port in Iran’s south-east.



Indeed, Raisi’s death comes just within days of India’s signature of a contract with Iran to develop further the Chabahar project, which has languished for over a decade. Within hours of that contract being signed, the U.S. warned that participating companies may face sanctions. To be honest, infrastructure projects in eastern Iran are never good bets: just look at the Iran–Pakistan–India natural gas pipeline. The Azerbaijani-driven “Middle Corridor” (which technically used to designate just the trans-Caspian connection with Kazakhstan) and the extended TITR have much better chances to be realized and, indeed, are already under way with strong support from the international financial institutions.


Robert M. Cutler has written and consulted on Central Asian affairs for over 30 years at all levels. He was a founding member of the Central Eurasian Studies Society’s executive board and founding editor of its Perspectives publication. He has written for Asia Times, Foreign Policy Magazine, The National Interest, Euractiv, Radio Free Europe, National Post (Toronto), FSU Oil & Gas Monitor, and many other outlets. He directs the NATO Association of Canada’s Energy Security Program, where he is also senior fellow, and is a practitioner member at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Complexity and Innovation. Educated at MIT, the Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva), and the University of Michigan, he was for many years a senior researcher at Carleton University’s Institute of European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, and is past chairman of the Montreal Press Club’s Board of Directors.


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The Kazakh National University; image:

Higher Education in Central Asia: Leaders and Outsiders

In June, it will be three years since the signing of a declaration at a forum held in the city of Turkestan between the heads of the Ministries of Education of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. According to the document, the Central Asian states agreed to expand cooperation and unite the scientific, intellectual, and creative potential of higher education institutions throughout the region. However, only Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have made progress in terms of synergy during this time. The reason for this is the serious gaps between the Central Asian states in the level of provision of higher education for their citizens.


The pace of reform

In the 1990s, the reform of education in Central Asia occurred at different rates. Although the Central Asian republics had similar problems at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, they began to address them depending on the degree of influence of global trends.

For example, Kazakhstan signed the Bologna Declaration and joined the European Higher Education Area in 2010, while Turkmenistan switched to two-stage higher education under the “Bachelor’s – Master’s” system only in 2013.

Some started organizing English-language curricula at their universities as soon as the early 1990s, such as Kazakhstan’s KIMEP University or the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, only came around to the idea of the need for English-language education in the noughties.

In the 2000s, universities established jointly with foreign partners, such as the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University and the Kazakh-British Technical University, began to open in the region. Uzbekistan was again somewhat late to the trend, first opening the International Westminster University (a branch of the University of London) and a branch of Turin Polytechnic University. In 2014, the first university established jointly with foreign partners from South Korea – Inha University, specializing in the training of IT specialists – appeared.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are currently implementing reforms in the recognition of diplomas and attracting foreign employees and students, while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are experiencing problems of a different nature related to low levels of enrollment in higher education.



Kazakhstan has been the most successful nation in reforming higher education. Degrees have been reduced to four years, and the Unified National Testing (UNT) and credit system of education appeared, creating favorable conditions for accession to the Bologna Process in 2010. By 2016, almost every second Kazakhstani was studying at a higher education institution.

Now, Kazakhstan has more than 120 universities. There are more than 600,000 students, and about 40% of Kazakhstanis are certified specialists.

Kazakhstan’s supremacy in this arena is confirmed by international rankings. For example, the international organization, Times Higher Education included four Kazakhstani universities in its rating for 2024: the Eurasian National University named after L.N. Gumilev; Satpayev University; the Kazakh National University named after Al-Farabi; Nazarbayev University (NU). Participating in these rankings for the first time, the latter was recognized as the best in Central Asia. NU is the first university of its kind in the region, where the educational process is built on the model of an American university, combining teaching and research.



Serious reforms in higher education only became of concern in Tashkent in 2017. Since then, the country has managed to make significant progress. In 2017, Uzbekistan had 79 universities with 140,000 students, but by 2023 the number of universities in the country had almost tripled to 210. The number of students has now passed a million.

As mentioned, Tashkent bet on the English-language educational process later than its neighbors, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The International Westminster University in Tashkent (IWUT) opened in 2002, the Singapore Institute of Management Development in 2008, and Korea’s Inha University in 2014.

In 2021, Uzbekistan drew its’ conclusions from observing processes in Kazakhstan. That year, on the initiative of President Mirziyoyev, Tashkent opened a university based on the Western model – New Uzbekistan University (NewUU). The bar was set high – to make the university a leader in Central Asia. NewUU’s partners are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Technical University of Munich. Teaching at the university is conducted entirely in English, and many professors are invited from abroad.



As of April, last year, there are 63 universities in Kyrgyzstan, of which 28 are state-run and 35 are non-state.

In addition, eight interstate higher education institutions with dual subordination have been established to integrate the educational systems of different countries: the Kyrgyz-Russian University mentioned above, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University, the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University, the private American University of Central Asia, the Kyrgyz-Russian Academy of Education, the Oriental University, Ala-Too International University (Turkey), and the Aga Khan University.

There are more than 600,000 students in Kyrgyzstan, accounting for over 37% of the total number of young people in the republic.

At the same time, though, experts criticize Kyrgyzstan’s higher education system for its unsystematic and inconsistent policies.

“The dynamics that are observed in Kyrgyzstan – turning universities into profitable diploma enterprises; decreasing teacher salaries; and the growing demand for a university diploma as a pass to get a job – are the main factors that affect the quality of higher education,” according to Aigul Kantoro-kyzy, an economic policy specialist.


Tajikistan and Turkmenistan

The situation with higher education is far worse in these two republics. In Tajikistan, only one out of every ten school graduates can enter higher education at the expense of the state. At the same time, almost 60% of all university places are in Dushanbe, where only 9% of the population lives.

Even under these trying conditions, Tajikistan has a systemic shortage of applicants. For example, last August, Sabzaali Jafarzoda, head of the National Testing Center, reported that 59,123 applicants were enrolled for 110,940 places at secondary and higher education institutions.

“This is 53.29% of the admission plan,” he reported.

In Turkmenistan, government interference in higher education and the science has led to its degradation. During the lifetime presidency of Saparmurat Niyazov, the introduction of new teaching methods and institutes for advanced training were banned. It was possible to obtain a higher education only after working for two years after leaving school, and the time spent in higher education was reduced to two years. By Niyazov’s orders, all foreign diplomas were invalidated.

Most of these reforms were reversed after Niyazov’s death, but they still had long-term consequences: only 8% of Turkmen citizens have a higher education.

The possibility for Turkmen citizens to obtain higher education is still significantly limited – tuition is paid, and the state does not allocate any grants (as it does in Kazakhstan, for example). In addition, the cost rises significantly due to bribes to be paid to officials, and quotas for education abroad are shrinking.



The unified educational space of Central Asia declared three years ago in Turkestan has so far only been created by the efforts of two states – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The dynamics of cooperation between the universities of these two leading Central Asian republics is evidenced, for example, by statistics announced by the rector of the Kazakh National University, Zhanseit Tuimebaev at last year’s international conference. Therein, he reported that within the framework of mutually beneficial partnerships, KazNU has concluded cooperation agreements with universities of Central Asian states: with Turkmen – only two, with Tajik – five, with Kyrgyzstan – nine, and with Uzbekistan – 18.

In addition, only the authorities of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have a clear understanding of what they want from their higher education systems. Uzbekistan aims to train 300,000 IT specialists, whilst Kazakhstan is successfully introducing professional orientation for high school students to prepare them for university.

It seems that Astana and Tashkent will determine educational trends in the whole of Central Asia, in no small measure displacing Russia from the market due to the well-known geopolitical circumstances.


Times of Central Asia


Eurasian Development Bank To Finance Another Solar Plant in Kyrgyzstan

The Eurasian Development Bank has signed an agreement to finance the construction of a solar power plant in the village of Toru-Aigyr in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul region.

The project, which will use photovoltaic solar energy conversion with an installed capacity of up to 300 MW, will be undertaken in partnership with Bishkek Solar LLC.

EDB has commented: “The project includes several key agreements, including an agreement with JSC “NES Kyrgyzstan” to purchase all electricity for 25 years, an agreement on public-private partnership with the Ministry of Energy of the Kyrgyz Republic, as well as an investment agreement on the implementation of the project with the Cabinet of Ministers of the Kyrgyz Republic for 25 years.”

It is assumed that EDB will work out the terms of long-term financing, including the involvement of tied funding in the amount of up to $210 million (in Chinese yuans) for 15 years. The facility is scheduled to be commissioned by the end of 2025.

Added EDB senior managing director Denis Ilyin: “This project is of key importance for the development of the renewable energy sector, and in particular solar energy, in the Kyrgyz Republic, contributing to improving energy security and stability, as well as achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The power plant will fully comply with international environmental and technical standards.”

EDB is currently also financing the construction in Kyrgyzstan of the Kulanak hydropower plant. It is expected that the Kulanak project, which is part of the megaproject “Water and Energy Complex of Central Asia”, will increase the level of energy security and strengthen Kyrgyzstan’s position in the Central Asian electricity market .


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The Outlook for Kazakhstan’s Rail Network

As a core infrastructure industry, railways play a strategic role in Kazakhstan’s economy. Today, over 50% of freight in the country is transported by rail, while the figure for passengers is 15%. Kazakhstan’s favorable geographical position between the largest producer of goods in the world, Asia, and the largest consumer, Europe, is spurring the development of transit freight transport and related income. However, government regulations and imperfect reforms have failed to reverse a degradation of Kazakhstan’s rail infrastructure and solve its capacity shortage problems.

The robust rail network created during the Soviet period for a single national economy turned out to be ineffective under the new conditions of market dynamics. The country’s railway infrastructure, while reaching almost every region in Kazakhstan, meets neither current nor possible future needs of freight owners and has already nearly reached its limit in terms of throughput and processing capacity.

The national railway carrier of both passengers and freight, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ), cannot provide by itself the financial resources and investments at the scale needed to meet current and future challenges. The national budget is also unlikely to allocate such funding. A lack of prompt, large-scale modernization of key areas of rail transport, however, may hurt the country’s economy.


Tentative sources of funding for improvements

According to the Ministry of Transport’s plan for the modernization of rail infrastructure, 1,300 km of railway track is to be added by 2030, while 4,800 km of second track is to be constructed. The expected price tag for these additions is over $11 million.

It is currently unclear where these funds will come from. There have been mentions of borrowing around $400,000 from the national pension fund. According to the Ministry of Transport’s modernization plan, private investments will also be a key source through public-private partnership projects (PPP).

In recent years, state participation in financing the construction and reconstruction of sections of the rail network has been limited and paled in comparison to those involving road projects. As part of the Nurly Zhol (“Bright Path”) infrastructure initiative, $9.2 billion has been allocated for just two programs to develop roads versus only $16.1 million allocated for railways. Added to this is the involvement of KTZ in implementing major transport infrastructure projects – the Khorgos dry port, the Kuryk port ferry complex and more than 1,000 km of railway track built in recent years, among others – using borrowed funds. Thus, the company bears a considerable burden in terms of servicing and repaying loans already raised for these projects, which represent its long-term assets. Given this debt burden, it is clear that the rail industry remains underfunded.


Tariffs present a further dilemma

Across the world, funding for the development of main rail networks is typically allocated from the national budget. In many European countries, for example, government funding covers up to 97% of operating and capital costs of rail infrastructure. Besides direct subsidies from the state, other sources of funds for modernizing and renewing rail infrastructure include bond issuance and sponsorship by financial institutions. The other main natural source of funds remains railway tariffs.

In Kazakhstan, the current growth of the “tariff for mainline rail network services” is insufficient to finance the investment needs of KTZ to construct new sections and reconstruct existing sections of track, as well as for junction stations, digitization, electrification, and automation. This is despite the fact that at the beginning of 2024, KTZ hiked this tariff by 5%.

The Ministry of Transport has a three-year plan to boost the railway tariff, which has been sent for approval to the Committee on Regulation of Natural Monopolies at the Ministry of National Economy. This tariff policy reform – which represents a new methodology for calculating tariffs for mainline rail network services – is seen as one of the strategic initiatives needed for the sustainable development of the sector and of KTZ, making infrastructure use more efficient and motivating the company to provide customized services in line with the demands of different market segments.


Focus on track modernization

According to KTZ, the existing tariff for mainline rail network services makes it possible to undertake capital repairs on 500-600 km of rail given the current annual transport volumes. However, these volumes are not enough. To maintain the rail infrastructure in standard condition, about 800 km of track should see capital repairs annually.

Last year, 1,443 km of railway track was repaired with 557 km of this going through capital repairs. Overall, KTZ annually invests about $123 million in the repair and development of the mainline network.

At the same time, reconstruction of transport infrastructure must be accelerated, and rail transport hubs developed. The latter includes the infrastructure of KZT public stations, i.e., freight stations that serve the population and businesses that do not have private access, and large industrial enterprises. As much as 99% of the freight carried by the Kazakhstani rail network starts at industrial rail hubs. In Kazakhstan today, there are about 4,000 access tracks, most of which belong to large enterprises and have daily traffic of 50 to 200 cars.

The implementation of several major projects is expected to boost the capacity of rail sections. These include the Bakhty-Ayagoz rail line, opening a third border crossing with China; a bypass line around Almaty, which is expected to decongest the Almaty hub by an average of 30%; and the Darbaza-Maktaaral line, set to decongest the Saryagash Station in the direction of the Central Asian countries and provide a more than fivefold boost to Kazakhstan’s transit potential.

The construction of second track on the Dostyk-Moyynty railway section is also underway. Once completed, the project should increase the capacity of the rail infrastructure of the section fivefold from 12 to 60 pairs of freight trains per day.


Dauren Moldakhmetov is the Editor-in-Chief of industry transportation publications of Kazakhstan, railway magazine “Trans-Express Kazakhstan”, and the business magazine, “Trans Logistics Kazakhstan”.




Times of Central Asia


Airport Opens in Talas, Kyrgyzstan

Following its year-long reconstruction, Talas airport in north-west Kyrgyzstan reopened on 21 May.

Built in 1979 to receive planes and helicopters, the airport had not been operational since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The facility now has a runway that adheres to international standards and a terminal which can accommodate 100 passengers per hour.

Speaking at the launch, Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov stated that the reconstruction in Talas marked a significant step in progressing the government’s plans to resume air communication with the country’s regions through the revival of several redundant airports.

Construction of terminals is currently underway at international airports in the city of Karakol and the village of Tamchy in the Issyk-Kul region. The runway at the Naryn regional airport is under repair and the reconstruction of the runways at airports in Kazarman, Kerben, and Batken in the south, are nearing completion.



Times of Central Asia

Solar Power

Uzbekistan to Build Central Asia’s First Solar Plant with Battery Energy Storage System

On 21 May, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company PJSC (Masdar) signed off a $46.5 million loan for the construction of greenfield solar power plant and battery energy storage system (BESS) in Uzbekistan’s Bukhara region. The Nur Bukhara plant will be Central Asia’s first renewable power facility with  utility-scale battery storage.

ADB reported that a further $26.5 million has been secured from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Loans for the realization of the project have also been agreed by the International Finance Corporation, the Canada–IFC Blended Climate Finance Program and the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank.

The new facility, with a capacity to generate 250 megawatts and store 126 megawatt-hours of energy, will include the construction of a 20-kilovolt substation and a 3.1-kilometer transmission line to connect to the grid.

Set to deliver 555 gigawatt-hours of clean energy per annum, the plant will provide power for some 55,000 households. By enabling electricity to be stored and delivered on demand, BESS  will reduce grid instability, and provide the flexibility to integrate intermittent solar resources. Generated power will be sold exclusively to the National Electric Grid of Uzbekistan.

Commending the project, Masdar Director of Corporate Finance and Treasury Bruce Johnson commented: “Masdar is proud to be a key partner in Uzbekistan’s clean energy journey. We are strong supporters of the country’s ambitious renewable energy targets, alongside key partners including ADB. Projects like Nur Bukhara will enhance the affordability and accessibility of reliable, clean energy for all Uzbek citizens and drive private sector growth.”

To meet the increasing demand for energy from Uzbekistan’s economy and growing population, the government aims to increase renewable energy generation by up to 25 GW, equivalent to 40 percent of the country’s overall electricity consumption, by 2030.



Times of Central Asia