The draft agreement on the five nation Lapis-Lazuli agreement was signed on Wednesday between Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.
The route will provide the shortest route for Afghanistan to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
The draft agreement was signed at the 4th technical meeting between the delegations of the five nations in Azerbaijan, according to a statement from the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As per the statement, the agreement focuses on the custom facilities, easing visa processing and facilitating the transactions of goods.
The statement regarded deal as the key achievement of the National Unity Government.
“The route will cut down the transaction cost of commercial goods between the regional countries,” said the statement.
The Lapis Lazuli Corridor is a lynchpin in reviving the ancient Silk Road by connecting South Asia to Central Asia and then to Europe, where Afghanistan serves as the connecting bridge.
Its name comes from the fact that Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli and other semiprecious stones were exported through this route to Caucasus, Russia, Europe, the Balkans and Northern Africa over 2,000 years ago. Lapis Lazuli Corridor runs from Aqina in northern Faryab province and Turqundi in western Herat province of Afghanistan to Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan which arrives in Baku, capital city of Azerbaijan, after passing the Caspian Sea. It connects Baku to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and also the ports of Polti and Batumi of Georgia. The Corridor then connects cities of Kors and Istanbul of Turkey and finally ends in Europe.
The significance of the Lapis Lazuli Corridor was highlighted by the representatives of the concerned countries in the first technical working group meeting of Lapis Lazuli Corridor held in Turkmenistan on 15 November 2014. The Corridor was termed as a “shortest, less expensive, and secure passage” connecting Caucasus and Central Asia. It seeks to improve and streamline transport infrastructure and customs procedures, increase trade, create employment opportunities and bolster economic ties between the concerned nations benefitting from this trade route. The officials regarded the operationalization of the Corridor as a key factor in reviving the New Silk Road. President Ashraf Ghani also reflected on the importance of the Corridor in connecting Afghanistan with the regional countries in his speech to the American congress in March 2015 and said that Afghanistan has “already made significant headway in making the vision of the of the Lapis Lazuli corridor that will link us to Turkmenistan, Georgia, Turkey and Europe into a reality.”
Furthermore, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor will provide Afghanistan with an alternative trade route. Afghanistan currently relies on its neighbouring countries, mainly Pakistan, for the transit of its goods.
Afghanistan’s right of transit through Pakistan was recognized in the Afghanistan- Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA) that dates back to 1965. The agreement was superseded by the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) which came into force in June of 2011. As per the agreement, Pakistan will allow Afghan trucks to carry Afghan products to the markets of China, India and other countries through the seaports of Karachi, Qasim and Gwadar Ports.
However, Afghan merchants have time and again complained about the hurdles caused by Pakistani customs in exports of Afghan goods to international markets by blocking the trade routes or hiking shipping freight rate. In January 2015, as many as 2,000 Afghan containers loaded with food and non-food items were stuck at Karachi port for over two weeks due to unjustified raise in freight rates by Pakistani customs. While Pakistan has always promised to be fully committed in helping to successfully implement the APTTA, Afghanistan finds their promises dubious as transit problems on Pakistan’s soil continue to be a major impediment in boosting Afghan exports. Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) sees the Lapis Lazuli Corridor as the best alternative trade route for Afghanistan’s goods to reach the international markets and reduce its reliance on neighbouring countries.