The participants hope that a modern version of the Silk Road will fulfill the same function as the old one -- bringing prosperity to the countries along its route.
The Silk Road developed some two millennia ago as a network of trade routes traversing the landlocked countries of Central Asia from China to Europe. Now the goal is to upgrade what was once little more than a camel path to a modern infrastructure complex incorporating surfaced roads, efficient railways and waterways, and standardized customs-clearance procedures.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the revitalization of the Silk Road has been much talked about, but the implementation remains elusive. The Geneva meeting on February 19 was meant to change that by setting coordinated goals.
The meeting brought together 19 countries, including Russia, China, Iran, the Central Asian republics, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Turkey. The sponsoring United Nations agencies were the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
Each country is taking responsibility for the section of the Silk Road on its own territory, through measures such as improving rail or road links, border crossings, or other infrastructure. International institutions like the World Bank are assisting with finance.
But the UN has an important coordination role insofar as the trade route will only work if there are no gaps; construction of railways, for example, must be carried out with the cooperation of countries along all stages of the route, so that no "weak link" slows down transport.
The transport ministers pledged that by 2014, they will have completed priority projects costing some $43 billion. ESCAP spokesman Barry Cable described this as a "rebirth" that will offer new economic opportunities for the landlocked countries of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and provide much better connections for remote regions that depend on land transport for trade.
In all, 230 infrastructure projects are envisaged, but not all are expected to be finished within the set time frame.