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Azerbaijan: International Conference Convened To Revive Silk Road

London, 2 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The dream of reviving the historic Silk Road across Central Asia has moved closer to reality with a decision by Azerbaijan to host an international conference to discuss plans to construct a highway linking Europe and China.

The ancient Silk Road was a trade route that carried goods, and ideas, between the two great civilizations of China and Rome. Over the centuries, the 6,400 km route became unsafe and untraveled until, with the closed borders of the Soviet era, it ceased to function.

Now, Azerbaijan president Heydar Aliyev has announced a conference in Baku in May to discuss "the restoration of the ancient Silk Road", or the Eurasian Transport link, between Asia and Europe. The idea follows an initiative by the European Commission, pressed by former Netherlands Foreign Minister Hans Van den Broek.

Aliyev said all the countries lying along the route from northern Europe to China and Japan will take part in the conference. He said he had sent invitations to "many countries" in Asia and Europe.

His remarks suggest the conference will bring together the Europeans, Russia, China and Japan, the five newly-independent countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan), the three Caucasus nations (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia), and probably outside investors in the region.

All these nations have a clear interest in seeing a revival of the old Silk Road trading route which originally ran along a caravan tract from Xian, along the Great Wall of China, across Central Asia to Afghanistan, and on to the eastern Mediterranean.

The Baku conference is expected to discuss what was originally a U.N. plan for a trans-Asian highway, allowing trucks and cars to travel by motorway from Berlin to Tashkent, or Paris to Tbilisi. The new communications will also include air, railway and phone links.

The outline of the new Silk Road already exists. New transport links are being built to the south, east and west of the Central Asian nations and the Caucasus region. Turkmenistan has already built a rail line to Mashhad in Iran; Georgia is planning another to Kars in Turkey; and Kazakhstan is upgrading its rail links with China;

U.S. officials predict the 21st Century Silk Road or Superhighway, running through the Caucasus and beyond the Caspian, will also include oil and gas pipelines and modern fiber optic cables.

One proposal is to upgrade and modernize the Trans-Caspian railroad. The Economist magazine reported earlier this month that this "Iron Silk Road" could form the southern rail link to China, and be a serious competitor to the Trans-Siberian railway.

The Silk Road revival is driven by geopolitical and economic factors. The 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union led to a lifting of one of the world's most closed borders, allowing newly-independent Central Asian and Caucasus nations to resume cultural and trading links with their natural neighbors to the south, east and west.

For 70 years, they were isolated not only from near-neighbors, China, Iran or Turkey, but also from each other by a central planning system that distorted internal linkages. One analyst says the "Soviet system was a kind of open hub-and-spoke arrangement whereby the various spokes were isolated from one another." (thus, a phone call from Tbilisi to Tashkent was routed through Moscow). As a result, it remains difficult to get around the region, something that is driving the demand for more rational transport links. Calls for a new Silk Road are also driven by the knowledge that the oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea region (particularly Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan) are second only to the Persian Gulf, and better transport links -- roads, pipelines, railroads -- are essential to get these energy exports to world markets (particularly as all these energy producers are landlocked).

A reporter for the Economist magazine recently traveled by car from Tbilisi to Baku along the approximate route of the new Silk Road. She reported that the journey was fraught with difficulty; it took eight hours to travel just 450 kms; she had to pay a 15 dollar bribe when crossing the Georgian-Azerbaijan frontier; and progress was slowed by a narrow two lane "highway" into Azerbaijan.

But she suggests that once the new "Eurasian" highway is in place, such sluggish travel will belong to the past. In time, perhaps, she suggests, a car journey from Germany to Uzbekistan, or from France to Iran, will "seem as commonplace as a journey from New York to San Franscisco" (And the distance is about the same).

A new Silk Road linking Europe and Asia? The idea will certainly be examined in detail at the conference on the "Eurasian Transport Link" to take place in Baku in just a few weeks' time.