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Central Asia: Analyst Discusses Investment Prospects

London, 21 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A business conference in London the past two days has been looking at the investment climate in Russia, East and Central Europe and Central Asia.

The conference, "Investing in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia -- the Coming Boom" was staged jointly by Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs, a leading think-tank, and the Regent Pacific commercial group.

One of the "star" speakers was Shirin Akiner, who is acknowledged as one of the world's leading authorities on the five Central Asian countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Akiner, who has acted as a consultant for several award-winning radio and TV films on Central Asia, including "Gift of God," a BBC TV documentary on the Aral Sea, and "Man without a Horse," a BBC TV documentary on Turkmen refugees from Afghanistan, teaches a number of courses relating to Central Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. She delivered a keynote address to the London conference yesterday on "The investment environment in Central Asia. She spoke with RFE/RL:

RFE/RL: This two-day conference has been talking about the coming economic boom in Central Asia as well as Russia and east and central Europe. What were your impressions of the conference? Are we looking at a boom in Central Asia?

Shirin Akiner: The conference has been very upbeat in tone. However, it is understandable that people are asking: what are the prospects? The prospects are good, but the problem is, when are they likely to mature? Now, for Central Asia, I don't think that the boom is going to come next year or the year after. It may well come in five years or 10 years. It is a question of building the right environment. And that is going to take time.

RFE/RL: Were there any lessons from the conference about what economic future lies ahead for the five Central Asian countries?

Shirin Akiner: Central Asia did not receive a huge amount of attention at this conference but the very fact that it was included (on the agenda) means that there is interest. People, it seems to me, are wanting to gather information at this stage. It's already gone beyond the stage when only a narrow range of specialists were interested. Now a much broader range of businessmen are interested. But they are still gathering information, gathering impressions. So if there is going to be investment on a large scale, it will take a while to mature.

RFE/RL: There has been a lot of talk about a new Silk Road running through Central Asia with oil and gas pipelines, fiber optics, roads, railways. Do you think that this is realistic, that we are going to see a new Silk Road, that regional communications are going to greatly improve, and, indeed, that the Central Asians are going to be at the crossroads of Asia and Europe?

Shirin Akiner: Whether Central Asia is going to be the heart of a transcontinental communications and transportation system will depend very much indeed as to whether, firstly, it is economically viable, and secondly, whether it is administratively successful. In principle, of course it's possible. Everything is possible if you pay enough. I am not yet convinced that it does make economic sense to transport goods over this huge distance. As far as communications are concerned, these fiber optic lines, yes, that's very promising. But for roads and railway networks, I am less optimistic in the near future. Maybe in the long-term, something will happen. It must also be borne in mind that administrative problems, border crossings, customs tariffs, have not been in any way, as yet, coordinated, and there are huge problems crossing from one area within a single country, let alone crossing from one country to another. Until these questions are resolved, it's going to be very difficult. So, again, it could happen, but again it could happen, but it will take time.

RFE/RL: With the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a lot of talk about the Central Asian countries falling under the influence of Turkey and Iran. But it seems to me that they have avoided this, and they have steered quite an independent line. Is that your impression?

Shirin Akiner: Yes. The Central Asian states have made it quite clear from the beginning that they were not going to be drawn into any ideological bloc. They are not particularly within the Turkish sphere of influence, nor particularly within the Iranian sphere. What is interesting is the way they have managed to look both to the east, that is to say, to Asia, and to the West, to Europe and America, rather even-handedly. All five continents of the world are now involved in central Asia. Most recently, the South Africans have just entered the scene. The Central Asians are really dealing quite even-handedly with them all. I think this is quite a success for their foreign policy.