Prague, 29 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Transport and trade ministers from Central Asia and the Caucasus are gathering in Tbilisi today to discuss the so-called "Silk Road of the 21st century" -- an ambitious transportation corridor that follows the historic route of medieval silk caravans from Asia through the Caucasus to Europe.
The conference coincides with announcement by the European Union and World Bank of new railroad, sea port and highway projects between the Black Sea and Central Asia. Telecommunications and oil pipelines also are envisaged as part of the trade corridor.
Officials from the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) are in Tbilisi to meet with private investment bankers about possible financial assistance on transport projects.
Ministers from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are focusing on investment incentives and privatizations within the transport corridor. RFE/RL's correspondent in Georgia says representatives from Russia are not expected to attend.
The new "Silk Road" would give the former Soviet republics greater economic independence from Russia by allowing them to diversify trade partners. At the moment, trade elsewhere is difficult because the transport systems left from the Soviet era are oriented toward Russia rather than for east-west traffic.
Efforts to build stronger east-west links are backed by an EU program called Traceca (Transport Corridor European-Caucasus-Asia). Launched in 1993, that program also receives funding from the EBRD, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and private investors.
One Traceca project seeks to rehabilitate and modernize existing oil and natural gas transmission grids in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Another project already underway seeks to create a reliable southern air route by improving air traffic control systems in all of the states along the transport corridor.
But the Economist Intelligence Unit says the Traceca idea is still a long way from being implemented as a trouble-free transit route. Freight transporters face many tariffs and corrupt customs officials as they move cargo from one country to the next. The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that freight haulers will find Russia to be an easier route for years to come.
Another stumbling block is political instability along the transport route. Fighting in Azerbaijan's separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh is one example. Major railroad, highway and pipeline routes between Baku and Tbilisi pass just to the north of the ethnic-Armenian enclave. That has made potential foreign investors hesitate on infrastructure investments nearby.
The standoff between Baku and Yerevan over Nagorno-Karabakh also has meant little cooperation between the two governments on transport infrastructure.
Others states also are having difficulties reaching agreement on standard tariffs and infrastructures. In Bishkek last week, the prime ministers of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan failed in a bid to unify their electrical energy systems.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott has said that Central Asia and the Caucasus region can become a thriving center of trade and commerce if local conflicts are resolved and democracy is increased. But Talbott warns that war could break out if internal and cross border conflicts are allowed to, in his words, "simmer and flare."