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Caucasus/Central Asia: New Transport Links To Bolster Independence

London, 21 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts say a new EU-backed transport corridor across the Caucasus and Central Asia will make it easier for the countries of the region to access world markets, and enhance their economic and political independence.

The transport corridor -- known as the new Silk Road -- will run from Central Asia, through the Caucasus and Caspian, across the Black Sea, and then on to ports in Ukraine and the Mediterranean.

The EU wants the 21st century Silk Road -- or Superhighway -- to complement existing transport routes to Europe, including the traditional and often heavily overloaded outlet via Moscow.

Eventually, the goal is to create a fully integrated transport network -- including upgraded highways, railroads, ports, ferries -- that will make it easier for the Central Asian and Caucasus countries to trade not only with each other but also with the Europeans.

The EU goal is to open up a energy-rich but landlocked region of the former Soviet Union long isolated behind a sealed frontier where roads and other transport links are limited or non-existent.

The new Silk Road project was launched at a conference in Brussels in May 1993 which brought together trade and transport ministers from the three Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) and the five Central Asian (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) countries. The program was named Traceca (after "Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia").

The Brussels conference identified problems and deficiencies in the region's trade and transport systems, and agreed to implement a number of EU-funded projects aimed at resolving them.

Many of the problems were a legacy of the Soviet era when the Central Asia and Caucasus countries were isolated from natural trade partners like Turkey and Iran by a sealed communist border.

But they were also cut off from each other because of a central planning system that put more emphasis on communications with the center -- with Moscow -- than with their near neighbors.

A European Commission briefing sheet notes that the Brussels summit allocated an initial 15 million ecu to help the Central Asian and Caucasus countries diversify from their Moscow-centered trade and transport flows, and to open up trade routes to the west.

From the outset the EU strategy was dictated by two goals. First, the EU wanted to "support the political and economic independence of these countries by enhancing their capacity to access European and world markets through alternative transport routes." Second, it wanted to encourage regional cooperation among the republics.

In launching the Traceca program, the EU wanted it to act as a catalyst to attract the support of international financial institutions and private investors. The EU also wanted the new Silk Road route to link up with trans-European transport networks.

Since the Brussels summit, Traceca has held four working group meetings in Almaty, Vienna, Athens and Tbilisi. Membership of the group has expanded to include Ukraine, Mongolia and Moldova. So far, the Traceca program has funded 22 technical assistance studies and five big projects to improve the transport infrastructure.

The Traceca program is cooperating closely with the BSEC (Black Sea Economic Cooperation) countries on plans to integrate the region's transport networks with those across the rest of Europe. Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania are closely involved in this drive. A 16-country Pan European Transport conference in Helsinki, Finland, last year, identified the Black Sea region as a pan-European transport area linked to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

To encourage cooperation in the transport field, the EU agreed to fund the rehabilitation of a Black Sea ferry terminal in the port of Ilyichevsk, Ukraine, and the construction of a ferry terminal at the Georgian port of Poti. These projects will be completed next year.

Traceca has also worked closely with financial institutions, including the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, on a number of programs, ranging from plans to upgrade roads in Armenia, to construct highways in Turkmenistan, and to improve port facilities at Baku, Azerbaijan. The programs will be funded with tens of millions of dollars in aid.

The eventual goal is establish a 21st century Silk Road, loosely tracing the caravan trading routes of ancient times, that will run across the "Euro-Asian heartland", making travel and trade easier throughout the region.