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Azerbaijan: 'Silk Road' Conference Paves Way For Transport Corridor

Prague, 4 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- For several years, Azerbaijan has been wooing foreign investors with its promise of oil riches. Next week, the country hopes to put itself on the political map, when it hosts the extravagantly-billed "Silk Road Summit."

The two-day event, which is officially called the Conference on the Restoration of the Historic Silk Route, opens in Baku on Monday Sept. 7). Delegations from at least 25 countries are set to attend, more than half of them led by heads of state.

What Azerbaijan calls the new Silk Road is dubbed more prosaically by the European Union (EU) as TRACECA, which stands for Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia. Five years ago, the EU launched the TRACECA initiative to support the newly-independent countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia by helping them to upgrade and link their infrastructures. By funding new road, rail and ferry links in the region, the EU hopes to increase local trade and just as importantly, open another route for international cargo traffic between Asia and Europe.

Many parallels have been drawn between the new initiative and the ancient Silk Road, which once stretched over 6,000 kilometers, carrying goods and ideas between Europe and China and every land in-between. The irony is that overland trade has yet to return to the levels of those times.

Next week's Baku summit is seen as milestone in that effort. The gathering will be the highest-level conference to date since the initiative began and for the first time, participants are due to sign a multilateral agreement covering automobile, rail and shipping tariffs, and customs procedures.

RFE/RL Regional analyst Liz Fuller notes that the Baku summit comes at a particularly strategic time:

"The timing of it is very significant, because it's coming at a time when the Russian economy is falling apart. It looks as though Russia itself is falling apart and it's a way for these countries to demonstrate: We're getting our act together, we can work together, we've go a future and you're going to be left out - you're missing the boat."

The Russian government has reacted coolly to the TRACECA initiative and now that it is absorbed in its own financial crisis, it is unclear if Moscow will send any important representatives to Baku.

Although TRACECA is not specifically about pipelines, the race to establish new transit routes for oil in the region can be expected to loom large at the conference. Pipelines are dependent on surrounding infrastructure and if TRACECA initiatives promote Caucasus road, rail and sea links that bypass Russia, then plans to build pipelines that also bypass Russia could get an extra a boost.

Last but not least, says Fuller, the summit is a "propaganda scoop" for Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev, who faces re-election next month. He will try to use the event to solidify his image as a regional statesman - something which Georgian President Eduard Shevaradnadze has already indicated he will assist, in an effort to limit Russia's influence.

Whether the summit lives up to the fanfare remains to be seen. But next week, it will be Baku's turn to shine, and Azerbaijan's elites are not hiding their anticipation.

(RFE/RL is sending its correspondent to the summit).