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Azerbaijan: Delegates Debate New Silk Road

Baku, 8 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- At the one-day conference convened to discuss the revival of the ancient Silk Road Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, on his arrival yesterday, said the meeting may also result in fresh advances toward the cause of peace in the Caucasus. Leaders from all three Caucasus countries are attending.

Armenian Prime Minister Armen Darbinian said his country is committed to active participation in regional economic initiatives.

Darbinian said the Caucasus is starting to re-establish itself as an important transport corridor between Europe and Asia. He said it is important for all countries to realize that attempts by individual states to impose high tariffs, isolate others or give prominence to political ambitions over economic gain have no future.

Darbinian proposed four new transport links which he said Yerevan would like to see restored or built anew. He called for the building of a rail line and road from the Georgian port of Batumi through Yerevan, Nakhichevan and Tehran to the Persian Gulf. Secondly, Darbinian called for the defunct rail link between the Turkish city of Cars through Armenia and Georgia to be restored. He also called for the building of a highway linking Tbilisi and Yerevan, and the building of another highway linking Batumi and Yerevan.

Darbinian heads a delegation of five Armenian officials to Baku. Aides tell our correspondent that the delegation is only attending the conference and that no bilateral meetings with Azerbaijani officials are planned.

Russia's deputy minister of transport said that Moscow does not believe a corridor running through Central Asia and the Caucasus is the most cost-effective way to transport goods from the Pacific to Europe.

Yevgeny Kazantsev, speaking on behalf of the Russian delegation, said using Russia's Trans-Siberian railroad is still 20 to 70 percent cheaper than any overland alternative. He also said the geography of the proposed southern route, which crosses mountain ranges as well as the Caspian and Black seas, makes it less advantageous.

Nevertheless, Kazantsev said Russia is not opposed to TRACECA (the Transport Corridor for Europe, the Caucasus and Asia), as the new Silk Road initiative is officially known, but said the road should act as a secondary corridor in conjunction with already-existing Russian routes.

Other participants at the conference say they strongly back TRACECA as an important potential alternative to the Russian corridor.