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Central Asia/Caucasus: Silk Road Conference Agrees On Eurasian Corridor

Baku, 9 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A one-day international conference on establishing an overland transportation corridor through Central Asia and the Caucasus ended in Baku yesterday with the signing of a general multilateral agreement.

Delegations from 33 countries and 12 international organizations attended the event, which was dubbed the Conference on the Restoration of the Historic Silk Route. Eight of the countries attending --Georgia, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Turkey -- were represented by their presidents.

Participants delivered reports on work in progress in their countries to upgrade or create new road, rail and shipping links. The common aim is to make the proposed Eurasian corridor an efficient transit alternative to trans-oceanic shipping or the current Russian Trans-Siberian rail route.

The agreement provides for the equalization of trade tariffs throughout the region and for the creation of an intergovernmental commission as well as a permanent secretariat to be based in Baku to oversee the implementation of the new Eurasian route.

There are no precise figures on tariff limits contained in the deal nor is there an exact time frame for the establishment of the permanent secretariat, although it is expected to be in place by the end of the year. The agreement has been deliberately kept vague and is, as the name implies, basic.

Yesterday's gathering was the highest-level meeting on the project since the initiative was launched in Brussels in 1993 by the newly independent states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, with support from the European Union (EU). Organizers regard the Baku meeting a watershed of sorts, and hope that it will provide the impetus for a rapid increase in joint infrastructure projects and trade.

When TRACECA (Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia) was launched in 1993, as the new Silk Road initiative is officially known, it was a modest technical assistance project. Its purpose was to increase regional trade and re-foster broken ties in the wake of the Soviet collapse. But five years hence, the new Silk Road has become a reality and trade along it has already exceeded initial expectations.

Problems still exist. Several strategic countries along the route did not send their highest representatives to the conference, among them China and Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan did not send anyone. In addition, the final agreement signed by both Armenian Prime Minister Armen Darbinyan and Azerbaijani President Heydaar Aliyev contains a codicil which gives Baku the right to invalidate the main points in relation to the transport of goods to and from Armenia.

Moreover, its was said at the conference that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had jointly promoted the ideal of a Silk Route summit with President Aliyev, was unhappy at Aliyev's attempt to steal the spotlight. Organizers said there was a "gentleman's agreement" that Aliyev would publicly announce the venue for the next summit at Tbilisi. He did not. The Georgians left fuming.

Clearly , much work remains to be done, both on the political and infrastructure fronts. But that all of the participants gathered together in Baku is an achievement, and minor upsets are unlikely to undermine the overall prospects of the new Silk Route.

The EU has already spent 60 million ECU ($75 million) in projects along the TRACECA line and solicited another $300 million in loans from other states. Recent successes include the rebuilding of the Tauz bridge in Azerbaijan, which will enable trade volume between Azerbaijan and Georgia to double.

EU funds are going towards repairing locomotive depots in Armenia, cotton warehouses in Uzbekistan and ferry terminals in Baku and Batumi, on Georgia Black Sea coast.

Russia did not sign yesterday's agreement, as it does not lie on the new Silk Route. Organizers of the conference say, however, that the project is "open to everyone." They told RFE/RL that "the more corridors there are between East and West, the better. It will increase competitiveness, lower prices and raise efficiency."

But Moscow still appears to view the TRACECA route as an unwanted interference in what it still considers as its "sphere of influence." Russia's representative to the conference, Deputy Transport Minister Yevgeny Kazantsev, tried to throw some cold water on the proceedings, saying that the Trans-Siberian railroad provides a cheaper alternative.

But other participants hardly dwelled on Russia. And one thing the presidents of Central Asia and Caucasus as well as the man on the street in Baku can agree on today is that they are mighty glad not to be part of the ruble zone any longer.