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World: Central Asian, Caucasus Leaders Discuss Future Of Region

One of the strengths of the World Economic Forum has always been the way it draws together an enormous diversity of people of contrary political, social, and economic persuasions. Our correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports from the forum in Davos, Switzerland, that leaders from Central Asian and Caucasian countries met today (Friday) for a lively discussion of their common interests and their disputes.

Davos, Switzerland, 28 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Scores of leaders and thinkers are gathering over the weekend in Davos, Switzerland at this year's World Economic Forum.

Today (Friday) the forum was able to bring together at one table the presidents of the Caucasus region's uneasy neighbors Azerbaijan and Armenia, along with the president of Kyrgyzstan, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran, and the prime minister of Kazakhstan.

The subject of the panel discussion was whether Central Asia and the Caucasus will be able to re-establish a modern version of the ancient Silk Road as a trade route to Europe, or whether it will again be a subject of the Great Game, pawns to big power rivalry over resources.

That was the title of the debate, but soon that rather academic topic was overtaken by more urgent themes, such as the prospects for lasting peace in Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, and whether Islamic fundamentalism will overwhelm Central Asia.

Looking at the Silk Road issue first, all the participants thought it was a good thing to push for a trade route with Europe. And they agreed that such a route is becoming a reality, thanks in part to the European Union initiative to create or improve transport links between Europe and the region. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev said his country was doing its share to link Europe to China by creating a transport corridor through the Ferghana Valley.

Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev described the creation of the Silk Road as the number one regional priority, and noting that the transit of goods through Georgia to Central Asia has more than doubled in the last few years. He said the road is basically already a reality.

Armenia's Robert Kocharian referred to the key importance of the Caucasian republics along the road, saying they form a "neck to the bottle" as it were, the essential confluence point for trade.

As to the other subject, the region as pawn in a Great Game, the only participant who said much about that was Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. With an eye doubtless on the U.S.-imposed sanctions on his country, he said Iran cannot be excluded from the development of the region, and that no power either inside or outside the region should dominate the region.

Most of the participants spoke of the importance of oil pipelines to the development of the region. As Kocharian put it, the greater the diversity of the pipelines, the better for everybody.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ismail Cem was not slow to sing the praises of his own country, saying Turkey could serve as an important role model -- politically, socially, and economically -- for the entire region. Without referring to the deep international controversy over Turkey's treatment of its Kurdish minority, he offered Turkey as a model in modernization, secularization, human rights observance, gender equality and upward social mobility. He also noted Turkey's traditional role as a bridge between East and West, and said its importance in that respect has increased now that it is a formal candidate for EU membership.

In the broader perspective, Cem argued for creation of a stability pact for the Caucasus region along the lines of the existing European one for the Balkans. He also called for more regional gatherings and forums, which would also include Iran.

One of the more unusual sights of the Davos panel session today (Friday) was the way the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Kocharian and Aliev, sat side by side in a relatively cordial atmosphere. A sticky moment came when Aliyev made an emotional plea for lasting peace in the mostly ethnic-Armenian populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, pointing to the disruption of the lives of Azerbaijanis as a result of the dispute.

Kocharian then said he was "forced to clarify" the impression Aliyev had given, saying that most of the disruption had in fact been to ethnic Armenians from that enclave.

The two presidents confirmed that they plan to hold one of their periodic summits on the issue while in Davos, but they would not say when. There's some speculation that U.S. President Bill Clinton or U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will mediate at such a summit, although Clinton is only in Davos for a few hours tomorrow (Saturday) to give a speech to the forum.

Another burning issue raised at today's Central Asian Session at Davos was the question of Islamic militancy. Both Kyrgyzstan's Akaev and Kazakhstan's Premier Kassymzhomart Tokaev said religious extremism poses a great danger to the region, and both called for cooperative measures to combat it. The Kazakh official said that there can be no peaceful development in the region if Islamic militancy gets out of control.