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Monday, September 7, 1998 Published at 23:56 GMT 00:56 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Weaving a new Silk Road

Samarkand: stopping off point on the ancient Silk Road

Delegates from more than 30 countries stretching from Japan to Belgium are in the Azeri capital, Baku, for a conference aimed at recreating a modern day version of the ancient Silk Road.

Heads of state from Central Asia, the Caucuses and Eastern Europe are discussing the European Union-backed project known as TRACECA - Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia.

The project aims to develop a modern transport corridor along the route that once linked Asia to Europe.

The Silk Road Project, as it has become known, was begun five years ago by the EU to try to bolster ties between the former Soviet Republics which traditionally traded through Moscow.

Multimillion dollar scheme

[ image: Delegates are meeting amongst the ancient monuments of Tashkent]
Delegates are meeting amongst the ancient monuments of Tashkent
The Baku conference is one of the biggest yet held to promote a multimillion dollar scheme to recreate the ancient Silk Road, with a modern network of air, road and rail links stretching from Europe to China.

Representatives from Central Asia, the Caucuses, Turkey, Ukraine and the Black Sea states are discussing how to build a new corridor to ease the flow of goods across the vast region.

During the conference they are due to sign agreements on lowering transit fees and simplifying customs procedures.

The project seeks to boost transport volumes through the corridor to 34 million tonnes by 2010 from only 1.9 million in 1997.

Bypassing Russia

But, says the BBC correspondent in Tashkent, more than anything the aim of the conference is to signal their continuing commitment to building a new regional route that would effectively bypass the old master in the region, Russia.

For centuries these countries were trading partners as goods of every kind made their way by camel and caravan through the vast deserts and mountains that now make up the former Soviet Union's southern flank.

[ image: The new link may help unlock central Asia's energy reserves]
The new link may help unlock central Asia's energy reserves
That stopped when Moscow conquered Central Asia and in the decades that followed the trade routes all went north through Russia.

The bid to create a new Euro-Asia link has been spurred by the wish to unlock the vast oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea.

Meanwhile in Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmonov has officially opened the first section of a new railway designed to provide a link to the Karakoram highway and make trade and travel easier throughout Central Asia.

Economic growth

President Rahmonov said the Qurghonteppa-Kulob railway would be a gateway to China, India and Pakistan, and would promote national unity and economic growth in Tajikistan when it is completed next year

But in spite of the Baku conference, the investment needed to rebuild the crumbling road and rail networks of much of the region is huge.

An estimated $900 million, much of it to be financed by the EU and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, is needed to refurbish dilapidated infrastructure along the route through the former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Ultimately it will be demand from the Far East and from Europe which will dictate whether that is forthcoming.

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