German scholar Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen coined the term "Silk Road" in 1859, centuries after this once-great caravan network descended into obscurity, remembered only by a handfull of silent ruins scattered across Central Asia and the Middle East. Trade across the Silk Road was most active in two periods: from 200BC-400AD and from 600-1200AD; carrying goods, technologies, and religons across Eurasia.
This network of caravan trails served as a cultural and commercial conduit between east and west perhaps as far back as the dawn of human history. Silk is believed to have been first produced in China around 3000 BC, and is believed to have reached Mediterranean Europe via Persia. While the earliest use of the Silk Road has yet to be determined, a telling clue resides in Egyptian tombs, where swatches of Chinese-made silk have been discovered dating back to approximately 1000 BC. 1
Central Asia was home to nomadic tribes such as the Sythians and Sarmatians,who benefitted from early success in the domestication of horses and the invention of the stirrup. It is believed that indigenous peoples of the region became nomadic due to the difficulty of raising crops on the open, arid steppes in an historically brief period of settlement.2 Interaction with the Chinese in the east, Persians to the west, and peoples of the Indian subcontinent to the south made for a diversity of cultural artifacts available to the peoples of the region. With the expansion of Alexander the Great's Empire into Persia around 400 BC, Greek influence joined the mix as caravan trails found a new terminus the Greek trading colonies along Asia Minor and the Black Sea coast. Meanwhile, China was unified under the Qin Dynasty, who completed the Great Wall to halt invading nomads from Mongolia.
Along with silk from China, spices from India, oil and gold from Persia, and pottery and grains from Europe, philosophies and religons spread along the Silk Road to the proverbial "four corners of the Earth" that the road laced together. Glassmaking traveled east from Syria, as papermaking would travel West from China. Bhuddism spread eastward from India across East Asia -- hundreds of carved stone statues of Bhudda remain along the Silk Road to the present day. Greco-Roman artists and indigenous artisits familiar with the characteristic style of the West, created statues, temples and relief sculptures in tribute to Bhuddist, Zorastrian, even Hindu religious traditions by the first century AD. The Roman Empire was at its apex in this period, becoming a massive market for Eastern goods.3
In the ancient world, political stability fostered trade along the Silk Road. When the four great empires of the day -- Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Chinese began to decline, so too did commercial traffic. When security from marauding tribesmen could no longer be assured to traders. The splintering of China at the closing of the Han Dynasty c.200BC, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire c.400AD, and the fall of Persia's Sassanian Empire c.600AD, the Silk Road saw a period of inactvity. A renewed period of trade began when China was reunified under the Tang Dynasty and the affluence of Byzantium promted demand for luxury goods. The Arabs, united under Islam, expanded in political, technological,and religious influence throughout Central Asia. Islam won millions of converts across Asia, the Koran's word was transmitted by both military campaign and traders who plied the Silk Road.
Between 900-1200AD, China fragmented at the end of the Tang Dynasty, the Islamic Empire splintered in Central Asia, and the Turkic peoples of Central Asia began their westward expansion. While regional branches of the Silk Road remained active, but the transcontinental routes began a steady decline. After the Mongols seized Central Asia , only far northern and southern routes were available. With the decline of the Mongols in the 15th Century, China closed its doors to further foreign influences and the Ottoman Empire consolidated its control over Eastern Europe and the Middle East isolating the patchwork of Central Asia's khanates whose control would bring the Russian, Persian, and Ottoman Empires into numerous conflicts over the next several centuries. The Ottoman Sultanate's control over trade routes to the East led to Western Europe's "Age of Discovery," which initially began in part as a search for alternate trade routes to the Far East.
Central Asia remained terra incognita to the Western world until the 19th Century when Britan began mapping the region in order to protect India from Russian advance. Czarist Russia's control of the South Caucasus and Central Asia would be complete by the 1880s, and excepting the years of Russia's Civil War following World War I, remained constant under the Soviet Union until 1991.4
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the eight Newly Independent States (NIS) of the Caucasus and Central Asia gained the unexpected gift of independence. The first Post-Soviet decade has been for the most part a tragic story for these nations of the "Eurasian Heartland," as they seek to come to terms with their respective post-colonial legacies, develop stable civil-societies, and attract the necessary aid and investment to develop viable States. To this end, the leaders of these NIS sought to redevelop the long-lost 6,000 km network of caravan routes that once linked China to Rome, the ancient "Silk Road." According to the leaders of these NIS, what was once inaccessible country closed to the West for centuries,would be reborn.5
TRACECA:The New Silk Road
The proposal to create "The New Silk Road," or Transport
Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), was enthusiastically received
by European Union (EU) and the United States when it was proposed in
May, 1993, by Central Asian leaders meeting with the EU in Brussels.
The vision of a superhighway not only of asphalt, but of rails,
pipelines, and fiber-optic cables stretching from Rotterdam to China’s
Yellow Sea Coast seemed full of promise not only to firms who would build
these systems, but also to those who sought to prosper from the region’s
wealth in minerals, cotton, and its best-known commodities, oil and natural gas. 6
Europe’s support was grounded in the prospects of a cheaper shipping route to and from East Asia. American support for the project added the consideration of promoting geopolitical stability in the form of promoting democracy while discouraging efforts by Russia or Iran to exercise hegemony in the region. Europe and Asia will recieve a new trade coridoor and Central Asia will recieve the modern infrastructure crucial to economic and ultimately political development along democratic, free-market society based upon the primacy of the rule of law. TRACECA has thus been viewed by policy makers as "a win-win situation" for all parties concerned.
From Brussels to the most recent World Economic Summit in Davos, numerous pronouncements,summits, and conferences have passed among the 33 countries involved in building the New Silk Road.7 Touting strides made towards creating a viable shipping alternative to the existing trans-oceaninc shipping routes or Russian-owned Trans-Siberian rail lines-- while regional leaders have proclaimed the Silk Road a reality, numerous problematic aspects have prevented the complete realization of the New Silk Road. 8
Geopolitics of the New Silk Road
Much newsprint has been devoted to drawing parallels between the Caspian oil rush and the TRACECA Project with the 19th century's "Great Game" between Russia and England for control of Central Asia.9 In the 21st century, however, the image of great power competition for regional influence obscures the centrality of independant shipping routes to the the future development of the region. Furthermore, realizing the New Silk Road is necessitiates a clear understanding of the political, economic, and environmental conditions on the ground.
Despite the EU's repeated proclamations of TRACECA complementing existing routes through Russia, Russian officials have protested vociferously at Western inroads into what they regard as their "sphere of influence." Russia's most recent campaign in Chechnya was in no small part related to preserving Russian oil and gas pipelines in the region, and should offer a warning to those advocating developing TRACECA without Russian input. Russia has even proposed an alternate route from Central Asia to European markets through Russia.10
Soviet-era infrastructure was designed primarily to link each Soviet Republic to Russia. As a result, sparse, poorly-repaired highways rarely connect cities directly, and a phone call from the Georgian capital of Tblisi to Baku, the capital of the neighboring state of Azerbaijan can still occaisonally find itself routed by way of Moscow. Separatist conflicts scar the entire region, from the Armenian-Azeri dispute over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in Tajikistan. As in ancient times, trade follows political stability, a commodity that remains elusive in many parts of the region.11
The notion of promoting democracy through stimulating trade and investment is the prevailing argument among the project's supporters. Yet gross human rights violations have been recorded in every state of the Caucasus and Central Asia according to international observers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.12 Additionally,international observers have declared that these countries have yet to see a single post-independance election that fully conforms with international norms. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev typifies the region's leaders sentiments in advocating national development along East Asia's model, guaranteeing economic growth, but driven by a central elite at the cost of individual enterprise and possibly civil rights.
Commercial realities may take precedent over the New Silk Road's political and economic benefits to the NIS. TRACECA faces competition from transportation options unknown to the ancient world: Sea routes, such as the Suez and Panama Canals; Existing rail routes from Europe through Russia; and airborne shipping of cargo offer several low-cost means of getting goods to market. 13 The future of the Silk Road will depend on a number of factors: the volumes of oil and gas discovered in the Caspian Sea, The course taken by Russia's new leadership under Vladimir Putin vis a vis the NIS, and the degree of sustained engagement offered by the EU and the US to the future of this potentially volatile region.
The EU has already invested over $80 million in the region, and has helped secure over $300 million from international lending institutions to repair old roads and build new rail lines,stations, and ports.14 The related Caspian Sea energy development projects have brought nearly $12 billion in investment hundreds of oil, gas, and construction firms into the region, with total investment expected to top $50 billion dollars over the next 25 years. The European Union supports the development of TRACECA's east-west route in order to realize the following objectives:
Developing a New Silk Road
The effort began in May 1993 with the Brussels Conference. A summit of representitives from member countries' foreign and trade ministries reviews the deficiencies in the region's transportation infrastructure, allocating 15 million euros toward trade and transport projects. Four working groups were also formed, which have met periodically since 1993 to adress specific development initiatives in the following issue areas:
In these working groups, the proposed route across Central Asia was finalized. Transport costs were calculated compared to maritime, air, and exisiting land routes through Russia. The most challenging issue has been the ongoing effort to come to an agreement on construction cost sharing and the simplification of border-crossing.
In April of 1997, officials met in the Georgian capital of Tblisi. This conference focused on connecting the western extensions of the New Silk Road to exisiting European transport routes through the Black Sea littoral countries, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine.
During September 1997's "Restoration of the Historic Silk Route" Conference, participants signed on to the Basic Multilateral Agreement on Internationsl Transport for the Development of TRACECA.
In September 1998, a presidential-level conference, proposed by presidents Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia and Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, in the Azeri capital of Baku. By 1998, TRACECA networks centered in the Caucasus had quadrupled commercial cargo transshipped in the region to four million tons.15
TRACECA cannot be realized solely upon its geopolitical merits of offering an independant transport infrastructure. Commercial realities of comparative shipping costs will ultimately determine if The New Silk Road will become a reality. TRACECA faces competition from transportation options unknown to the ancient world. Sea routes, such as the Suez and Panama Canals; Existing rail routes from Europe through Russia; and airborne shipping of cargo offer several low-cost means of getting goods to market.
Might TRACECA Facilitate Crime and Corruption?
This windfall of trade and investment intended to build TRACECA comes to a region where wages are left unpaid for months at a time, resulting in rampant corruption at every level of government in every country. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in particular have become synonymous with bureaucratic nightmare to would-be investors who navigate the Byzantine labyrinth of conflicting regulations, payoffs, and arbitrary seizures of capital.16 The NGO Transparency International has identified the countries of the region as beset by issues of bribery and corruption, which has discouraged foreign investment. Transparency international's annual Bribery Index named Azerbaijan as among the most corrupt countries to do business, with Armenia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan close behind.17
According to the State Department's most recent Narcotics Strategy Control Report issued annualy by the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law, every country in the Caspian region has been identified as a transit state for opium and cannibus to Europe.18 Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrghyztan were also identified as cultivators of these illicit crops. The French NGO Observations Geopolitiques des Drouges(OGD) has positively identified drug and weapons trafficking as a major growth industry in the region in part due to the various conflicts which have beset the region.19
The deregulation of trade among Mexico, the United States, and Canada North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has led to an explosion of transport of goods both legal and otherwise. 19 TRACECA's deregulation and infrastructure impovements may inadvertently may provide a similar unintended consequence to Europe.
a. Geographic Domain: Middle East
b. Geographic Site: Mid East-West Asia
c. Geographic Impact: Potentially all Eurasia
a. Directly Related to Product: Yes Transport
b. Indirectly Related to Product:Yes Construction
c. Not Related to Product: No
d. Related to Process: Yes Habitat Loss
|Country||Population (Millions)||GDP 1998 (Billions $USD)||Exports/%GDP (Millions $USD)||AVG. Growth 1991-1998 (%)||LeadingRanking of Sectors|
|Armenia||3.8||1.9||357 / 14.7||7.2||Services Agriculture Mining|
|Azerbaijan||7.9||3.9||678 / 40||22.1||Industry(Oil) Services Agriculture|
|Georgia||5.4||5.1||473 / 7.8||2.9||Services Agriculture Industry|
|Kazakhstan||15.7||21.2||5,839 / 29.2||5.6||Services Industry(Oil) Agriculture|
|Kyrghyzstan||4.7||1.6||535 / 10||1.8||Agriculture Services Industry|
|Tajikistan||6.1||1.3||637 / 4.9||-11.9||Industry Agriculture|
|Turkmenistan||4.3||7||689 / 9.8||5.2||Industry (Gas) Services Agriculture|
|Uzbekistan||24||14.2||2,944 / 22.2||-17||Services Agriculture Industry|
|Total||71.5||56.2||12,152||1.98||Services Industry Agriculture|
To date, 25 projects have been undertaken to study various facets of exisiting transport infrastructure, funded by the EU, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Asian Development Bank.
|PROJECTS||CONTRACTORS||STARTING DATE||DURATION||COST (EURO)|
|"Dolphin" Project -- Feasibility of Caravanseri||West-East GmbH||August 1995||27||475,000|
|Management Training||Nethconsult||December 1995||8||2,500,000|
|Transport Legal and Regulatory Framework||Scott Wilson||December 1995||24||1,500,000|
|Maritime Training at Port of Baku, Azerbaijan||HPTI||December 1995||24||1,350,000|
|Regional Traffic Forecasting Model||WS Atkins||January 1996||21||700,000|
|Road Transport Services in the South Caucasus||DHV Consultants||January 1996||18||250,000|
|Road Transport Services in Central Asia||GIBB||March 1996||19||700,000|
|Intermodal Transport||BCEOM||January 1996||11||500,000|
|Cost Estimates of Railway Infrastructure and Maintenence in the South Caucasus||TEWET||January 1996||14||1,200,000|
|Implementation of Pavement Management||Koks Consult GmbH||March 1996||21||2,000,000|
|Ferry Terminals in Baku, Azerbaijan and Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan||Siemens||March 1996||23||1,550,000|
|Rolling Stock Maintenence||SYSTRA||March 1996||12||700,000|
|TRACECA Trade Facilitation||Scott Wilson||December 1995||8||2,500,000|
|Transport Legal and Regulatory Framework||Scott Wilson||March 1996||24||980,000|
|Railway Infrastructure Maintenence in Central Asia||DE-Consult||March 1996||11||1,200,000|
|Joint Venture for Trans-Caucasian Railway||TEWET||July 1996||12||2,000,000|
|Railway Tarriffs and Timetables||SISIE||July 1996||18||1,500,000|
|TRACECA Coordination Team||TRACTEBEL||September 1996||40||2,550,000|
|Central Asia Restructuring/Telecom Studies||CIE Consulting||August 1997||11||2,000,000|
|Cost Estimates of Railway Infrastructure and Maintenence in the South Caucasus||TEWET||January 1996||14||1,200,000|
|Road Maintenence||FINNROAD||August 1997||27||2,500,000|
|Feasibility of New Port Facilities in Poti and Batumi, Georgia||HPTI||August 1997||12||1,500,000|
|Restructuring Azeri and Georgian Railways||GIBB||July 1998||6||1,000,000|
|Intermodal Services Implementation and Training||POLZUG||August 1998||6||1,000,000|
|International Road Transport and Transit Facilitation||Scott Wilson||August 1999||18||2,800,000|
|Traffic Forecasting||BCEOM||August 1999||18||2,000,000|
|Intergovernmental Commission for Implementation of Multilateral Agreement on Transport||AXIS||December 1999||14||,100,000|
|PROJECTS||CONTRACTORS||STARTING DATE||DURATION||COST (EURO)|
|Rehabilitation of Railways in the Caucasus||Several||October 1995||9||5,000,000|
|Construction of TRACECA Bridge||Khidmshini JSC, Azermost||March 1997||18||2,500,000|
|Bukhara Cotton Export Center||Several||February 1998||12||2,000,000|
|Transcaspian Container Services||Several||February 1998||19||2,500,000|
|Construction of Black Sea Ferry Facilities in Poti, Georgia||Athena Hellenic Engineering||February 1998||12||3,400,000|
|Upgrading Rail Ferry in Ilyichevsk, Ukraine||COSMAR/BCEOM||August 1998||16||6,400,000|
|Installation of Computer systems at Poti and Ilyichevsk Ports||Computer Solutions||January 1998||17||1,500,000|
|New Container Cranes for Baku,Azerbaijan; Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan; Poti, Georgia; and Ilyichevsk, Ukraine||Several||February 1998||18||5,825,000|
|Rail Tank Cleaning Facilities in Baku, Azerbaijan||Noviter Oy||June 1999||9||475,000|
|Terminal Equipment||Boss ProTec, Hold Trade, Plan Marine||August 1999||9||2,500,000|
|Fiber Optic Signalling Systems for Railways in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan||Siemens||February 2000||24||15,000,000|
Environmental Devastation Along the Silk Road?
In addition to the burdens of building a state from the ground up, these countries must also contend with the environmental aftershocks of the Soviet Union's most flawed projects, such the diverting of the Aral Sea, and the haphazard disposal of countless tons of chemical and nuclear waste.
2. Ralph Pumpelly. Journeys in Asia. Washington:Carnegie Institution, Publication No. 26, 1905.
3. Sherman E. Lee. History of Far Eastern Art. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1982. pp. 76-135.
See also Stanford University's Silk Road Foundation for essays on the cultural and political history of the region. The site features an historical chronology of events on the Silk Road which boldly illustrates the historical link between security and trade.
4. Peter Hopkirk. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. London: Kodansha International, 1994. See also, Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac Tournament of Shadows: The Race for Empire in Central Asia. New York: Counterpoint, 1999.
5. Shireen Hunter.Transcaucasus in Transition.Washington: CSIS, 1994. See also, Shireen Hunter.Central Asia Since Independence. Washington:CSIS, 1996.
6. Stuart Parrott. "Central Asia: Communications Links Promise Creation of a New Silk Road." Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Daily Magazine. January 28, 1998. RFE/RL provides daily, in-depth coverage of events in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as Russia, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
7. Breffini O'Rourke. "World: Central Asian Leaders Discuss Future of Region." RFE/RL Daily Magazine. January 28, 2000.
8. Holger Platz. "New Trade Patterns: New Transport Demands in the Black Sea Region." From a seminar of the conference "Transport and Logistics Trends in Europe and Asia." European Conference of Ministers of Transport. Held in Anatalya, Turkey, October 21-22, 1998.
9. See David Ignatius. "The Great Game Gets Rough." Washington Post. January 26, 2000; William Safire, :The Great Game's Victims." New York Times. December 9, 1999; Amy Myers Jaffe and Robert A. Manning, "The Myth of the Caspian 'Great Game' and the Real Politics of Energy." Survival40:4 Winter 1998-9;Paul Starobin. "The New Great Game." The National Interest March 13, 1999; Anatol Lieven. "The (Not So) Great Game." The National Interest Winter 1999/2000.
10.Liz Fuller. "Russian Alternative to TRACECA Project Proposed." RFE/RL March 8, 2000.
11. See Hunter; also Martha Brill Olcott. "Nation Building in Central Asia." in Roman Szporluk (ed.)National Identity and Ethnicity in Russia and the New States of Eurasia. New York:Sharpe 1994; Dilip Hiro. Between Marx and Muhammad: The Changing Face of Central Asia.London: HarperCollins 1995; Touraj Atabaki and John O'Kane (ed.)Post-Soviet Central AsiaLondon:I.B. Tauris 1998.
12.Hugh Pope. "Central Asia's Future Looks Difficult Amid Low Oil Prices and Rising Autocracy." Wall Street JournalMarch 18, 1998; Paul Goble. "A Decade of Disappointments." RFE/RL December 6, 1999.
13. In addition to the Platz study, see Boris Rumor. "In Search of Stability;" John Schoeberlin. "Between Two Worlds: Obstacles to Development and Prosperity;" and Ariel Cohen, "Paving the Silk Road: US Interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus." All three articles appeared in Harvard International Review 22:1, Winter-Spring 2000.
15.Jeremy Branson. Azerbaijan: Silk Road Conference Ends with Tarriff Agreement."RFE/RL September 8, 1998. Jeremy Branson. "Central Asia/Caucasus: Silk Road Conference Agrees on Eurasian Corridor." RFE/RLSeptember 9, 1998.
16.Ben Partridge. "Uzbekistan: Bureaucracy Deters Foreign Investors." RFE/RL November 6 1998.
18.See the US State Department's International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 1999.
22.Taken from the TRACECA Website. See footnote 14 for a link.
23.Taken from the TRACECA Website. See footnote 14 for a link.
24.See Paul Goble. "From Myths to Maps: American Interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus;" and Uzbekistan, Human Rights, and American National Interests." Caspian Crossroads. Summer 1999. See also Paul Henze, Boundaries and Ethnic Groups in Central Asia: Cause of Conflict or Change?" Caspian Crossroads. Summer 1997.