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Unlocking Central Asia’s Strategic Position

Reprint of Article First Published in Open Central Asia Magazine

Until fairly recently few people in the Western world had heard of Central Asia. Few tourists visited or were allowed to visit the closed republics of the former Soviet Union. Even today the region is little frequented by both businessmen and tourists alike. And yet only a few hundred years ago this region was one of the most frequented parts of the world. Travellers, merchants, pilgrims and armies crossed its vast expanse in the glory days of the old Silk Road. The cities of Merv, Bukhara, Samarkand and Kashgar were synonymous with wealth, mysticism and the exotic. Chinese and Central Asian goods were enjoyed in Europe, and vice versa.

The fall of the Soviet Union provided a perfect opportunity for these little known republics to stamp their authority on world trade. However progress has been slow. The Socioeconomic and political legacy of the Soviet Union has undoubtedly served to strengthen Central Asia’s dependency on Russia. The newly independent states inherited precious few institutions and little experience of policy making as well as a shortage of personnel with high administrative, industrial and technical skills. For all of these they have therefore remained dependent on Moscow. With a scarcity of institutions such as banks, tax collectors, a legal system and educational facilities the implementation of macro-economic objectives to unlock Central Asia’s strategic position once more has been a daunting and difficult task.

The revival of the New Great Game has certainly been one factor that has seen the region’s rise to prominence as the world’s superpowers all vie for energy security. The potentially enormous oil reserves in the Kashagan Oil field in the Kazakhstan denominated portion of the Caspian Sea have roused international attention. The large natural gas reserves in Turkmenistan have also ensured interest. Trade in cotton, Uzbekistan’s “white gold” has expanded significantly as have other manufacturing and mining projects. Even projects to harness the indomitable force of hydroelectric power in the Kyrgyz and Tajik mountains have come on board. Industry is growing as are handicraft skills producing traditional (and highly sought after) silks, tapestries and ornamental items. Any number of NGO micro-finance projects have shown just how innovative and successful Central Asian business men and women can be.

These are all the right ingredients for success. The people of Central Asia depend on trade and transport now, as much as they ever have, to provide their economic lifeblood and access to global markets. But Central Asian countries are landlocked, and in Uzbekistan’s case, doubly landlocked, making the nearest sea port a great distance away. Coupled with barriers of policy and poor infrastructure this often leaves many facing long and expensive trips to export goods to the rest of the world. But this is by no means an excuse or a hindrance for regional co-operation to ensure that each country can begin to trade freely and easily. It would not take much, necessarily, for the founding of a new Silk Road that would not only connect Central Asia to the world but ensure a safe and stable passage for goods from China to Europe and back again. Central Asian leaders have already announced their intention for such co-operation and number of bilateral trade agreements have been signed. However so many of these have now been signed that there is something of a “spaghetti bowl” effect leaving any number of confusing and conflicting agreements which tend to hamper rather than help trade. Several border closures over political disputes have also hindered progress.

Despite these problems, progress is being made as international companies look to expand into Central Asia. New roads are being built throughout the region by an army of Chinese labourers. Financial reforms are potentially opening the region to further trade and investment. Small and medium enterprises are being encouraged, leaving the old, inefficient mass production factories consigned to history. Environmental concerns are also coming to the fore and being addressed, albeit slowly.

There is little doubt that international trade and investment can make a significant contribution to human development and security in Central Asia by raising productivity, boosting economic growth, reducing conflict and improving infrastructure. As focus in the region intensifies, liberalisation of trade and accession to the WTO is becoming a reality (Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are already members). Co-operation across its borders, perhaps even to create the Europe of Asia will help to consolidate Central Asia’s position and allow it to capitalise on the opening of new trade routes, new pipelines and foreign investment opportunities. According to the WTO and UNESCO, the Great Silk Road will become one of the most attractive destinations for tourists by 2020. It will receive one third of all travellers from all over the world. {Editor - Alas the pandemic has sharply halted this rise}

We have the Old Silk Road to thank for the development of human civilisation and much of it passed through Central Asia. This has left its mark on the people of Central Asia and is never far from their minds. Today there is a great chance for this ancient route to regain its importance. And so, like a phoenix reborn from the ashes, the Silk Road begins its revival once again.

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