From its ancient Silk Road role to China’s BRI project, Uzbekistan is set to remain an important geoeconomic hub in Central Asia
by Pepe Escobar, posted with the author’s permission and widely cross-posted
SAMARKAND – The ultimate Silk Road city, set at an unrivaled Eurasian trade crossroads, is the ideal spot from which to examine where the New Silk Roads adventure is heading next. For starters, the upcoming summit of heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will take place in Samarkand in mid-September.
The ancient city dazzled Alexander the Great in 329 BC and made the Tang dynasty crazy for its golden peaches. This was a cosmopolitan hub that embraced Zoroastrian fire-worship and even flirted with Nestorian Christianity, until Arab conquerors under the banner of the Prophet arrived in 712 and changed everything forever.
In the 13th century, the Mongols irrupted on the scene with the proverbial bang. But then Timur, the Turco-Mongol conqueror who founded the Timurid Dynasty in the late 14th century, set to embellish Samarkand into a resplendent diamond, drawing artists from across his vast empire – Persia, Syria, India – to make it “less a home than a marvelous trophy.”
And yet, ever the quintessential nomad, Timur lived in swank tents and gardens on the outskirts of his urban jewel.
The Silk Road trade frenzy died down in the 16th century after the Europeans finally “discovered” their own Maritime Silk Road.
Russia conquered Samarkand in 1868. It was, briefly, the capital of the Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan before the transfer to Tashkent and then, up to 1991, mired into invisibility. Now the city is all set to revive its ancient glory, as a key hub of the Eurasian Century.
What would Timur make of all this?
“Conqueror of the World”
Timur was born in a little village outside of Samarkand, into a clan of Turkicized Mongols, only a century after the death of Genghis Khan. Hit by arrows in his right shoulder and hip when he was only 27, he got slapped with the pejorative Persian nickname Timur-i-Leme (“Timur the Lame”), later Latinized into Tamerlane.
Just like with Genghis, you wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Timur. He single-mindedly set out to become “Conqueror of the World,” and delivered in droves.
Timur defeated the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid in Ankara (don’t mention that to Turks); destroyed the Golden Horde in the Kazakh steppes; bombed Christian armies in Smyrna (today’s Izmir) with cannonballs made of severed heads.
In Baghdad in 1401 – they still remember it, vividly, as I heard it in 2003 – his soldiers killed 90,000 residents and cemented their heads in 120 towers; he ruled over all trade routes from Delhi to Damascus; he evoked poetry by Edgar Allan Poe, drama by Christopher Marlowe, opera by Vivaldi.
The zombified, woke, collective west would deride Timur as the proverbial autocrat, or a “dictator” like Vladimir Putin. Nonsense. He was Islamicized and Turkicized – but never religiously fanatic like today’s Salafi-jihadis. He was illiterate, but spoke Persian and Turkic fluently. He always showed enormous respect for scholars. This is a nomad always on the move who supervised the creation of some of the most dazzling urban architecture in the history of the world.
Every night at 9 pm, in front of the psychedelic lighting enveloping the architectural treasure of the Registan (“sandy place”), originally a bazaar in a trade crossroads, amidst the blurred conversations of countless Samarkand families, Timur’s words still resonate: “Let he who doubts our power look upon our buildings.”
Timur died in 1405 in Otrar – today in southern Kazakhstan – when he was planning the Mother of All Campaigns: the invasion of Ming China. This is one of the greatest “what ifs” in history. Would Timur have been able to Islamicize Confucianist China? Would have he made his mark just like the Mongols who are still very much present in the Russian collective unconscious?
All these questions swirl in our mind when we are face to face with Timur’s tomb – a stunning slab of black jade in the Gur-i-Mir, actually a very modest shrine, surrounded by his spiritual adviser Mir Sayid Barakah and family members such as his grandson, star astronomer Ulug Beg.
From Timur to Putin and Xi
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are no Timur material, of course, much less current Uzbek President Shavkat Mirzoyoyev.
What’s striking now, as I’ve seen on the ground in bustling Tashkent and then on the road to Samarkand, is how Mirzoyoyev is skillfully profiting from both Russia and China via his multi-vector policy to configure Uzbekistan as a Central Asian – and Eurasian – powerhouse by the 2030s.
The government is heavily investing in a massive Center of Islamic Civilization in Tashkent, nearby the landmark Khast-Imam square, home to the deeply influential al-Bukhari Islamic Institute, and is also building a whole new business complex in the outskirts of Samarkand for the SCO summit.
The Americans have invested in a business center in Tashkent complete with a brand new slick Hilton attached; only a block away the Chinese are building their own version. The Chinese will also be involved in the construction of an essential New Silk Road transportation corridor: the $5 billion Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Pakafuz railway, also known as Trans-Afghan Railway.
Uzbekistan has not bought into the idea – at least not yet – of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which calls for free movement of goods, people, capital and services. The country privileges its own autonomy. Russia accepts this because bilateral relations with Tashkent remain strong, and there’s no way the latter will get closer to NATO.
So from Moscow’s perspective, getting cozier with post-Islam Karimov Uzbekistan remains a must, at the same time without coercing it to join the Eurasia integration institutions. That may come in time; there’s no rush. Russia enjoys huge approval ratings in Uzbekistan – even though not as high as in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
As many as 5 million migrants from the Central Asian “stans” are working in Russia – mostly Uzbeks and Tajiks, even as they now also seek jobs in the Persian Gulf, Turkey and South Korea.
As one of its top “secured” spheres of influence, Moscow regards Central Asian states as critical partners, part of a consolidated Eurasian vision which is in total contrast with the western borderlands and the fast disintegrating Ukraine.
All roads lead to BRI
The Chinese angle, defined by its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is way more nuanced. For all of Central Asia, BRI equals infrastructure development and integration in global trade supply chains.
Uzbekistan, like its neighbors, linked its national development strategy to BRI under President Mirziyoyev: that’s inbuilt in the official “Strategy of Actions in Five Priority Directions of Development.” Uzbekistan is also an official member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
China’s relationship with Central Asia draws of course on the Soviet era, but also carefully takes into account territorial divisions and mind-boggling border issues.
The collapse of the USSR saw, for instance, a river, an irrigation ditch, a bunch of trees or even a roadside brutalist monument suddenly converted into external borders of new sovereign nations – with unpredictable results.
In the Ancient Silk Road era this made no sense. Timur conquered everything from northern India to the Black Sea. Now, it’s hard to find somebody in Tashkent to take you across the border to Turkestan via Shymkent – both now in southern Kazakhstan – and back, with minimum border hassle. Sultan Erdogan wants to bolster Turkestan’s reputation by naming it the capital of all Turkic peoples (that’s hugely debatable, but another long story).
And we’re not even talking about the hotbed of the Ferghana valley, still prone to the fanatical jihadi influence of outfits of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) kind.
All that was festering for three decades as each of these new Central Asian nations had to articulate a distinct national ideology coupled with a vision for a progressive, secular future. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan swiftly recovered Timur as its definitive national hero and heavily invested in reviving all the glory of the Timurid past. In the process, Karimov could not miss the opportunity of expertly styling himself as the modern Timur in a business suit.
Back to the geoeconomic limelight
The SCO shows how China’s approach to Central Asia is defined by two central vectors: security and the development of Xinjiang. Stronger regional states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan deal with Beijing, as with Moscow, via their carefully calibrated multi-vector foreign policy.
Beijing’s merit has been to expertly position itself as a provider of public goods, with the SCO functioning as a top lab in terms of multilateral cooperation. This will be bolstered even more at the Samarkand summit next month.
The destiny of what is in effect Inner Eurasia – the heartland of the Heartland – is inescapable from a subtle, very complex, multilevel competition between Russia and China.
It’s crucial to remember that in his landmark 2013 speech in Nur-Sultan, then Astana, when the New Silk Roads were formally launched, Xi Jinping stressed that China stands “ready to enhance communication and coordination with Russia and all Central Asian countries to strive to build a region of harmony.”
These were not idle words. The process involves a conjunction of BRI and the SCO – which has progressively evolved into a mechanism of economic cooperation as much as security.
In the 2012 SCO summit, then Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Cheng Gouping had already been adamant: China would absolutely not allow the unrest that happened in West Asia and North Africa to happen in Central Asia.
Moscow could have said the exact same thing. The recent (failed) coup in Kazakhstan was swiftly dealt with by the six-member, Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
China is increasingly invested in using the SCO to turbo-charge a geoeconomic overdrive – even as some of its proposals, such as establishing a free trade zone and a joint SCO fund and development bank still have not materialized. That may eventually happen, as in the wake of western Russophobic sanctions hysteria the SCO – and BRI – progressively converge with the EAEU.
At every SCO summit, Beijing’s loans are gleefully accepted by Central Asian actors. Samarkand next month may herald a qualitative convergence leap: Russia and China even more involved in bringing back Inner Asia to the geoeconomic limelight.
dear Pepe Escobar, all roads lead to nuclear war. At the very least we will have the nuclear power plant attacked in Ukraine, and part of Europe dirty with radiation. But nuclear world war 3 is being written on the wall by hand.
The only reason a nuclear war will be imminent is due to US’ “rabid dog” syndrome. Russia and China are betting that the US will implode before the button is pushed.
They say it is written that the only disruptions to the American mainland, would come from within.
We ( or the gvt) could be slowly kindling these timbers.
Also known as the sixth trumpet war in the last book of Christian Scriptures(Revelation 9:13-18). It will kill a third of mankind with fire, and smoke, and brimstone. It will involve a 200 million (two thousand, thousand) man army. When Mao Zedong was alive he claimed he could field a 200 million man army. Everything prophesied in the Bible whose time has come and gone took place in exactly the same way that the scriptures said it would. We have no reason to believe that this wont, also. The geopolitical atmosphere on the earth right now has been described as a tinder-box. More like a room saturated with gas fumes, with a fully lit menorah in the center of it. We were told that a thousand years to man is like one day to God( 2nd Peter 3:8). In God’s timing we are just seconds away from the fumes igniting and the tinder-box going up.
May God bless and keep you and all of your loved ones safe.
We are watching numerous high level meetings taking place in Eurasia and Africa in real-time, so it may look to some to be a bit ho-hum, but in historical terms the pace of these negotiations that are intended to re-arrange the world, is frantic.
Western analysts have their work cut out.
Grateful for the refreshing tours of history that accompany your articles.
Framing the present in the past allows for a continuity of vision of the personalities, current and historical, who are shaping and shaped the destiny of the Eurasian Heartland.
Wonder if you could give us a tour in a future article, of the role railways are having and will have in the development of BRI/CSO/EAEU, as you did with “Pipelineistan” in Eurasia.
Recently Russia sent the first cargo transport to India, “Marking the official launch of the eastern section of the North-South railway corridor, the first rail transit cargo from Russia to India entered Iran on Tuesday through the Sarakhs border crossing…”
Carrying 39 containers, the Russian transit train left Chekhov station on July 6, traveling 3,800 kilometers through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to enter Iran. The cargo will be transported to Bandar Abbas port in southern Iran through a 1600 km rail route to finally be sent to India’s Nhava Sheva Port via sea, reported Tehran Times.
The eastern section of the INSTC starts at St. Pete and goes through Moscow, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, to India. The western section goes through Azerbaijan, but given the geopolitical current predicament with the Azeris, who knows what would be the current condition of that corridor.
According to https://www.railfreight.com/, the INSTC is a “salvation” for Russia, reducing transportation costs and speeding the pace of commerce between all countries involved, mainly between Russia and India, and all countries in between.
Russia sees the INSTC as an asset in the geoeconomic competition with China, now investing heavily in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which you mentioned in your article.
According to 2016 Wikipedia data,
Upgrading of the railway line will permit train travel at speeds of 160 kilometres per hour, versus the average 60 to 105 km per hour speed currently possible on existing track, and is expected to increase Pakistan Railways’ annual revenues by approximately $480 million. The upgrades are also expected to cut transit times from Karachi to Peshawar by half. Pakistani railways currently account for 4% of freight traffic in the country, and upon completion of CPEC, Pakistani railways are expected to transport 20% of the country’s freight traffic by 2025.
The interconnectivity East/West with all the North/South lines, will turn the Eurasian Heartland into a massive transportation network.
INSTC + Pakafuz + CPEC = Railwaysistan? :-)
I am sure you will find a better name than that, you’re very good at coining new terms.
So how come Pakistan bent over to the jaundiced wishes of the CIA?, Pakistan is just behind Ukraine in levels of corruption, although both are boy scouts in comparison to The Evil Empire.
If China is unable to influence Pakistani MI5.5/Endowment for DIMocracy then investing tens of billions in its infrastructure seems foolhardy.
Everyone’s got a plan until they receive a kick between the legs.
Thanks Pepe, you are lucky to be in Samarkhand. Eat a Plov rice in honor of your Saker compañeros! And take care if you’re there for a whole month, all Uzbeks I know have huge bellies from their sumptuous diets! Follow the trail to Bukhaara, as you know the former home of Imam Bukhaari, the quintessential great Persian scholar whose works remain authoritative to this day. And consider Ferghana Valley to gauge salafi undercurrents, if safe (wear the traditional African/Thai elongation neck rings as insurance, lol).. this valley may determine the future of entire Central Asia.. The government is heavily investing in a massive Center of Islamic Civilization in Tashkent, nearby the landmark Khast-Imam square, – this is a good sign the Uzbeks recognize the need to shift cultural focus away from the old MI6 Ferghana hotbed.
The Silk Road trade frenzy died down in the 16th century after the Europeans finally “discovered” their own Maritime Silk Road.
I story I hope to learn is the modus-vivendi between the Sea Peoples and the Seljuks/Ottomans to sever the old land Silk Road.. I don’t buy the lore that Ottomans cut the road links or overtaxed.. Turks are a practical people.. was it a conditionality of allowing the takeover of Constantinople, of not coming to the Greeks’ aid? Regardless, the end result was a dramatic shift in power from southern to northern Europe. And a more defendable Pirate Stronghold lair, especially that Sunless Isle which sucks our blood. Ottomans and Anglo-Saxons remain a curious duo to this day, with the recent MI6 head being British ambassador to Turkey.
I’ve been catching up on the amazing Turkish developments, which inform the threats and gnashing of dentures in the West.. (and also following with pleasure Pepe’s increasingly merry travels in Asia Minor and old haunts of Timur, like Lavrov rocking Africa)
We expected Poland and Azerbaijan to be the key swing states.. but this turning of Turkey is far more explosive and a bigger move. It will deep-six what is left of NATO. Pity about Greece, they doubled down on the losing horse. Has the wily Sultan been playing the EU all these years, since the 2016 coup attempt? The original intentionality behind the Greater Turan, the Turkic Council and other MI6 projects – POOF! 🤣😂🤣
It is the age of Paybacks, and “the world’s most confusing nation” may have come off the fence altogether. Haters being haters, we should carefully monitor the continued viability and the vital signs of our Intrepid Sultan. Long may the Sultan live! Send in the Chechens! Cocoon him in their loving protective embrace. They must preserve his vitality at all costs. The sweet irony, that on Erdogan may hinge the Fate of future civilization itself.
PS – Hungary is another to watch, as it flees the cuckoo’s nest, especially the merry travels of its intrepid Foreign Minister. He was in Moscow yesterday, Teheran today, where tomorrow? Assuredly arrangements are being made to connect Transcarpathia with Novorussiya, and other contingencies made too – such as anticipating the Ukrainian tricks and in the short term switching all gas imports via Turkey. That would require putting Bulgarian elites in the re-education camps.. The sweet Revenge of the Olde Empires, the Ottomans and
Austro-Hungary, gains steam on a sinking Perfide Albion.
AHH, an amazing well written comment. In my opinion you are well informed on Asia as well being a learned
literarian. Looking at world from my western eurasia country The Netherlands its amazing to see how the far-east from my point of view develops. You information as well as from Escobar keeps me uptodate.
Pity about Greece, living hand to mouth, bought & sold monthly on the western money market merry-go-round.
I am hoping Russia and China will be keeping a watchful eye on the growing cooperation between Turkey, a NATO country, and Kazakhstan. Their governments are six-faced.
Thank you Pepi. :)
I really like Pepe’s optimism and colourful world of the past. He harks back to a romantic past and likes to see Nesotorian Christianity and little enclaves of Zoroastrian fire-worship. In the remote disconnected places this is still to be found. The world of tolerance and diversity. The difference between 1400 and now is that we still have plenty of would be Tamerlanes, but we don’t have all the pipe-lines and motorways. Tamerlane in 1401 could not drive his tanks along asphalted roads, so he got tired and died. Now it is going to be easy. This time the Nestorian Christians or for that matter the Zoroastian fire worshippers won’t find a quiet place to hide and someone will make cannon balls out of their heads. The will to do it was never lacking, it was only access issues which are now being solved as described.
Current members of SCO are China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan
Hang arounds (observers) are Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia, they might be elevated to permanent members in September.
Newbies (dialouge) are Türkiye ( a.k.a. Turkey) Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka
Also applying for membership is Egypt, Qatar as well as Saudi Arabia and some more South-East Asian countries are interested.
No Islamic country has joined the Anti-Russia sanctions.
@ Lars on August 12, 2022 · at 6:05 am EST/EDT
Sorry, Lars, you missed the elephant in the room
Iran will become a full member of the SCO, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in September this year, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry announced. Iran is showing once again to the Collective West it is a regional powerhouse, a force to reckon with.
The old Silk Road is taking new shape with multiple forms of communication and transportation, the port of Bandar Abbas is destined to become a hub for international commerce in the Indian Ocean. Iran is part and parcel in the creation of a new world economy based on fair trade, in which the dollar will not rule anymore
And that is a BIG ONE.
On the other hand, harking back to the former Silk Road, there is still more to be discovered about it. When I was in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in early April 1986, archaeologists told me about a buried city built by Timur-i-Leme [Tamerlane] which they did not yet have the resources to excavate. I suspect that they have still not managed to do it.
With the recent color revolution which put pro-western puppets back in power, I believe Sri Lanka now is a lost cause.
They’re in deep crisis and the indian imperialism is making use of the situation
@ Biggus Dickus on August 12, 2022 · at 3:52 pm EST/EDT
I had no idea that was the case. Thanks.
Last time I checked on Sri Lanka news was when president?/PM? requested help directly from Putin. A few days later the government palace was invaded by a mob, then lost track about what happened next.
So, another color revolution. They come and go, they last long enough for people to realize they are being used by the PTB.
Is there some way North Americans can invest in BRI without giving yet more power to the Nazis? Or you could tell me but then they have to kill me for daring to want to de-dollar.
Not a very internationally savvy person obviously, crypto makes me nervous. Did read the Creature from Jekyll Island. Twice. Travel from Canada now seems impossible, seems we are heading towards a communist ‘utopia’ here where the right of return is denied. Wow, shouldn’t complain, the Palestinians have suffered that and far worse for decades.
I guess our reward for being so sheepish is to now lose all our freedom. What goes around, comes around. The list of countries we must now hate is getting quite extensive. Our PM, yeah Castro’s kid, has declared Holland a fascist state because their farmers want to farm. How dare they feed or have kids!
In the chess Olympics recently held in Chennai, India, the gold medal victors in the men’s competition were the young team from Uzbekistan.
Looking through the contestants I notice Russia aren’t mentioned as participants which would make this a non-event.
I could be wrong!
What does the M16 Head ,Mr Moore -who knows fluent Turkish and was a Brit Ambassador to Turkey – think of all the recent Turkish overtures to Russia / SCO/BRICS?
Will Britain sack him as Macron did his own secret service chief-because of Mariupol- or is he fooling Russia via Erdogan?
Last throw of the loaded dice for The House of Windsor.
i had to look up “Nestorian Christianity” which was widespread in China in the 700s, and has a wide ranging history. i knew nothing of it. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Nestorian_Christianity#:~:text=Nestorianism%20is%20the%20Christian%20doctrine,451)%2C%20patriarch%20of%20Constantinople.
Here’s my question: is cargo transporting becoming more cost effective by modern railroads than by cargo vessels.
The Silk Road is an excellent metaphor: watching empires march past, come and go on the eternal route of history.
That is all good, building roads, ports and train tracks. W
How are all those nations going to pay it back? Rock and dirt, or food and livestock? After all, China does not anything technological help from these regions, it just needs alternate customers when it switches from the US to near abroad.
It is the same greed that ruined the West that will be the ruin of tge East also. What happened to all that Eastern thought about living within means, living at peace with nature, bla bli blu?
On the surface it looks like indepedence from dollar’s dictatorship, but the absence of American autocracy doesn’t mean presence of peace and light. Infection of boundless consumerism has spread too deep into our psyche.
There is no cure once structure of a nuclear family is lost. Maybe China can look for leadership in moral values rather than finding ways to sell goods. They will find a lot more sympathy for those causes, guaranteed.
Excellent comment as are the many others in this thread.
The Pepe Escobar experience is quite the education for me and I certainly value the articles posted here for my purview.
The information herein is of a calibre that nourishes my need for context in a world of chaotic and continual upheaval.
I certainly am grateful for it.