Horse in North and Ship in South

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At the time of the Great Silk Road (138 BC-1492), Europe and Asia were closely connected through terrestrial and maritime routes. In the heyday of this transcontinental trade (VII-IX century), the principle “horses in the North, ships in the South” existed. This principle represented the world’s balance of global trade between the land and the sea parts. Commercial caravans loaded with silk and other luxury items (porcelain, paper, spices etc.) departed from the Chinese mega-city Chang’an (today Xian China) and travelled through the expanses of Central Asia, the Middle East and Asia Minor to the ports of the Black Sea or the Mediterranean. Merchant ships, loaded with silk, porcelain and other necessities, went to sea from the port of Guangzhou (or other Chinese ports), headed through the Malacca Strait to the Indian Ocean and later to the ports of the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea. From there, goods were delivered to the eastern ports of the Mediterranean or the Black Sea by land. From these ports, Byzantine, Venetian and Genoese ships delivered Chinese, Indian or other goods to northern Italy, from where they were distributed throughout Europe.

There was also communication between Asia and Europe through the southern Russian steppes or through the deserts of northern Africa. This was truly the time of a good world trade balance, when horses (camels, to be exact) and ships almost equally divided the assortment of goods transported from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

By the second half of the 15th century, the Venetian and Genoese ships were expelled from the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean and lost their traditional precedence to the Spanish and Portuguese seafarers. In their search for an alternative route to India and China, the Venetian and Genoese ships could not choose the traditional way any more (through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea), but had to enter the world ocean. A new era of great geographical discoveries began with the sea gradually becoming a natural continuation of Europe and with communication on land declining. For several centuries, the seagoing ships monopolized the entire world trade. The horses between Europe and Asia were less and less used to guard trade caravans, but more and more for wars, civil strifes and raids. This state of affairs continued until the end of the twentieth century.

At the end of the last century, one remarkable event occurred: all five Central Asian countries gained independence and the process of nation-building and regional development began. Gradual crystallization of the “regional face” of this youngest region of the world entails enormous opportunities. It can restore the balance of continental trade on sea and on land and firmly connect two parts of extensive Eurasia (from the shores of the Pacific to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean).

The geo-economic advantage of the region (in combination with the South Caucasus) was first realized by Europeans who launched the TRACECA project. Now China is seriously joining in with its “Belt and Road Initiative”. In recent years, the new states of the region have consolidated and are determined to connect Europe and Asia again by numerous means of communication on land. The approaching era of high-speed trains which are able to transport not only passengers, but also commodity containers in the shortest time are also a significant help in this process. Soon, the “iron horses” (trucks and trains) will find their place again in the “North” and a natural tandem with the ships plying in the South of Eurasia will be restored.

I believe that SEnECA will also make a great intellectual contribution to this global trend.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Dr. Abdugani Mamadazimov from the Center of Sociological Researchers “Zerkalo”

Central Asia’s Role in Latvian Foreign Policy

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Cooperation with the Central Asian countries is one of the specializations of Latvian foreign policy, making the Baltic country one of the main advocates in the European Union (EU) for closer interaction with the region. Hence, during the Latvian Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2015, Central Asia regained momentum in the agenda of the EU external action.

History of the 20th century, namely the Soviet occupation, laid the foundation for closer interaction between Latvia and the Central Asian countries. From the perspective of Central Asian people, Latvia and the two other Baltic nations were seen not only geographically, but also culturally and economically as the Western-most part of the Soviet Union. Many Central Asians still carry good memories of the sandy beaches of the Baltic Sea, music, and commodities originating in Latvia. The interaction in the past strengthened the mutual trust and allowed for a better understanding of each other’s mindsets and mentality.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are all different and so are their relations with Latvia. Nevertheless, the bilateral interaction between all Central Asian countries and Latvia have been fairly active across different fields. Just to name some examples: since the 1990s, exchange of presidential visits with all Central Asian countries except Kyrgyzstan have taken place; Uzbek and Kazakh students constitute one of the biggest groups of foreign students in Latvia; direct flights connect Riga and Tashkent and, starting April of this year, Riga and Almaty will also be directly connected; regular cargo train traffic connects Latvia to the region; Latvia supports different projects in the region related to such fields as justice and home affairs, public administration, agriculture, democratic involvement, civic society, and education.

However, with continuing reforms in some of the Central Asian countries and increasing assertiveness and presence of great powers, the competition for attention in the region will become fiercer as the space for initiatives will become narrower. Therefore, for Latvia to retain the current level of interaction and to go beyond, more should be done. To name a few suggestions: refresh the political dialogue at the highest level by organizing an official presidential visit to the region; establish an embassy in one more capital in order to expand everyday activity beyond Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; provide more funds for the development cooperation projects and, thus, share more of Latvia’s transition experience in the spheres of mutual interest; invest more in people-to-people relations, most importantly by providing more state scholarships to Central Asian students in Latvian universities.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Māris Andžāns from the Latvian Institute of International Affairs

My First Journey to Central Asia

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Almost ten years ago, I travelled to Central Asia for the first time on the occasion of a conference which gathered participants from all five Central Asian republics and from the Xingjian region in China. Shortly before boarding my plane to Beijing, where I had to change for Ürümqi, I panicked: While being an avid traveller equipped with several world languages, I had never travelled on my own to a country, a region, where I did not speak the language and about which I could hardly find any information on the internet back then. Many hours later, I arrived at the small Ürümqi Airport and was picked up by a driver who did not speak English and a student of the local university who did. I realized how fortunate I was only later on when a colleague told me that his taxi driver had to return him to the origin of his travels since he could not make him understand that he wanted to go to the Sheraton Hotel. Both spelling and pronunciation were just too different.

The conference itself was not only interesting because of its content, but also because of its cultural setting. The food was Han Chinese and the European and Central Asian participants regularly got into a friendly fight over the few knives and forks available at the hotel. Every night, the European participants convened under an artificially lightened purple tree by a lake to drink a few beers and deal with culture shock. Most were lamenting the lack of coffee, especially in the morning, which exacerbated the jet lag.

What struck me most in my few days in Ürümqi was the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of life on the streets. While the strangeness was based on the lack of a common language, it was deepened through the complete lack of recognition of brands of food items or stores that you usually see on every main street from Seattle to Baku.

However, there was also an equally strong sense of familiarity in the friendly faces of the inhabitants of Ürümqi for whom I – as a tall European woman – was equally exotic as they were to me. Of all the friendly encounters, I most vividly remember the moment when my eyes met those of another woman trying to soothe her baby at the bazaar. Even though we did not speak a common language and did not know anything about each other’s lives, the situation was very familiar to me. I left Xingjian with a strong feeling of how small the world really is.

Fast forward to 2018 and our Horizon 2020 project SEnECA, which aims to intensify existing relations between the European Union and Central Asia and to create a sustainable network of academics, decision-makers and relevant stakeholders from both regions. On a personal level, the application process for the funding for this project was influenced by my first encounters with researchers from Central Asia and by my strong belief that these relations make our research richer and more substantial. In addition, I have experienced that while other scientific relations within Europe or with the United States are much more established through programmes like Erasmus and Fulbright, this is not yet the case for relations with Central Asia. Therefore, I am looking very much forward to deepening and strengthening these relations and to broadening my horizon during the following 24 months.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Katrin Böttger from the Institut für Europäische Politik