Great Games on the Old Silk Road

Our April meeting saw a packed audience from both the Civic Society and Royal Geographical Society listen spellbound to Peter Reddish's talk on The Old Silk Road. Many of us thought we were in for a night of historic derring-do, following the adventures of the Silk Road travellers of the past. We certainly had adventures and intrigue; but rather Peter fascinated us with modern day tales of life in those countries which for so long had been part of the Russian Empire - Kasakhstan, Kyrgistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Peter spent almost 10 years as an EU representative (dealing with food and farming) based in Taskent (Uzbekistan). The historical context is of course that these countries lay astride the ancient trade routes from China and India to Europe and North Africa that were jointly called "The Old Silk Road". Along them flowed all manner of goods. We all think of silks, but lacquer-ware, porcelain, nuts, bottles and dates could also be found in the camel trains that criss-crossed this large area - and large it is; Kasakhstan, for example, is the size of Europe. It was also crossed by conquerors and explorers, from Alexander the Great and Gehghis Khan to Marco Polo. With Russia to the north and the British in India to the south, it formed the backdrop to "The Great Game", the intrigues and plots of these two Great Powers to obtain control of this vital trade corridor. British diplomats didn't fare too well in the early nineteenth century. Two envoys from India were incarcerated by the Sultan in Bukhara, both meeting grisly deaths.

Coming up to date, Peter served in Tashkent for ten years from 1995. His photos show an unexciting, post Soviet Bloc, city endowed with mediocre apartment blocks. Yet Uzbekistan's natural resources are considerable. The country holds 40% of the world's known gas reserves and 100 billion barrels of crude oil. Little wonder, then, that Russian overtures to it are so strong. All of these states are governed by Presidents through single party "democracies". In Tajikstan, President Rahmon has ruled since 1992. He requires the state media to address him as "Founder of Peace and National Unity-Leader of the Nation". In Turkmenistan, the late President, Saparmurat Niyazov adopted the title of Turkmenbashi, or "Father of All The Turkmen". He renamed months of the year after family members and had a huge gold statute of himself erected in Ashgabat, the capital, which rotated so that it would always be facing the sun. He died in 2006 to be replaced by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has named himself Arkadag, or Protector. In nearby Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev has been granted the lifelong title of Elbasy or "Leader of the Nation". He has urged scientists to invent an "elixir of life" which would enable him to extend his rule, which has endured since 1991.

We may find such nomenclatures amusing, but they reflect total state control of their populations by select elites. In fact,there is a complex "mafia like" series of relationships between these countries' leaders and their close supporters, reflected by state corruption, poverty, poor human rights records and high malnutrition levels. In effect, all are in thrall to Moscow to greater or lesser degrees, which is carefully cultivating its relationship with them. Uzbekistan has briefly flirted with the USA. It still has an airbase there which, with Taskent Airport, was used covertly by the CIA for rendition flights of Taliban suspects from neighbouring Afghanistan to Cuba, whilst turning a blind eye to the country's human rights excesses. Moscow's links to Uzbeckistan have now been strengthened by its agreement through the state-owned gas company, Gazprom, to buy four billion cubic metres of Uzbeck gas per annum. China, to the east, also casts a longing eye at these countries' oil reserves.

The plentiful supply of mineral resources comes at a cost. We saw shocking pictures of the dying remnants of the Aral Sea, contaminated by effluent from the use of Agent Orange to defoliate the land, its water supply much reduced by the uncontrolled extraction of water along its length to feed the massive cotton growing industry, which is worth one billion dollars per year to the Uzbecks. However, Peter concluded on a more positive note, with a photographic journey from Taskent to Samarkand and Bukhara, where we visited those sites so familiar to us from tourist guides. Peter's talk opened up part of our world which perhaps is not so familiar to us; yet it is a pivotal area between east and west, north and south. The Great Game continues.

Roger Hockney
April 2017