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.