A SUMMIT FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS
Author: Assel Nussupova
Sep 15, 2023
On September 19, history will be made. US President Joseph R. Biden will host the leaders of five Central Asian countries in New York City. Known as a C5+1 meeting, an abbreviation for the five Central Asian countries plus the United States, this significant gathering will occur during the United Nations General Assembly.
While US C5+1 meetings have occurred before, there has never been one at which the US President met directly with all five heads of state from the Central Asian countries. This time, however, the C5+1 summit will bring together the leaders of five Central Asian countries and the US President. It will be an opportunity for discussion, negotiation, and partnership at the highest level, an unprecedented opportunity for leaders of all the nations represented to forge a mutually beneficial path forward.
What countries will represent Central Asia at the summit? The group is made up of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic. These countries have in common that they all suddenly emerged on the world map, along with 10 other countries, when the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991. When Mikhail Gorbachev effectively put an end to one of the world’s most powerful unions, its individual components began to take on greater visibility.
Thirty-two years later, however, much of the world is still not very knowledgeable about the non-European countries that were once included in the Soviet Union. Central Asia too often remains a “dark” and “obscure” part of the globe, just as it did during the era of the Soviet Union. Countries having a “stan” ending, like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, are somehow perceived as dangerous regions by many in the West.
In reality, though, the “stan” suffix simply comes from the Persian root “istan”, or land. Its usage designates an area as the land of a particular people. For example, Kazakhstan is the “land of the Kazakhs”, Uzbekistan means “land of the Uzbeks,” and so forth. Unfortunately, however, the unfair stigma associated with this ending continues to hinder countries struggling to be positively recognized outside their region.
Despite rarely appearing in world news, the “lesser” Central Asian republics were once instrumental in propelling the Soviet Union into becoming, for a time, one of the world’s superpowers. Kazakhstan, in particular, as the only non-Slavic country with nuclear arms in its territory, had a huge influence on both Soviet politics and its economy. Approximately the size of Western Europe, Kazakhstan was the second largest territory among the Soviet republics, third in the value of its output, and fourth in the size of its population. With vast oil and gas reserves, substantial agricultural production, and a wide range of heavy industry, Kazakhstan played a vital part in the Soviet economy. Its status as an economic powerhouse in the Soviet Union was especially felt during World War II, when Kazakhstan played a key role in supplying the Soviet army with food and strategic resources such as coal, oil, and various metals.
Turkmenistan, a large and mostly desert country with a small population, is another example of a country whose natural resources were used to undergird the broader economy of the Soviet Union. Turkmenistan’s natural gas was sold to other Soviet republics at artificially low prices, and almost all of its raw materials were designated for the needs of other Soviet republics.
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic, the three other Central Asian countries that emerged from the Soviet Union, are less fortunate than Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in regard to their levels of natural resources. These three countries, however, were still highly integrated into the centralized Soviet system. Uzbekistan, as Central Asia’s most populous state, served as the Soviet Union’s major agricultural supplier and was the largest area for Soviet cotton production. Tajikistan, a landlocked and mountainous country (the poorest among its Central Asian neighbors), was devoted to supplying water and land for the Soviet cotton industry. As for the Kyrgyz Republic, the only Central Asian country whose first post-Soviet leader (Askar Akayev) genuinely believed in democracy and free markets, it also played a small, but significant role in the Soviet system.
Since 1991, these Central Asian countries have made great strides towards becoming truly independent countries with decentralized economies. And the role of the United States in the economic success of the region has been critical. Kazakhstan, for example, has received large amounts of direct investment and assistance for pursuing economic and political reforms from the United States. Overall, there has been a stable and fruitful cooperation between Kazakhstan and the USA in a variety of areas, including energy cooperation, regional connectivity, stability and security issues, economic diversification, and environmental challenges. Over thirty years later, these issues continue to hold the interest of the United States.
American engagement with the Central Asian countries has not gone unnoticed. In fact, it was highlighted during the recent Trans-Caspian Forum in Washington, DC. During the Forum, Brian Stimmler, the Acting Deputy Assistant of the Secretary of State for Central Asia, emphasized the “extraordinary change taking place” in relations between the region and the US. In particular, he noted, “This past year has seen more high-level U.S engagement and centralization than at any other time in the last 30 years since these countries gained independence.” For example, in the words of Stimmler, “This year alone, the United States has devoted over $100 million in assistance and engaged in over 40 programs in the C5+1 format.”
In addition, Secretary Blinken announced recently that there is a $45 million initiative coming to develop regional infrastructure in an effort to facilitate trade in the region and support its private sector.
Despite such positive initiatives, recent developments have indicated that the influence of the United States in the Central Asian region seems to be waning, becoming secondary to that of China and, to some extent, that of Russia. The accelerating economic engagement between China and its close neighbors in Central Asia is setting a new tone for the region. This, in turn, calls for new approaches from the United States in this area of the world.
The upcoming meeting between the Central Asian leaders and the US President will serve as a good test for the partnership between Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries and the United States. Hopefully, it will generate momentum for a more positive and constructive engagement.
During the recent Trans-Caspian Forum, some of the featured speakers emphasized the need for the United States to develop a more robust presence in the region. In particular, according to Brian Stimmler, “The U.S. vision for its relationship with Central Asia is not confined to ‘government to government’ interactions, rather, we believe that a healthy partnership with the region demands a multifaceted engagement across government, business, and civil society.” Nicholas Berliner, Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia at the National Security Council, also said, “Times of change and uncertainty also create opportunities, and we see this moment as a time to strengthen our relations with this important region.” He emphasized that the U.S. will commit to “strengthening Central Asia’s economic independence” and help to diversify its economic partnerships and connect it to global markets. Along with energy, several other sectors also look potentially beneficial for future investment, including agriculture, environment, tourism, health and education. Stimmler and Berliner’s observations are a reminder of the kinds of complex and important topics the summit participants may wish to explore together.
The last thirty years of independence have proven that Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries are more than just former “Asiatic” Soviet republics that once supplied the European parts of the Soviet Union with food, energy, and metals. They are, instead, growing, changing, independent countries that are experiencing political, economic, and social challenges. Some of these challenges are truly daunting. Each country must grapple with high rates of unemployment, the existence of corruption, and the impact of informal economic activity in radically changing geopolitical and economic environments. The transition from having been the suppliers of raw materials for the Soviet system towards being truly separate independent economies has been a much more difficult journey than was anticipated during the optimism of the early 1990s. However, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries have tremendous potential to become successful in transforming their political and economic systems. What lies before them is an opportunity to show the world just how strong and prosperous the diverse lands of the “stans” can be.
That prosperity, however, cannot be achieved in isolation. It must involve cooperation and partnership with other nations and a willingness to embrace needed change.
President Tokayev of Kazakhstan, for example, has been vocal about his government’s commitment to diversifying the Kazakh economy, adopting new technologies, and attracting foreign investment. The summit will offer a valuable chance to further this agenda of reform and growth.
When President Joseph R. Biden meets with the C5 leaders this September, a fresh page will be written in the story of the relationship between the United States and Central Asia. It will be an opportunity for a deeply fruitful engagement, a time for grappling with complex issues, a moment for strengthening vitally important relationships and finding new ways to support the growth and development of Central Asia while also benefitting the United States. In New York, Biden and the leaders of the C5 nations will find themselves in a unique moment in history, one with the potential to shape a bold and exciting future.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Caspian Policy Center.
Assel Nusspova is an editorial columnist for The Astana Times.