Divided Visions in Central Asia?
Aug 22, 2022
With the world adapting to the realities forced upon it by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many countries are in search of alternative economic arrangements and trade routes circumventing Russia. Central Asian states can potentially meet some of this new demand, and the region’s governments have attempted to bolster integration in pursuit of attracting new business that would have previously gone to Russia. For example, on July 21, the resort town of Cholpon-Ata in Kyrgyzstan hosted the fourth Consultative Meeting of the Central Asian Heads of State. The purpose of this gathering, according to a senior research fellow at the Department of International and Geoeconomic Research of the Kazakh Institute for Strategic Studies Bekzhan Sadykov, was to establish coordinated responses to the effects of escalating international conflict and the current "continental shift" in geopolitics. The meeting was particularly important since it occurred against the backdrop of recent regional setbacks, including the unrest in Uzbekistan’s autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, Bloody January in Kazakhstan, conflict in Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan region, and geopolitical upheaval related to the Russia-Ukraine war and the ever-changing political situation in Afghanistan.
The greatest achievement of the meeting was “The Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness, and Cooperation for Development of Central Asia in the 21 Century” signed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Despite not signing the document at the summit, the joint statement from all five heads of state declared, “Tajikistan and Turkmenistan will accede this document after completion of internal procedures at national level.” Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said the treaty is unique in its content and historical perspective, because it enshrines the special nature of the relations among the five Central Asian States and that the historic document marks a new milestone in the five-sided strategic partnership. The Friendship Treaty was the idea of the former president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who presented the concept during the second consultative conference of Central Asian leaders in Tashkent in November 2019.
While shared policy challenges like water, food, climate change, connectivity, and energy security were discussed, notably, the summit also touched on issues of territorial integrity and the inviolability of state borders. Central Asian states’ position against external incursions is especially significant in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war. Some scholars say, “It’s a very important time for Central Asia right now, given what's going on in the environment. … the leaders of the region understand that they are better able to preserve their sovereignty and their independence when they work together.” President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan emphasized that the five countries must cooperate in combating “threats of terrorism, extremism, drugs and arms trafficking, cybercrime, and other forms of cross-border organized crime.” Meanwhile, Turkmenistan’s President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, maintained that “In the context of the extreme aggravation of the world situation, we need to preserve unity and solidarity.” Along similar lines, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov said, “I hope this treaty will serve as the reliable basis for common prosperity in Central Asia.”
Transportation was hailed as one of the key areas of cooperation among the regional powers. President Tokayev reiterated the importance of transport routes and spoke of Kazakhstan’s efforts in developing the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, also called the “Middle Corridor.”
The significance of developing critical regional transportation infrastructure is especially important because many states in the area are looking for ways to mitigate economic challenges stemming from the Russia-Ukraine conflict and replace Russian transport routes to Europe. Kyrgyzstan's president mentioned that since Central Asian countries have access to the Caspian Sea, and thus onward through the South Caucasus to Europe, they must work to strengthen the region's infrastructure for transportation, transit, and logistics and link to global transportation hubs and corridors. Turkmenistan's and Tajikistan’s presidents also spoke of improving regional connectivity, while Uzbekistan’s president emphasized the importance of alternative transport corridors to enter the markets of India, Pakistan, and China. Given the relative size and economic disparity between any single Central Asian country and any potential foreign market like China, India, or the European Union, presenting a united front and working together toward common goals might be the only viable solution to ensure that Central Asia does not become collateral damage to geopolitical events. Given the geographic proximity, the interdependence of Central Asia on Moscow, and significant trade and transport ties with Russia, it is likely that Russia’s continued economic isolation from the West will have harmful secondary effects on the Central Asian states.
Despite encouraging rhetoric- and a clear shared interest in multilateral cooperation-, when Tajikistan and Turkmenistan declined to sign the new treaty, citing incomplete domestic procedures, hopes for deeper collaboration among all five Central Asian states in the near future were stymied. Turkmenistan has a precedent of distancing itself from regional organizations and networks. Tajikistan’s refusal to sign, on the other hand, was largely attributed to the prolonged border dispute between the country and Kyrgyzstan. Regardless of the motivations behind forgoing the treaty signing, the media quickly advanced the narrative that the Central Asian leaders have divergent visions of regional development and cooperation. Nevertheless, some experts are optimistic, since “Political leaders are interested at least in thinking together about what the region’s future might look like. It was not like that several years ago.”
In current geopolitical circumstances, it is disadvantageous for Central Asia to project a divided image to the world. Collaborative efforts to solve differences and establish better communication channels to avoid last-minute surprises during high-profile events would demonstrate the region can be a reliable and predictable partner for other countries and companies.
Although the leaders displayed their differences during the summit, multiple agreements were still signed, including a roadmap for the development of regional cooperation for 2022-2024, a concept paper for interaction among Central Asian states within multilateral formats, and a Regional Green Agenda Program for Central Asia. These agreements provide hope that there is a possibility of resolving regional matters and promoting a cohesive Central Asian image in the world. By doing so, the region will subsequently increase its prospects of being included in Western partners’ investment and infrastructure plans amid the turmoil created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.