For a long time, the five Central Asian republics have presented a puzzle to researchers and policymakers regarding regional cooperation. They have a range of historical, linguistic, religious and political aspects in common: they were all part of the same bloc, the Soviet Union; they have Russian as a lingua franca, while most national languages are part of the Turkic linguistic family and largely mutually intelligible; Sunni Islam is the region’s predominant religion; and they exhibit similar political systems. Furthermore, Central Asian states share the fate of being situated in a largely neglected, landlocked region surrounded by more populous, powerful neighbours, namely Russia and China.
However – this is where the puzzle came in – despite these common features and challenges, interactions among the Central Asian republics have been marked by distrust, competition and outright confrontation. The level of intra-regional trade in Central Asia is low, violent clashes at borders occur regularly and states have inhibited trade through red tape and restrictive visa regimes. Disagreements range from border demarcation, water management, the supply of and payments for energy, to responses to ethnic tensions.
Since 2016, though, there have been tacit signs of improved regional relations between the five Central Asian states that warrant closer scrutiny. In a region that was long known for distrust and hostilities, all heads of states convened for the first time for a summit in Astana in 2018, visa regimes were relaxed and mutual trade has picked up. There are even signs of cooperation in areas like water management, which has been the subject of threats of war in the past. Yet the three factors that have determined the pattern of relations within Central Asia so far – political systems, economic structures and external power interests – are, to varying and changing degrees, still at play today. As such, they remind us to treat with caution the encouraging recent signs towards more cooperation. These three factors also help explain this puzzle and the pattern of regional cooperation and competition in Central Asia.
Politically, Central Asian states share an institutional legacy of centralised, opaque and corrupt systems. At second glance, however, their political systems are not all that alike. Semi-democratic Kyrgyzstan is the most pluralistic, Kazakhstan has pursued a ‘soft authoritarianism’ – which limits elements of coercion and focuses on material enticements – and largely liberal economic policy. Increasingly authoritarian Tajikistan, meanwhile, lacks institutional capacity. Turkmenistan, and to a lesser extent Uzbekistan, have pursued isolationist foreign and highly repressive domestic policies. Accordingly, the Central Asian states have behaved differently on the international stage. Many of their strongman leaders have had little regard for their peers, no interest in the pursuit of joint strategic objectives or compromise, and instead competed for regional influence and were preoccupied with preserving their power. Thus, political systems have largely worked against cooperation in the region.
Economically, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and to a lesser extent Uzbekistan, possess large oil and gas resources. Mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while having some mineral reserves like gold or aluminium, are structurally weak. They depend on migrant workers’ remittances, mostly from Russia, that amount to up to one third of GDP. However, they control much of the region’s water supply, on which the agricultural sectors in the other downstream countries depend. Kazakhstan, accounting for 60 per cent of the region’s GDP, has been a destination for labour migration and a source of investments. Accordingly, economic structures have elements of compatibility regarding energy trade and labour migration, but the countries’ small manufacturing base and reliance on commodities hardly make their economies complementary. Economic structures thus provide incentives both for cooperation and for competition among Central Asian states.
Outside powers, lastly, have reinforced the atomised nature of Central Asian relations. Many Central Asian republics are members of multilateral institutions, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) led by Russia, or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) pushed by Russia and China. Even though Russia and China have promoted such formats of regional cooperation, they have preferred a bilateral approach to Central Asia. When disputes between states emerged, for example related to ethnic riots in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 or during the various cross-border skirmishes, Russia and China have mediated behind closed doors, but have not incentivised regional organisations to deal with these issues.
Particularly Russia appears to prefer ‘divide and conquer’ tactics, as it fosters regionalisation only under its leadership. Had Central Asian states among themselves achieved regional transportation links, military cooperation and trade agreements, Russia and its institutions would have been sidelined. Europe and the United States, meanwhile, have dedicated little attention to Central Asia, mostly focusing on energy security and the stability of Afghanistan. Despite the EU’s 2019 Central Asia strategy and the US’ 2011 New Silk Road Initiative, they lack the influence to be a force for a genuinely regional approach to Central Asia.
While these structural issues remain at play, recent developments raised hope that Central Asian governments might ease tensions and increasingly address shared challenges. Since the death of Uzbekistan’s long-term dictator Islam Karimov in 2016, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has undertaken gradual reforms and improved the previously hostile relations with neighbours. Uzbekistan lifted visa restrictions and opened border crossings, and trade has picked up accordingly. As a further milestone, Uzbekistan embraced the construction of Tajikistan’s Rogun hydroelectric dam, long a cause even for threats of war.
After the Astana meeting in 2018 – a novelty that constitutes an achievement in itself – there is revitalised debate about potential regional formats of cooperation, echoing a ‘Central Asian Confederation’, ‘Central Asian Union’ or ‘Central Asian Economic Community’, which were all discussed and failed over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s. Such formats would have to build on a concept of a regional identity, however, which is currently lacking. ‘Central Asia’ as a concept remains mostly coined and perceived by outsiders.
While political and economic factors, as well as a lack of a regional identity despite the many commonalities, provide some incentives but have proven to mostly be detrimental to regional cooperation, new developments on the international stage and among the major powers foster similar ambivalence. Some major powers, particularly the EU, the US and Japan, would support regional approaches to common challenges. China and Russia will continue to prefer bilateral ties. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a case in point: even though the BRI aims at promoting connectivity and easing trade, it also fosters Central Asian states’ competition to become transit corridors of the BRI and to attract Chinese investments.
Eventually, none of the Central Asian states will become a genuine trade and logistics hub on the Eurasian continent, for the BRI and beyond, without cooperating or at least coordinating at a regional level. This is a major challenge, particularly since all Central Asian states are currently preoccupied with internal issues like political transitions and accompanying power struggles (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) or persistent economic crises (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan). Were they able to align their economic reforms, Central Asian states might be able to deal with some of the economic woes they all are facing and to address the region’s emerging challenges: population growth, the increasing dependence on China, the return of radicalised foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq, cross-border trafficking, but also climate change leading to desertification and the exacerbated need to preserve and efficiently manage the region’s water resources.
However, given the still deeply-rooted lack of trust both among governments and ethnicities, a lot needs to be done even to avoid violent clashes, for example, as a minimal condition for improving relations. Recently, national leaders have attempted to avoid escalation. For instance, the Kyrgyz and Tajik presidents symbolically hugged each other after skirmishes at their common border in July 2019. While this is an encouraging sign, such attempts often do not translate into a resolution of the underlying dispute issues. Furthermore, despite an announcement at the 2018 meeting in Kazakhstan, a summit of heads of state in Tashkent has not yet materialised. It is evident at this stage – despite slow signs of progress – that the region is still far from taking a regional approach to regional issues.
 Author’s conversation with local expert, Almaty (Kazakhstan), 31 July 2019.
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