A Reality Check on Expectations from Cholpon-Ata
On July 21, the Fourth Consultative Summit of the five presidents of the Central Asian states took place in the town of Cholpon-Ata by the Issyk-Kul lake. The summit’s main objective entailed agreements over a series of generic topics, such as regional cooperation, interaction within multilateral formats and a broad green agenda in the fields of science and technology. Despite the generic nature, to the surprise of many, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan refrained from signing the agreements casting doubts over the present and future stability of an already fragmented region. Most analysts indicated the changing geopolitical world order as the primary source of the divide, maintaining that the different stances among the five nations are the primary reason. While this might be true to some extent, it is certainly not the only reason and entails the danger of oversimplifying the communication issues the region faces. It is, thus, of great importance to analyze the state of affairs and the other sources that currently and historically cause the fragmentation and see how these icebergs can be avoided so that smooth sailing can be achieved for the landlocked region.
The Historical Problem of Regional Institutionalism’s Absence
Historically, integration within Central Asia has been considered an unresolved puzzle. The first attempt entailed the establishment of the Central Asian Union in 1994 and its Development Bank in Bishkek in 1998. Ironically, the agreement signed in Tashkent back then included solely the same three states that agreed to cooperate in the summit of July. Tajikistan joined the union four years later, whereas Turkmenistan never followed suit citing its neutrality status.
The central state actors pushing for integration were Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with the latter taking leadership initiatives up to 2007. Nursultan Nazarbayev envisioned a fully interconnected Central Asia, where goods, services, capital and people would be transferred without barriers. Nonetheless, despite vague statements and informal agreements, nothing materialized and a period of disintegration came as a concomitant. The only exception to this rule, where the five nations cooperated in complete harmony, was the signing of the nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) treaty in September 2006 at the Semey test site in Kazakhstan.
The countless efforts from the dissolving of the Soviet Union to connect the region audibly delineate that the current disagreement is not solely a backwash of the Russian invasion of Ukraine but a chronic regional issue.
The Case of Kyrgyz-Tajik and Kyrgyz-Kazakh Conflicts
Another particularity of the region is the numerous external and internal conflicts that have caused turbulence for various reasons.
Firstly, the disagreement over certain states can be attributed to the border delimitation in the post-Soviet space. This involved gaps and misinterpretation that gave the right to several countries to have legitimate claims, but at the same time, no medium to judge in favour of one or the other. A clear example is the Ferghana Valley and the Tajik-Kyrgyz crisis that has been going on since the 1990s, and the recent quarrel killed at least 55 people.
Secondly, smuggling and illegal trade at the borders are very complex to control without the right digitalization tools, and the lost revenue can lead to an escalation of tensions. The Kazakh-Kyrgyz argument that started earlier this year is such a case. As Presidents Tokayev and Japarov are very much dependent on trade with China, observing discrepancies in the trade volumes and the revenue received is certainly not good news. More precisely, for Nur-Sultan, trade with China has been estimated at around $18B, whereas Beijing claims that over $25B worth of trade has been made with the Central Asian State. Similarly, Bishkek noticed a discrepancy of $60B in trade with China, making them increase security measures, which has far-reaching ramifications for their own relations. More specifically, as the corollary of the augmented security measures, there have been claims that controls at their border are taking place against what is being agreed at an EAEU level, a union, both of which are members. This is a sign that there is clear suspicion of foul play between Central Asian nations even in the same trade bloc, which can only bring pessimism for further integration.
Diverse Kind of Leadership
Another pattern that has been observed is the divergence in the political landscape of the five nations. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan all faced internal processes for political transition, with the latter being increasingly violent, that were substantially different from those of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. In the first group, a shift in ruling parties might not have been observed, and the authoritarian element might still be present. However, the successors were not bound by family ties and the willingness to change the governance and management structure has been prevalent. This has not been the case with the second group, where it seems that the transition of power can only occur from father to son, and thus, power seems to be significantly more concentrated. Considering this, it is natural that there is a diversity of views that might cause disagreements, including the formulation of an alliance.
Disproportionally Low Regional Trade
Financial incentives are the most common drivers for further interconnection and integration in a region, and for Central Asia, there might be a lack of them. Regional trade and economic cooperation have been increasing over the past years. Nonetheless, the volumes are still minuscule compared to the trade with China and Russia. For example, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan achieved $980M in trade over the past year. However, at the same time, Kazakhstan’s trade with China stood at $25B, and Kyrgyzstan had a $6B trade with China. Similarly, the remittances received from Central Asian nationals working seasonally in Russia have been predominantly economically more important than any of the regional relations that exist. This depicts that the focus and primary interest of the region are not on integrating but on strengthening ties with global powers and finding export routes outside the region.
Massive Funding is Required for Connecting Infrastructure and Divergent Markets
The infrastructure gap is prevalent in Central Asia, and all involved institutions recognize it. It is estimated that around 8% of regional GDP is needed to bridge this gap, the highest percentage in the continent, together with neighbouring South Asia. According to an ADB report, complex infrastructure will not be enough, as soft infrastructure, including digitization, is required. Attracting foreign investment and public-private partnerships is paramount. At the moment, the economic slowdown of the region’s principal investor, China, and the lack of clear reforms to tackle corruption and attract other forms of investment make the connecting infrastructure a very complex task and something that is far from becoming realized. Without the physical and digital infrastructure, the region stands very little chance of eyeing progress in the integration efforts.
Is Russia Really to Blame?
As it has happened globally, Central Asia has not remained unaffected by the war on Ukraine. The divergence in the stance of the five nations can be seen as a reason to disagree on other matters. Nevertheless, it might be seen as grounds to come closer in the long term. The war has put various projects in Russia on pause, and hence the need for a workforce from the post-Soviet space has decreased. A weaker and isolated Russia might continue with this trend. For Central Asian states, this means looking for a solution to provide work to their citizens at a national(or regional) level. A strategic approach to solve this problem might spell changes in how each state actor sees the potential of a unified bloc.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union has given birth to many states across the Eurasian space. However, it has also generated numerous grounds for conflicts between these very same states. The war on Ukraine might be seen by many as the cherry on top of the reasons for regional instability in Central Asia, but, essentially, it might chiefly be an excuse for countries not to pen a regional cooperation deal. The region is already tormented by more than 30 years of disputes, fragmentation and friction and the outlook for integration seems very unlikely. The most likely scenario is for this alliance to never go through, with another potential scenario being that there is agreement among all five states, but no follow-up takes place. The leader-state that takes the initiative, be it Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, ought to portray to the rest the actual benefits. These do not necessarily lie in the regional trade but rather in the fact that, in this way, exports outside the region can multiply. The main problem is that not all five states possess the same resources and need different trade routes. Only if the cooperation plan entails a solution for all kinds of resources, no matter how ambitious, is there a chance that the region achieves proper integration and then there will be a high chance of even border disputes ending, as a positive spill over effect.