After the Ukrainian crisis, Central Asia takes its destiny into its own hands

NEW DELHI: The Fourth Consultative Meeting of Central Asian Heads of State in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan last month was qualitatively different from previous ones. A sense of urgency and determination to forge greater regional unity underscored the meeting, which took place in the shadow of the Ukraine crisis as well as in the wake of significant unrest and secessionist tendencies in at least three of the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. While Turkmenistan has seen a changing of the guard, in neighboring Afghanistan the Taliban have completed a year in power.

Three main factors underlie the desire for greater regional unity and integration.

First, the Central Asian states fear a threat to their sovereignty and, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of their independence, they continue to face external threats.

The year was marked by widespread unrest and uprisings in Kazakhstan, violence and secessionist tendencies in the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan and the Gorno Badakshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan.

In all three cases, a foreign hand and an external instigation were implicated. When Russian-led CSTO troops were called upon to quell violence in Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan’s neighbors were outraged and even condemned. A regional force equivalent to the CSTO has been mooted, amid fears that the CSTO’s presence could be a pretext for a return of the Russian presence in the region. Predictably, within a short period of time, the CSTO troops were told to withdraw from Kazakh territory once their “mission” had been accomplished.

Second, Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine has raised alarm bells in the region. Faced with the specter of possible secessionist tendencies in their own territories, the largest and wealthiest CARs such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have refused to recognize the independence of the breakaway Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. Nor did they recognize Crimea’s membership of the Russian Federation. A number of protests and demonstrations of solidarity with the Ukrainian people were observed in many CARS.

The third factor, emanating from the second, has been the disruption of supply chains, threatening trade, and in particular food security. The Ukrainian crisis has caused food insecurity with a shortage of wheat. There have been soaring food prices, shortages resulting from the ban on wheat and sugar exports from Russia, soaring energy prices and inflation. Food prices have risen by about 30%; in some places like Turkmenistan, there have even been violent protests against soaring prices.

At the same time, CARS economies are inextricably linked to Russia, which still remains one of the region’s main trading partners, and sanctions against Russia have harmed economies in the region. The war has severely affected immigration to Russia and remittances to countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which are heavily dependent on these remittances. Nearly 80% of all remittances to Kyrgyzstan, for example, come from Russia. The war also returned many migrant workers who lost their jobs in their countries of origin, which worsened unemployment in the region. The sudden closure of Kazakh pipelines transiting through Russian territory necessitated the search for alternative routes.

“Yes, the recent consultative meeting of Central Asian Presidents in Kyrgyzstan was held against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. Although this format, which was again implemented in 2018, has its own value and revitalized regional integration effort, the 4th meeting took place at a time of deep geopolitical turbulence in the former Soviet space.Central Asian countries are facing challenges from Russia and in this context are trying to consolidate their regional collaboration. The treaty that was signed in Bishkek is indicative of such an intention,” says senior Uzbek official analyst Farhod Tolipov.

All Heads of State emphasized regional security, followed by sustainable development and food security. For Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan the dangers emanating from the chaos in Afghanistan were obvious, for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan it was religious radicalism, imported ideologies and internal anarchy that were the focus. For all, food security and regional self-sufficiency were a priority.

To this end, the summit ended with the promise of a number of measures that would improve food production and access to resources, manage water resources, reduce dependence on imports from outside the region and create greater self-sufficiency. As Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov said in his opening speech, “Finally, common security, stability and well-being depend on the atmosphere of relations between the states of the region”.

The main conclusions of the summit meeting were the agreement to launch a network of border trade and economic centers as the basis of the unified commodity distribution system of Central Asian countries, to undertake faster national industrialization, to accelerate trade and investments in each other’s countries, Development of a comprehensive program to guarantee the supply of the population with a wide range of food products, to cooperate in hydroelectricity and the management of water resources common areas, and very importantly, to demarcate international borders between states in the region to prevent border disputes and to pursue regional cooperation and integration. One of the most important aspects was to prioritize connectivity networks, in particular the “middle” Trans-Caspian Corridor from China through Central Asia and the Caucuses to Europe, the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan- Iran and the Mazar-i-Sharif – Kabul – Peshawar railway route linking Central Asia with South Asia.

According to Kazakh scholar and director of the Bolat Nurgaliyev Foreign Policy Research Institute, the main message of the Cholpon Ata summit was that the Central Asian Five are ready to meaningfully cooperate with other partners as “determined entity fully aware of its ability to make a substantial contribution to world peace and regional stability.

There is no doubt that the potential is enormous. Over the past year, for example, regional trade has increased by 27%, exceeding US$8 billion. The recession caused by the disruptions of Covid-19 first and now by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is now seeking to accelerate the slow but steady process of integration in the region.

“There are certain limits of integration defined by several influential factors of a political and economic character – among them the uneven level of economic development of the Central Asian states, the influence of external geopolitical actors (first of all Russia), the conflicting interests and positions of ruling elites, disagreements over the allocation of local water resources, etc.,” warns Tajik historian and analyst Pervaiz Mulladjanov. “There could be prospects for closer cooperation in the spheres geopolitical and economic, but the creation of an entity similar to the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union is doubtful.” Thus, for example, the document produced at the end of the meeting entitled “Treaty of Friendship, good neighborliness and cooperation for the development of Central Asia in the 21st century” was signed only by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

But the very fact that there has been recognition and concrete proposals outlined instead of mere feel-good platitudes, demonstrates that Central Asia is on an irreversible path towards deeper integration and the establishment of mechanisms to address regional challenges.

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