This article is part of our special report A busy EU-Kazakhstan agenda.
Even though unresolved border disputes stand in the way of further economic integration of Central Asia, this vast region is ready to deepen ties, according to Askar Nursha.
Askar Nursha is a Kazakh analyst with Eurasian Strategies specialised in security and the post-Soviet space.
“As far back as the 90s, attempts were made to create a full-fledged integration grouping in Central Asia… What was the main mistake of that old era? It was an attempt at a top-down integration”, Nursha said.
According to the analyst, even though there was a political will at the time, back then it lacked a strong social, cultural and, most importantly, economic foundation in the context of a wider trend of the Soviet disintegration.
“The [Soviet] republics aspired to become states. Now we are seeing interest in strengthening the economic foundation, namely a real sincere interest in expanding economic cooperation”, he said.
“We can see that for about more than 15 years, a number of major international players have begun to formulate a strategy towards Central Asia as a unified region, while the countries of the region themselves have shown passivity in this case.”
However, in the analyst’s view the winds are changing in Central Asia, home to five states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan.
“There was a consilium of doctors who decided that the region should be in a five-party format, but the patient himself was not yet ready for it. But we can see that the patient has started to ‘ripen’, so I think that all the efforts that have been made by the European Union, by the US, they are beginning to bear fruit.”
Nursha pointed out that cooperation has regional security implications, especially in light of unresolved border disputes, which need to be worked on in parallel to economic cooperation.
He said “Central Asia will be more successful both economically and in terms of security if it is united,” adding that “in this regard conflicts as the one that happened between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is a certain disappointment, because it throws the region back to some extent.”
The clashes at the end of April, which are not occurring for the first time, resulted in numerous casualties.
“The whole situation is in a way a legacy of the Soviet era, a result of the partition of the territory. This problem didn’t exist when the two countries were part of the Soviet Union, but when they became independent, the administrative boundaries between the republics became national borders,” Nursha said, adding that similar issues permeate the region. Kyrgyzstan has a similar problem with its Western neighbour, Uzbekistan, for example.
“I think the most successful Central Asian negotiator so far is Kazakhstan, which has, along its perimeter, completed the necessary phase of negotiations with its neighbours. It took 30 years,” he said.
The analyst pointed to several factors underlying the clashes, including internal political pressure on the authorities, economic instability and unemployment woes of workers who returned home from abroad, especially Russia, as a result of the pandemic.
“There is an unresolved issue of water-energy complex there, since a significant part of this region is mountainous area and deserts and semi-deserts and the issue of water distribution is very acute. The same as in Europe, for example, at one time, the European Coal and Steel Community organisation restored relations between Germany and France [after World War II]. They became the locomotives of European integration on the basis of coal and steel. It is often said in our region that if there is going to be a regional association, it should take place on the basis of water and energy issues,” according to Nursha.
“To some extent the conflict has caused a setback, because the trust has been broken, it will have to be rebuilt, the work that’s been done, many things will have to be revisited. Especially as the region is now moving more slowly than expected in forming the institutions of cooperation in a five-sided format. It has been a long time since the last summit [in 2019],” he said.
At the same time the analyst believes the border issues should primarily be resolved in a bilateral format, though international partners “can and should play a role.”
“I know that Kazakhstan has expressed its willingness to provide a platform, Russia, neighboring Uzbekistan, are ready to help countries to resolve the situation. In general, the international community is ready to help and is not going to leave these processes to their own devices.”
Asked if there is a role for the EU, Nursha said Europe should bolster the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which “has become very passive in recent years.”
“And we know that border issues, political settlements, that was the role of the OSCE, and now I think it is not fulfilling that role, not in Central Asia and not in, say, eastern Ukraine”, he said.
“Second is the European Union’s strategy for Central Asia. The environmental cooperation component needs to be strengthened. Most strategies developed by international organizations in the region are reactive in nature, following what happened, either positive or negative experiences of the past. But now we need analytic-forecasting tools and full-fledged studies with a forecasting element.”
Nursha said that climate change is one of the top-three factors that may complicate life in the region, in addition to security and economic factors.
“We are observing melting of glaciers where water is coming from in these countries. These desertification processes will be intensified. The countries of the region need to start working on this now and move from national studies to more involvement in regional, global studies and cooperation on this issue. In my opinion, the water problem in Central Asia will worsen from year to year.”