This article is part of our special report Connecting Central Asia.
In a wide-ranging interview, Galymzhan Koishybayev, deputy minister of foreign affairs of Kazakhstan, told EURACTIV about the results of a recent summit of the Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan) and the past and the future of regional cooperation.
Galymzhan Koishybayev is a career diplomat. He has served as ambassador to Lithuania (2008-2012, also accredited to Latvia and Estonia) and to Finland (2012-2016).
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which in the recent past represented one of the most disconnected regions of the world, are participating in new efforts of regional cooperation. What contributed to this?
Thanks for the question, but, first, let me disagree with you about “one of the most disconnected regions in the world”.
I can assure you that for a quarter of a century of independent development, the countries of Central Asia have managed to establish effective mechanisms both at the bilateral and multilateral levels, which allow solving almost all issues.
First of all I want to note that the process of rapprochement of the peoples of Central Asia, which have a common history, geographical, cultural and religious affinity, is natural. Similar economic and political issues, traditionally established industrial and social ties create real prerequisites for closer cooperation.
If you delve into the history of geopolitical processes in the Central Asian region, you can divide it into several stages. The first stage, which lasted from 1990 to 1993, was characterized by the search for new independent states by an independent development path and was accompanied by a critical attitude towards the common past.
By the mid-1990s, the second stage was coming when, after the disengagement in the Central Asian countries, the understanding of the need to establish new interstate economic ties came.
Since 1998, the third period has begun, connected with the establishment of the Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC) and the rethinking of integration ideology, the abandonment of ambitious projects, the focus on solving the pressing problems of the region. The parties approved the Integration Development Strategy of CAEC for the period up to 2005, as well as the Program of Priority Actions for the Formation of a Single Economic Space for the period until 2002, which provided for stage-by-stage economic cooperation from a simple form of a free trade zone to the formation of a common market for goods and services, capital and work force.
The fourth stage was marked by the transformation in 2002 of CAEC into the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), the expansion of the goals and objectives of the new organization. The agreement on the establishment of the CACO ensured the continuity of previously adopted contracts and decisions within the framework of CAEC.
The main goals and tasks of the CACO were the implementation of effective cooperation in the political, economic, scientific, technical, environmental, cultural and humanitarian spheres, as well as in the field of security and stability.
On 18 October 2004, Russia joined CACO, and in October 2005 the decision was made to merge CACO with the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), which, in fact, meant the suspension of the real process of Central Asian cooperation.
In 2008, the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan made a proposal to create the Union of Central Asian States (SCAG).
With the creation of the Customs Union and the beginning of the functioning of the Eurasian Economic Community, deep economic cooperation in the format of the SCAG was already difficult at the time, but there were other mechanisms for the development of the Central Asian dialogue.
In this situation, the main interests of Kazakhstan in Central Asia were related to the tasks to remove barriers to sustainable development, to the modernisation of the entire region. Many of our integration ideas have found application in the creation of larger associations.
In general, the main component of the rapprochement processes taking place in Central Asia were the expectations – to solve together the problems of economic development, ecology, regional security, etc.
In this context, the working (consultative) meeting of the heads of state of Central Asia held on 15 March this year has become a truly historic landmark event, symbolizing the beginning of a new stage in the formation of the region, a qualitatively new level of interaction.
Today Kazakhstan continues the step-by-step measures to implement the initiative of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev on the regional rapprochement of the Central Asian countries.
At the same time, it should be noted that the significant strengthening of bilateral relations with Tashkent, the willingness of the elected President of Kyrgyzstan to build relations with neighboring states in a constructive and mutually beneficial manner create the prerequisites for the formation of a microclimate of mutual understanding and cooperation in the region.
What are the main areas of cooperation identified at this summit, although I notice that you call it officially “working consultative meeting”?
At this stage, the greatest interest for five countries in the region is represented by cooperation in the following areas: security, trade, transport and transit; Agriculture; hydropower engineering; cultural and humanitarian development.
In general, the holding of the Summit of Heads of State of Central Asia in Astana has made it possible to coordinate joint efforts to address the pressing problems of the region and to bring our strategic interests closer together.
Uzbekistan, in particular, under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has significantly improved relations with its neighbours, including Kazakhstan. How do you assess this?
Yes, we can state that today the countries of Central Asia are changing their strategy in favor of a unifying position. An important role in this process was played by the transit of power in Uzbekistan.
In the new foreign policy concept of Uzbekistan for the countries of the region, the priority stated by Shavkat Mirziyoyev for normalising relations with neighbours is of particular importance. In Tashkent there is an understanding of the need to solve the accumulated problems in the region exclusively in the legal field, which creates good opportunities for constructive dialogue in the region.
The character of Kazakh-Uzbek relations, which has changed significantly since the end of 2016, acquires a new reality, including positive trends in the political, trade-economic, cultural-humanitarian and regional aspects. 2017 in the interaction of the two countries can be rightfully considered as historical. Five meetings between the two presidents took place, of which four were the visit of the head of Uzbekistan to the Republic of Kazakhstan and the visit of the head of our state to Tashkent.
The presidents reached the most important agreements that bring the Kazakh-Uzbek relations to a qualitatively new level. As a result of two state visits, 27 bilateral documents of various levels were signed, two business forums were held with the participation of 400 companies, within which trade contracts and investment agreements were signed for a total of $ 1.2 billion. An ambitious goal is set to increase the volume of mutual trade to $ 5 billion by 2020. Today, the tasks facing the governments of the two countries are progressively implemented.
President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov does not participate in the summit. Is this a drawback?
Personally, I do not consider this a disadvantage. At this meeting, Turkmenistan was represented at a very high level, by the Speaker of the Parliament. In addition, the president of Turkmenistan sent a personal message to the participants of the meeting. According to available information, during this period of time he carried out a previously planned visit to the United Arab Emirates.
It should also be noted that neutral Turkmenistan, which for a long time distanced itself from regional ties, also today demonstrates a serious desire to cooperate with its regional neighbors on a pragmatic basis.
At the same time, against the background of previous years, Kazakh-Turkmen relations also gained positive dynamics and character.
A new page in the history of bilateral relations was opened by the state visit of the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, to Astana in April 2017. On this occasion were signed historically important documents: the Strategic Partnership Treaty and the Agreement on the demarcation of the Kazakh-Turkmen state border, thanks to which the cooperation reached a qualitatively new strategic level.