A five-way summit hosted by Uzbekistan’s President Shavket Mirziyoyev took place in the Kuksaroy Palace in Tashkent, the country’s capital, on Friday (29 November). The second meeting of Central Asia leaders in as many years focused on geopolitics and stability, but also on environmental concerns.
Mirziyoyev has been pursuing a less autocratic path than his predecessor, Islam Karimov, seeking to reform and liberalise the country. It was he who initiated in 2017 the idea of holding regular meetings of the presidents of the five Central Asian countries.
The meeting was also attended by Kazakhstan’s former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon and Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who had skipped the previous summit.
The first summit was hosted by Kazakhstan in its capital Nur-Sultan, then called Astana, in March 2018.
At the last summit, the leaders decided to meet annually ahead of the Norouz (Nowruz) holiday, which falls between 20 March and 23 March and marks the spring equinox. The meeting was, however, delayed to this fall, presumably because of the sudden resignation of Kazakhstan’s first President, Nursultan Nazarbayev on 19 March.
In 2017, Nazarbayev initiated constitutional reform aimed at a more balanced power-sharing, transferring some presidential prerogatives.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, perceived as Nazarbayev’s political “child,” was elected this summer with an overwhelming majority.
Tokayev signed a decree on 21 October confirming that high-level appointments such as cabinet ministers, heads of various security forces and regional governors are subject to consultation with the chairman of the Kazakh Security Council, the position Nazarbayev currently occupies for life.
Despite his resignation, Nazarbayev represented Kazakhstan at the meeting of Central Asian state leaders. At the proposal of Tajikistan, Nazarbayev was chosen as the honorary chairman of the consultative meeting.
The five former Soviet republics form part of Russia’s sphere of interests and the lingua franca of the meetings is Russian. The summit was officially labelled a “consultative meeting,” in an obvious effort to highlight that Moscow would be present at events with higher diplomatic rank.
“To underline, our rapprochement and greater cooperation in the region is a desired and irreversible process,” said Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev in his opening statement, according to a transcript. “It is based on a strong political choice, has deep historical preconditions and is not directed against anyone’s interests.”
The point was also reinforced in the joint statement adopted after the meeting. “Political dialogue and positive processes of inter-state rapprochement are open and constructive, and are not directed against the interests of third parties” reads the text.
It was also made clear that the meeting is not a sign of institutional integration. “I should, however, like to draw attention to the fact that holding meetings of Central Asia heads of state in the format of consultations is not a reason for speculation about the creation of any kind of new regional organisation,” said Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev.
The Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders travelled to Tashkent from the Security Council session of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the summit of Russia-led military-alliance held the day before (28 November). Uzbekistan has joined and left the CSTO twice, providing little explanation for its last exit in 2012.
Afghanistan, which alongside Serbia holds observer status at the organisation, was an important agenda item of both meetings.
“States of Central Asia intend to continue comprehensive efforts to include Afghanistan in regional trade, economic and infrastructural projects, which should contribute to the advancement of the peace process,” said the Central Asian leaders.
Afghanistan borders Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, and is perceived as a security risk by the states of Central Asia, which have been actively voicing their concerns internationally.
Environmental preservation and water management have also taken centre stage at the summit. The use of water resources has historically been a source of tensions but countries now prefer to consult among themselves.
Central Asia is facing increasingly severe environmental challenges. The combined impact of climate change, which has started to reduce water flows by shrinking the glaciers that feed Central Asian rivers, and rapid population growth is likely to have implications for economic development, security and migration.
“I propose to unite our efforts to develop and implement in Central Asia mutually beneficial mechanisms of compensation for the accumulation of water resources,” said Kyrgyzstan’s President Jeenbekov. “We expect that the costs related to the accumulation, storage, management and delivery will be appropriately compensated.”
Kyrgyzstan, alongside Tajikistan, is an “upstream” country, with 45% of the region’s water resources formed in the glaciers on its territory. The EU is offering help to the region to turn these challenges into opportunities.
EU-relations in the region are at different stages, ranging from the completed ratification of the Enhanced Partnership Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan to the opening of a full-fledged EU Delegation in Turkmenistan this year.