Central Asia leaders meet again in sign of increased regional cooperation

The EU needs to put civil society at the heart of its strategy to rebuild its political presence in Central Asia, writes Barbara von Ow-Freytag. [Georgi Gotev]

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.

Astana hosts little-publicised Central Asia summit

Only a couple of years ago, a summit of the five Central Asia countries would have been absolutely unthinkable. But the leaders came together on Thursday (15 March) and decided to hold such meetings annually, always at the same time of the year, which is a major holiday in the region.

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.

Strong state power – the case of Kazakhstan

From the early stage of its post-Soviet transition, Kazakhstan has consolidated strong state power to avoid chaos. Today, as the country is considered successful at home and internationally, this centralisation is being reduced and tribute is being paid to the one person who steered the country during the last 30 years.

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.

Tusk tests the waters in Central Asia

European Council President Donald Tusk did a tour of three Central Asia countries last week, including Tajikistan, where the melting Pamir Glaciers illustrate the impact of climate change and the difficulties of water management in this part of the world.

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.

Infographic: EU support for water resilience in Central Asia

Central Asia is facing increasingly severe environmental challenges. The EU is offering help to the region to turn those challenges into opportunities. Enhancing environmental, climate and water resilience is a substantial element of the new EU strategy for Central Asia.

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.

EU-sponsored Nur-Sultan conference ‘happily coincides’ with Central Asia summit

A two-day conference on “Enhanced integration and Prosperity in Central Asia” opened in Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan on Thursday (28 November). Incidentally, it coincided with a summit of the leaders of the five Central Asian countries on Friday in Tashkent, the capital of neighbouring Uzbekistan.

The adoption of a joint statement and rules of procedure of organising future consultative meetings marked the success of the summit. Kyrgyzstan will host the next summit to be held in 2020.
(Edited by Samuel Stolton)

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