This article is part of our special report Connecting Central Asia.
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.
The leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan met in the Kazakh capital Astana, much to the surprise of the international community. The short notice resulted in the absence of foreign journalists. Only two journalists from Western media were present, including EURACTIV.
The idea for holding such a summit has been floated for some time, but the date remained unconfirmed until the last moment.
The Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev hosted the summit in his presidential palace. The guests were Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoev, Emomali Rahmon from Tajikistan, Sooronbai Jeenbekov of Kyrgyzstan, and the parliament speaker of Turkmenistan, Akja Nurberdyeva.
The president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, did not attend because of a previously planned official visit to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Notable meeting between the presidents of #Kazakhstan, #Uzbekistan, #Kyrgyzstan, and #Tajikistan amidst a trend of growing cooperation between Central Asian states
Rare Central Asian Summit Signals Regional Thaw https://t.co/JSYhXiDjNZ
— Eugene Chausovsky (@eugenechausovsk) March 15, 2018
Instead, Turkmenistan was represented by a large delegation, including the president’s son, who chairs the country’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee.
Kazakh diplomats said no similar summit had taken place in the last 20 years. Even when leaders did meet, previous summits yielded too few achievements to remember. One of the big reasons for the change of mood is the democratisation in Uzbekistan following the death of its first leader Islam Karimov in 2016.
His successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been pursuing a less autocratic path, seeking to reform and liberalise the country and mend ties in the region.
The elephant in the room
All five Central Asian countries are former Soviet Republics and the lingua franca of the meetings is Russian, but there was a distinct feeling that Russia, which is absent from this format, was the elephant in the room.
The summit was officially called a “consultative meeting”, in an obvious effort not to raise eyebrows in Moscow. No documents from the meeting were adopted
Addressing the press after the summit, Nazarbayev praised the active economic cooperation of all countries of Central Asia with the Russian Federation and with China.
He paid tribute to Mirziyoyev, stressing that he had been the initiator of the leaders’ meeting.
Nazarbayev said that all the leaders of the region have held bilateral meetings, stressing the role of Mirizyoyev, but also of the new leader of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbai Jeenbekov for improving bilateral ties.
His main message was that independently of other formats, nobody could solve better inter-regional problems in Central Asia better than the countries themselves.
According to the UN, Nazarbayev said, over the past 10 years, the average GDP growth in Central Asia was 6.2%, well above the world average of 2.6% in the same period. However, he noted that this was not reflected in mutual trade, giving as an example that local traders preferred to import fruits from Israel rather than from across the border.
Indeed, only 5% of the volume of trade of the countries of Central Asia is among themselves, and for many of them, the only way to travel by plane to one capital to another is via Istanbul.
Nazarbayev also pointed to the need for economies to switch to a new innovative digital platform while noting the importance of optimising tariff policy and simplifying administrative procedures for transit traffic. He also stressed the importance of addressing the issues of using transboundary water resources on the basis of common legal positions, mutual respect and respect for the interests of all parties.
The use of water resources has for many years been a source of tensions but progress has been made and the countries now consult among themselves instead of allowing the tensions over water to become a casus belli.
Nazarbayev praised the initiative of the president of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon to organise a high-level conference on water and sustainable development in Dushanbe in June.
The skeleton in the closet
Nazarbayev also said that the states of Central Asia make their contribution in support of socio-economic development and political settlement in Afghanistan. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2017-2018 Kazakhstan working actively in this direction at the international level, Nursultan Nazarbayev said.
EURACTIV spoke to Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, who shed more light on the project of trilateral cooperation between his country, Afghanistan and the EU. The project is based on Kazakhstan’s experience, in place since 2010, of educating 1,000 Afghans in peaceful professions such as engineers, doctors, agricultural specialists or nurses.
Under this project, Kazakhstan has provided $50 million of its own money to educate the Afghans but now the EU is expected to join in the financing and focus on educating Afghan women.
Asked what would be the advantages, Vassilenko said that in Kazakhstan, a secular but also a Muslim-majority country, the Afghans who come to study “don’t feel like they find themselves in a very different cultural environment”.
He also stressed that the programme had proven its effectiveness because 100% of the Afghan students who have studied here return home and three-quarters of them found a job after returning to Afghanistan.
Vassilenko said the programme was “tried and tested”, it was economical and would be an example of well-spent EU money.
“It’s not only a win-win situation, it’s perhaps a win-win-win situation for Afghanistan, for Kazakhstan, because we are helping our neighbour, and for the EU, for whom this will be very well spent money”, he said.
The next meeting of the five Central Asian countries, in which EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini is also expected to take part, will take place in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, on 26 March and it will be entirely dedicated to the situation in Afghanistan.
Regarding a follow-up at the highest level, Nazarbayev said the leaders had decided to meet annually ahead of the Norouz (Nowruz) holiday, which is marked in Central Asia on the vernal equinox, as a sign of spring, which falls between 20 March and 23 March.
Next year’s Central Asia summit will be held in Tashkent, Nazarbayev said.
While the leaders were holding their summit, the Kazakhs capital opened its doors for another round of the Astana talks on Syria, featuring the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Its main events will unfold on Friday.