This article is part of our special report Connecting Central Asia.
A change at the helm of Uzbekistan 18 months ago turned out to be a game-changer that greatly improved relations in Central Asia, where the personality factor remains crucial.
Anastassiya Reshetnyak is a research fellow at the Department of Foreign and International Security, Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies (KAZISS).
She spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
We are meeting just after the leaders of the five countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan) met in Astana for the first time in many years. How would you assess the importance of such a summit?
Let me start by saying that the official name of this meeting was Working Consultative Meeting of the heads of the Central Asian countries, it was not called a summit. And the document adopted concerned the Bright Holiday of Nauryz. This is a holiday that unites us in civilisational terms, it means peace, blossom, spring, beauty, love.
A decision to meet regularly ahead of Nauryz was adopted…
Let’s see how this will materialise next year. But in any case, this is a very good initiative.
Speaking about how the Central Asian format was reanimated, this happened on the scene of the United Nations last year, when Kazakhstan became a non-permanent member of the Security Council for 2017-2018. Kazakhstan made efforts to gather the ministers from the five Central Asian countries. This happened twice, and logically came the initiative of the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev for holding a conference in Samarkand of Central Asia [at the level of foreign ministers, with the participation of EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, in November 2017]. At this conference, the Astana meeting at the level of heads of states was envisaged.
What I would like to say is that the personality factor is very important. Things changed when in Uzbekistan Mr Mirziyoyev came to power. This is the moment which made cooperation possible.
But it is too early to speak about integration. Integration on the Eurasian continent is very complicated. We have the Eurasian Economic Union, we have The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, we have the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, there are many overlapping organisations, in charge of economic cooperation, on improving the infrastructure, of security, against terrorism etc.
During the last 25 years, such organisations were created not only from within, but from the outside. The EU, for example, made a “strategy” for Central Asia, the USA did several projects, in the beginning, it was about a big Central Asia, then New Silk Road, now the relations are in the format of the so-called C5+1.
On the outside, there has been an evolution on how to perceive Central Asia, how to speak to Central Asia, while the projects from within Central Asia regrettably didn’t have a substantial follow-up due to different reasons.
What we see now is that the heads of Central Asian countries find it sufficiently interesting to cooperate, to seek compromises, and even to meet, although traditionally the leaders of these countries prefer the bilateral formats. In a nutshell, the change of mood is very positive.
There is also probably a geopolitical reason, not to antagonise Russia by creating an organisation of former Soviet Republics? The West has created the impression that it is pushing for Central Asia to be a bloc, also because it’s easier to deal with a bloc. It will also be interesting to know what will be new in the new EU strategy for Central Asia, expected for 2019. Would you agree with such a geopolitical view?
Geopolitics is always a sensitive thing. What is important today is to be very cautious. In the 1990s there were many thunderous declarations about integration in Central Asia, there were secretariats and there were summits. But the question is why creating non-functional organisations. Do we need one more supra-national structure at an inter-governmental level? By the way, Turkmenistan has a neutral status [the country says its membership is with the United Nations], and it is very unlikely that it would agree to be part of an inter-governmental program with secretariat, staff, annual summits etc. Having said this, there are several topics on which the Central Asian countries can decide together.
You mentioned the revamped strategy of the EU for Central Asia. There is also the One Belt-One Road initiative of China, which is relevant for all Central Asian countries. We could synchronise our positions vis-à-vis China and offer Beijing a Central Asian answer. This means using this project in the interest of Central Asia, of its integration, in the sense that common infrastructure, as was said by the representatives of all Central Asian states at their meeting, is of critical importance. This is about energising inter-regional cooperation, and simplifying the exports from Central Asia to third countries.
Aren’t you worried about One Belt-One Road’s geopolitical aim, which is to extend China’s influence beyond its borders, on your territories?
For many years, Kazakhstan has declared its multi-vector policy. There is no way One Belt-One Road overweigh Eurasian integration in a geopolitical or another aspect, as Eurasian integration has its institutions, its mechanisms and rules for the trade in goods for example. This is of critical importance for Kazakhstan, and keeping the balance between such big geopolitical players such as Russia and China. Our country also aims to keep the same kind of balance vis-à-vis its Western partners, and with other influential countries such as South Korea or Japan.
Speaking to the press, your president Nursultan Nazabayev said it was not normal for the countries in Central Asia to import fruits from far away (he mentioned Israel), while fruits are available across the border. Another issue is that for many of the Central Asian countries, to take a plane from one capital to another often means a stopover in Istanbul. Maybe connectivity is precisely the issue where the leaders should give an impetus toward solutions?
Indeed, for the last year we have already seen colossal changes in this respect. For example, the trade of Kazakhstan with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has grown by one-third, with Kyrgyzstan by 10%, also the trade between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan it has grown even more. And this concerns agricultural goods.
Regarding flights, new lines are opening between the capitals. Also, solutions to concrete problems at the borders are sought, with a lot of progress during the last year and a half. In that sense, this consultative platform is very productive for promoting dialogue and solutions. At the Astana meeting, the Presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan highlighted the need to make easier the movement of people in Central Asia.
The question of migration is also important, for us and for our partners. One of the issues is that the rights of workers of one of the Central Asian countries active in another country of the region would be regulated by simple mechanisms. The former President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov used to say, when workers from his country died in industrial accidents in Russia, that it’s their fault and that they should not have gone there in the first place.
On the occasion of a recent accident [on 18 January 52 Uzbek labour migrants died in a bus that went ablaze in the snowy steppes of Kazakhstan], new president Mirziyoyev said this is a big tragedy and he added that if people go to work in another country, that this is “our problem”, and that the solution should be to create more job opportunities.
During the last Russia-Uzbekistan meeting, important documents concerning labour rights were signed. The same practice should now follow between the countries of Central Asia.
How would you like relations with the EU to develop?
We have of course our obligations within the Eurasian Economic Union, but all countries from Central Asia have traditionally good relations with the EU. These relations started in a period where humanitarian aid was central, then developed on the basis of partnerships.
In the case of the Western sanctions against Russia, on the occasion of the recent visit of our president to the USA, he succeeded to agree with his American partners that the regime of sanctions against Russia should have as little as possible influence over Kazakhstan, as a country which is in the same economic space as Russia.
Something similar could also be agreed with the EU. This also concerns Kyrgyzstan, as another member of the Eurasian Economic Union.