Central Asia is considered part of the Islamic world, but the reality is it’s not quite there yet. It is an area of the post-Soviet space that remains divided from the rest of the world, including Islamic countries, by the powerful values inherited from Soviet civilization, such as the education system, the linguistic culture and even elements of the world outlook. These values are being eroded gradually, but this will take time.
It is taking so long largely because of the current developments in the Muslim belt from Afghanistan to North Africa. Central Asian states have opted to keep away from these developments, relying instead on their modest capabilities, allied and partner relations with Russia and other countries, and the military-political and other advantages offered by international organizations active in the region.
Challenges and threats
Although the majority of people in the region are Muslims, Central Asian countries are facing the same challenges and threats as Europe – religious extremism, terrorism and other elements of cross-border crime – but on a much lower scale.
A case in point is the Fergana Valley revolts, which many predicted would occur and would lead to a series of conflicts. Today, 25 years later, the valley is an area of peace and stability. There have been conflicts and terrorist attacks in Central Asia, but they were not more frequent or more horrible that in many other parts of the world.
At the same time, Central Asian leaders are aware of the dangers and threats posed by the growing geopolitical confrontation between great powers, the struggle for resources, terrorism, and religious extremism.
What can Central Asia do?
I do not want to speak about the influence of Islam on foreign policy interests and their achievement, but about a possible joint project of Central Asian countries, such as geopolitical mediation.
But before offering our services as a geopolitical, religious and cultural intermediary between Islam and other civilizational and cultural currents in the world, Central Asia needs to gauge its combined potential and the potential of each regional country to carry out this complex mission.
At this point, the Central Asian countries’ capabilities are either limited or extremely broad, with their boundaries limited only by their legal capacity as independent states and their elites’ adequate understanding of Central Asia’s significance as an international political region. The projection and realization of Central Asia’s political, economic, cultural and humanitarian influence on the broader world, and the subsequent development of positive views on Central Asia and its international potential among the non-regional leaders and nations, largely depend on an adequate understanding of Central Asia’s significance.
Session 3. From the Middle East to Central Eurasia: an Arc of Instability or a Space for Joint Action?
During the 13th annual Valdai Club meeting’s third session, titled "From the Middle East to Central Eurasia: the arc of instability or a space for joint action?" experts discussed the array of reasons for the considerable flare-up of the situation in the Middle East.
At the same time, the world’s leading powers and associations of countries are influencing the development and performance of political, economic and other institutions in Central Asia.
Yet this influence by the world’s leading powers has been fragmented. For example, Western attempts to demonize Central Asia were not comprehensive or properly structured. Thus, law and morals, which are the top values and safeguards without which democracy is reduced to anarchy and mob rule (ochlocracy), were promoted only in certain sectors during the democratic literacy campaign (law) or not at all (morals).
I share the view of the national and foreign experts who believe that the above problems should be resolved through the internal efforts of the local elites and people, provided they are ready for this.
Traditions of integration
Central Asia has always played the role of an intercontinental corridor. The countries of the region, which have been working to create their own models of nation states, are trying to revive or restructure integration trends.
European and Islamic states have supported some of these initiatives, which can be roughly described as part of this tradition. I am talking about Kazakhstan’s Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Uzbekistan’s initiative on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia, and Tajikistan’s global water initiatives. Even Turkmenistan’s neutrality can be seen as the revival of an ancient political tradition. These initiatives should be developed not as a way to quickly improve regional countries’ image, but as projects other countries would accept and welcome. The majority of these projects can be implemented jointly with Russia and other countries of the CIS, the SCO and the Middle East.
For example, Kazakhstan’s voluntary renunciation of its nuclear status can be used to promote the non-proliferation regime and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Coordinated actions by Central Asian countries supported by the UN and other international organizations and individual states can engage a broad range of European and Islamic countries in this initiative, including Iran. Why not consider bringing Afghanistan into the Central Asian nuclear-free zone? Maybe Central Asia could help the countries of the Middle East create a nuclear-free zone too?
Moreover, Central Asian countries should not limit themselves to signing a nuclear-weapon-free zone agreement, but add the nonproliferation project to the agenda of Central Asian cooperation.
Security is a crucial issue on the regional agenda. Great powers, international and regional organizations and NGOs should pay much more attention to cross-border crime, including terrorism and drug, human and arms trafficking. Not that they have been idling, but their efforts seem to produce the opposite result. We need a fundamentally new concept for dialogue.
The main task in this context is not to encourage the OSCE and OIC countries to sit down at the negotiating table. We need a much broader partnership that will also focus on security, economic, inter-confessional and inter-cultural relations.
The connecting link could be provided by the countries that are members of both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), such as Central Asian states, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania.
I do not presume to think that they can influence Islamic or European countries, but they can definitely promote political, interregional and interfaith dialogue to find solutions to our common problems.
Muratbek Imanaliev is Kyrgyzstan President of the Institute of Public Policy, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, former Secretary General of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation).