How do the Chinese dragon, the American hegemony, the regional egoism and the “inevitability of Russia” coexist in Eurasia? Which ship should Central Asia focus on – the sinking one or the one which does not yet exist? What should flies do when camels fight? These are some of the questions raised at the closed-door sessions of the Russia-Kazakhstan expert forum, held in Astana on May 10-11 by the Valdai Discussion Club and the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations.
China’s silk strategy as seen from Astana and Moscow
The main question of one of the closed panel discussions sounded like this: is the Chinese Belt and Road initiative a colonial project? It caused concern of all participants in the Russian-Kazakhstani forum, and the answers were different. Kazakhstani experts said that this is not a colonial project exactly, but they did not know what to do if China “comes to dominate” everywhere. Trade expansion is a fait accompli. All the states in the region, except Uzbekistan, are already “hooked on the Chinese needle.”
Moreover, Kazakhstan has to balance between Russia and China. On the one hand, the country is member of the EAEU, on the other hand, it actively cooperates with China. “We are waiting for Russia to offer something, but it does not offer anything. And we simply follow what China offers,” Kazakhstan’s panelists explained the country’s position.
From the Russian point of view, Belt and Road is an economic project. However, China is involved in complex diplomacy, and we should not forget that almost everything what it does it does in order to establish itself on the international arena. On the one hand, the US launched a deterrence policy against the growing dragon; on the other hand, a part of Europe is now appealing to the Chinese factor and can say no to Brussels and Berlin. China has a balanced trade with Europe.
As for the Russian-Chinese relations, the progress is evident, partly thanks to the American policy of deterrence. For example, whereas a couple of years ago, the Chinese attitude to the SCO was skeptical, Beijing has changed its mind and saw the potential in this organization. Russia, for its part, also understands that Western sanctions are long-term and it is necessary to diversify ties with China.
Thus, as one of the Russian panelists said, Henry Kissinger’s main nightmare – the rapprochement between Russia and China – is happening right before our eyes, and America sufficiently accelerates this process with its own hands. The reason for this strange behavior of the United States is that it fell into an unconventional situation and is forced to move blindly: on the one hand, there are internal problems, on the other – the world has changed and will never be the same, as the United States wants it to be.
The US strategy in Eurasia
One of the Russian experts spoke harshly about the US policy in Eurasia, primarily in Central Asia. Many Kazakhstani participants agreed with his opinion. According to him, this policy has its own constants and variables. The constants are, of course, the sphere of the economy (the US has significant presence in the Kazakh energy industry), the sphere of values (or human rights), the security sphere (the United States wants to ensure that the region “does not become a haven for continental pirates”). The variables include situations where Central Asia is an appendage to American policy towards anyone else (in the 1990s it was Russia, in the 2000s the Afghan problem, then again Russia).
In 2015, a new C5 + 1 (five Central Asian countries plus the USA) format for regional cooperation in Central Asia was created, and Kazakhstani experts see it as quite promising, although many experts, even in Kazakhstan, called this initiative Washington’s PR stunt, which only confirmed its presence in Central Asia.
According to one Russian expert, now the US policy in Central Asia “shrinks like a shagreen skin,” although one would expect that, in light of Chinese presence, America will again make Central Asia the focus of its attention. Americans are betting on multipolarity in Eurasia. But whether the C5 + 1 will grow into a separate player, which will balance the situation in Central Asia, is still unclear.
Anyway, Russian experts noted that the partnership between Kazakhstan and the US is beneficial for Russia. Kazakhstan is a bridge between Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific region. And Kazakh experts, in turn, said that their country is not pro-Western and not pro-Chinese, but pro-Kazakh.
One of the Russian experts, trying to warn his Kazakh counterparts, said that when the confrontation between Russia and the US and the US and China is over, the world will change dramatically – and clearly not in favor of America, so “the Central Asia should not bet on a sinking ship.” To which another Russian remarked: “Apparently, the Central Asia should bet on a ship that has not yet been built.”
New outlines of cooperation in Central Asia
For a long time, Central Asia was on the periphery of international processes, which allowed its states to develop without shocks. Now it goes to the “front line” of world politics and economy. The panelists tried to figure out how much Kazakhstan is interested in the international agenda.
One of the Kazakhstani experts, quoting Georgy Toloraya, the panelist of the first discussion, which was held on May 10, noted that Central Asia, like Eurasia, is an “oxymoron, an artificial union.” In the 1990s the region was disunited. Since then, none of the Central Asian countries got sustainable development, they do not have common ground, but do have obligations to other states. It is completely incomprehensible – who to whom within the region “is a brother, and who is a little brother.”
Moreover, there is another problem – Central Asia has never united independently. But it is not clear whom to call for help: with external players you need to keep your eyes open. One Kazakh proverb says: when camels are fighting, it is the flies who suffer.
One of the Russian experts, reflecting on the possibilities of cooperation, expressed the opinion that Central Asia is not a single region, but could become it under a certain policy. Sometimes, he remarked philosophically, something cannot be united on its own, but it can be united as part of something else.
After the “experience of instability” of the 1990s, Russia and the post-Soviet states face a dilemma: security or development? Remembering the turbulent years, we sometimes push the development for the sake of safety.
Central Asia is governed by regional egoism, where investments are casual, only to “bypass a neighbor.” With such a policy of business, it is not possible to cooperate regionally – only to compete regionally. For Central Asia, regional egoism was the main resource of that development in recent decades, but now it is already depleted, and other opportunities have not appeared. In 2007-2008, when globalization broke down for the first time and the process of world reconfiguration began, Putin and Nazarbayev created a Eurasian coalition to participate in globalization. However, several years later Russia went to a new cold war. And one can understand members of the Eurasian Union when they say that they entered this bloc not as someone else’s “home front,” but for their own development.
Russia had to become a “provider of connectivity to globalization” for Kazakhstan, but now it offers a “local network.” Attempts by Russia to deal with geopolitical problems may last for several years, although one should not exclude an optimistic scenario altogether.
What should Kazakhstan do in the new conditions? There is no recipe. Therefore, it is up to Kazakhstan itself – to wait or to explore other opportunities, for example, to overcome regional egoism and try to take something out of the Central Asian cooperation. Russia should stop lecturing America and finally become a “provider” for friendly states.
The Kazakh panelists reaffirmed “Russia’s inevitability”, but they expressed a wish that Russia should cease to dominate in the region. Kazakhstan, after all, can become a guide for Russia too, experts from the friendly country said, explaining: “You are turning to the East anyway.”
Eurasian integration: challenges and prospects
It is interesting that both Kazakhstani and Russian participants in this panel discussion spoke about the challenges, not the prospects. They noted that the problems of the Eurasian Union are inside it, and external challenges are not as terrible as they seem.
One of the Kazakhstani experts pointed to deterioration of attitude towards the Eurasian project in the Eurasian countries. Such skepticism is especially evident in Armenia, Belarus, Russia, whereas Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, on the contrary, welcome integration. It is especially alarming that in Russia, the main economy of the Union, there is practically no interest in the EAEU.
When the EAEU countries interact, the difference in cultures is evident. But despite the fact that the problem of lack of mutual understanding is obvious, serious joint research and analysis is not conducted. Therefore, for example, business negotiations very often fail at the level of presentations – simply because people do not understand each other.
One Russian expert confirmed the existence of this problem, but noted that the creation of a common cultural platform meets a political wall. For example, there was an idea to create a joint television channel, but the question of its ideological component arose immediately.
For the development of economic ties, it would be possible to hold seminars on national peculiarities of doing business. It would be nice to open engineering centers at the educational level for the development of joint ventures. These “education projects” should be invested to not only by businesses, but also by the states themselves.
According to one Kazakh expert, the states need to take several important steps towards the development of integration: in particular, at the state level, it is necessary to create a common database for the data exchange on the migration situation, to harmonize citizens’ databases, to introduce migratory cards for the citizens of the EAEU, to amend the legislation on currency control, to create a unified payment system of the EAEU countries, to organize joint processing centers. As for the ordinary citizens, it is necessary to abolish the 90/180 rule, to take a free residence after 30 days on the condition of registration, to issue a residence permits after two years of work and residence and, of course, to introduce free movement for residents of the EAEU countries. However, at the last session, one of the Russian panelists noted that one important point was not taken into account: if we maximally open the borders inside the union, we must close them as much as possible from the outside – this is required by security reasons. The question is whether the Eurasian countries are ready for this?
Still the panelists talked about challenges as a source growth. These problems, as they say, can be solved. Undoubtedly, the countries of Eurasia have yet to grow and grow and make many surprising discoveries, the main one among them being interaction in all spheres.
Still the panelists talked about challenges as sources of growth. These problems, as they say, can be solved. Undoubtedly, the countries of Eurasia have yet to grow and grow and make many surprising discoveries, among them the main thing is interaction in all spheres.