Asia and Eurasia
Central Asia: Towards a New Calibre of Relations in the Region

The countries of Central Asia, as independent parties engaged in international relations, do not want the region to become an arena of multilateral competition in the spirit of the “Great Game”. They have other long-term interests: strengthening the neighbourhood as well as building peaceful, friendly, equal and mutually respectful among themselves and with the outside world, writes Rashid Alimov. 

On September 14-15, 2023, the Anniversary Consultative Meeting of the Heads of Five Central Asian States will be held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Five years have passed since the first meeting was convened at the initiative of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, and a mechanism for consultations at the highest level was launched. Today we can say with confidence that the hopes for a “informal club” of regional leaders have been fully justified. Moreover, this is true of all components, including political, economic, cultural and humanitarian ones.

1. Within a fairly short period by historical standards, the leaders of the Central Asian “five” managed to cover what might normally have taken a quarter century. Their speed of movement towards each other after the first meeting (Astana, 2018) was so high, and the initiatives aimed at strengthening regional cooperation were so numerous that during the preparation of each subsequent summit the level and quality of cooperation rose, and the vector of practical interaction steadily expanded. This, first of all, reflected the political will of the heads of state of Central Asia, who decided to put an end to disunity, radically change the atmosphere in the region, and create conditions under which the interests of consolidation, good neighbourliness and friendly relations would become decisive.

2. It was largely possible to solve this problem, despite the change of leaders in some countries of the region, and the painful historical border issues remaining. At the same time, while at one point any outbreak of tension in a particular country in the region could lead to an acute conflict between neighbours, in the end common interest prevailed in looking for and finding the means to solve problems jointly that are difficult or impossible to solve within a national framework of any given country alone. The culture of equal, mutually respectful dialogue has firmly established itself in the region. Based on an objective and balanced approach, and taking into account existing realities, leaders made pragmatic decisions that met the aspirations of their people in the interests of ensuring stability and sustainable development in the region

3. This was clearly evident during the period of “planetary isolation”: at the height of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the governments and peoples of the Central Asian countries extended a helping hand to each other and demonstrated maximum solidarity by opening “green corridors” for humanitarian aid, primarily for vaccines and medicines, medical equipment and food. The economic crisis caused by the pandemic negatively impacted the development of all countries in the region, but it encouraged them to strengthen and deepen regional trade and economic cooperation. Bilateral trade and the region’s economy have revived, business activity has recovered, the number of joint ventures has increased significantly, mutual investments have increased, and new opportunities have been created to improve transport connectivity, as well as the green and digital economies. Exhibitions of commodity producers and economic forums to discuss current problems of joint economic development have become regular. We can say that the leaders of the Central Asian countries have begun the step-by-step establishment of the regional economy of the future, and eventually, perhaps, a single economic space.

4. Relations between scientific and cultural institutions, sports leagues and public organisations have significantly expanded. Intra-regional travel and even mixed marriages have increased significantly. During the preparation and on the eve of the summit in Dushanbe, a whole series of major joint-events took place; the participants included scientists and cultural figures, as well as leaders of the women’s and youth movements of five countries. Forums of scientists and rectors of higher educational institutions, women and youth of Central Asia had a great public impact. Every resident of the region experienced positive changes affecting their daily lives.

5. It has become important for Central Asia to speak with a single voice at international platforms, particularly the UN and SCO, Incidentally, starting from 2021, in official documents of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Central Asia began to be designated as the core of the SCO, which, of course, emphasized the special significance of the region in the global political context. Over the past five years, the states of Central Asia have initiated over twenty resolutions in the UN General Assembly, which cover the most pressing problems facing humanity: from the nuclear non-proliferation regime to youth problems and the need to preserve glaciers. It is noteworthy that, at the initiative of the Five, on July 28, 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a special resolution declaring Central Asia a Zone of Peace, Trust and Cooperation.

6. It is obvious that the creation of the mechanism of Consultative Meetings played a stabilising role in the development of the region, and helped to strengthen centripetal forces and intercountry efforts in the fight against transnational threats and modern challenges. Critically important among them is the Afghan problem, which is complicated in nature. Three Central Asian countries are direct neighbours of Afghanistan, where the Taliban regained power exactly 25 months ago, in August 2021, after the shameful flight of the American military. Since then, the topic of Afghanistan — a country with an unpredictable future, a source of both international terrorism and illicit narcotics — has been under the constant attention of Central Asian leaders.
Diplomatic Chess and National Reconciliation in Afghanistan
On July 20, the Valdai Club held an online discussion titled “Afghanistan After the US Withdrawal: A Security Vacuum Forever?” The discussion was moderated by Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.
Club events

7. The shadow of the Afghan problem has long extended beyond the region. It will soon be forty years since the topic of Afghanistan became firmly entrenched on the agenda of the UN and its Security Council. Several country and international initiatives were launched with the aim of collectively developing a “universal recipe” for an Afghan settlement. However, unfortunately, none of them were successful, and the countries of the region continued to face trouble and threats emanating from the territory of Afghanistan. It is obvious that the Afghan issue requires constant collective analysis, development and the coordination of a common view on the future of the country. It can be expected that a single, principled position on Afghanistan will be adopted at the Dushanbe summit — a very sensitive and acute topic for the region and the world.

8. The topic of radicalisation and extremism among young people is also a matter of general concern. The proximity to Afghanistan, and other hotbeds of radicalism remains a source of worry. The countries of Central Asia have adopted and are constantly improving a set of measures to counter extremism. However, the attractiveness of extremism among certain categories of young people continues to occur, as does the recruitment of boys and girls into extremist groups. Protecting young people from the pernicious influence of radical ideas is one of the tasks that can be solved by coordinating efforts and measures in the countries of the region. The agreement on the general directions of youth policy in Central Asia is expected to be adopted following the summit. It is intended to become the basis for long-term joint work with the younger generation, which makes up more than a third of the region’s population of almost 80 million.

9. The signing of an Agreement on Strengthening the Interconnectedness of Land Transport in Central Asia is also expected at the upcoming summit. It took one year to work out this document. The final version of the draft Agreement will be approved by the transport ministers, who will meet for the first time in the “five” format on the eve of the Dushanbe summit. The practical implementation of the Agreement will provide conditions for reliable and efficient international transportation and will have a positive impact on the development of foreign trade relations and the sustainability of supply chains, which are invariably associated with the coordination of efforts in the field of transport. It is expected that the new quality of cooperation in the field of transport will affect the growth of international transportation of not only goods, but also passengers, and will give an additional impetus to the development of the tourism industry. For the landlocked states of Central Asia, this Agreement is of great importance because, among other things, it will significantly increase the attractiveness of the region as a reliable bridge between East and West.

10. In recent years, interest in Central Asia, which is experiencing a new stage of consolidation and recovery, has been growing steadily. One of the reasons is that it is home to the most extensive hydrocarbon reserves on the planet. However, this is not all the region has to offer. The countries of the region are home to a wide variety of mineral resources, primarily deposits of non-ferrous, precious and rare earth metals. An invaluable renewable resource is fresh water, which is formed mainly on the territory of the Republic of Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic. Moreover, about 60% of fresh water reserves in Central Asia are concentrated in Tajikistan. In addition, largely thanks to the efforts of national governments and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, over the past ten years the Central Asian region has become one of the most significant transport hubs for the transcontinental flow of goods from Asia to Europe.

It is obvious that the transit potential of the region will only increase, and not only with respect to transport: in the coming years, the existing extensive network of oil and gas pipelines will significantly expand, primarily in the direction of China. The increased attention to the region is to a large extent connected with turbulent Afghanistan, which will remain a serious challenge for the countries of the region and the world for a long time. These and other factors have turned Central Asia into one of the most important geopolitical centres of the modern world. The creation of ten “Central Asia +” formats is a confirmation of the special significance and intrinsic value of the region not only for world powers, but also for individual countries seeking to gain a strong foothold in the centre of Asia.

11. British historian and geographer Halford J. Mackinder wrote about the strategic importance of Central Asia at the dawn of the 20th century. It is he who introduced the concept of the “Heartland”, as well as the well-known formula: “Whoever rules the Eastern Europe will rule the Heartland, whoever rules the Heartland will rule the World Island, and whoever rules the World Island (that is, Eurasia) will rule the world!” Western experts, when building their designs and strategic plans for Central Asia, are still guided by the ideas and views of this British scholar. However, in the 2020s, the world has changed radically and continues to pursue a path towards multipolarity. The countries of Central Asia, as independent parties engaged in international relations, do not want the region to become an arena of multilateral competition in the spirit of the “Great Game”. They have other long-term interests: strengthening the neighbourhood as well as building peaceful, friendly, equal and mutually respectful among themselves and with the outside world. A consultative meeting of the leaders of Central Asian states should confirm this course.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.