There are global challenges in the world, but there are no universal answers. We are entering a new historical era — the world is materially connected, and in this sense, global, but ideologically polymorphic and non-universal. Global institutions are not effective enough, but national governments, especially small and medium-sized states, cannot do everything themselves. This only increases interest in regional cooperation, writes Valdai Club expert Ivan Safranchuk.
For the outside world, the region of Central Asia has always looked like a cultural, historical, and — partly — political and economic whole. However, in the region itself, two tendencies have coexisted — rivalry between the countries on the one hand, and rapprochement and cooperation on the other.
Within the framework of the Soviet Union, interdependencies between the republics both arose naturally — at the expense of the development of the economy and social ties, and were artificially imposed on the republics — for ideological or political reasons, sometimes out of ignorance. Towards the end of the Soviet Union, many cases of inter-republic dependency seemed unfair, and the desire to eradicate them became part of a growing national consciousness. This created the conditions for action that can be called “regional egoism”. It manifested itself in a desire to either get rid of regional interdependencies or transform them, that is, to make neighbours self-reliant, in order to obtain unilateral benefits. The countries of Central Asia were drawn into a “bypass the neighbour” game: sections of roads and railways, pipelines and power lines were being built, which were to (sometimes even at greater expense, due to lengthier routes) bypass the neighbour’s territory. In many cases, this turned out to be impossible, and then the exploitation of the common infrastructure gave rise to many disputes and mutual claims, which led to the deterioration of political relations.
Such regional egoism was also fuelled by the desire to connect as quickly as possible to the globalisation trend that was gaining strength by the end of the 20th century. The scientific and technical base left over from the Soviet Union, as well as skilled labour and natural resources located in the region — all this provided hope for a decent life. At the same time, it only seemed possible to realise their potential through cooperation, first of all, with the advanced and rich countries of the world. However, an obstacle to integration with the world system was the location, in the depths of the Eurasian continent and the infrastructural connection, which was almost exclusively with Russia, then entangled in a deep economic crisis.
The countries of Central Asia tried to integrate into the world system not as a single region, but each on its own. At the same time, individual states set their sights on different niches in the world system. Turkmenistan bet on the energy sector both strategically and tactically. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan placed an initial emphasis on raw materials, hoping then to move into the industrial sphere. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan strategically relied on the water and energy sector, but in the short and medium term they tried to make money on transit transport projects. It is important that in the chosen niches all the countries of Central Asia wanted to be important players, not on a regional, but on a global scale.
However, in practice, the states of Central Asia found themselves in the same position as many other developing states: they had to compete with dozens of other developing countries for the attention, interest and favour of both world leaders and transnational companies. Ultimately, this meant they needed to play by someone else’s rules, which they had little opportunity to influence.
Gradually, the regional egoism and the degradation of regional cooperation complicated communications with the outside world, as well as efforts to effectively participate in globalisation, rather than facilitating these processes. Moreover, in the context of the global financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009, globalisation has seriously stumbled. For the first time in a long time, the world’s leading economic leaders became not a source of growth and development, but a source of serious problems; in addition, they have begun to take protectionist and restrictive measures. The slowdown in the global economy forced developing countries to pay more attention to regional cooperation mechanisms. In the post-Soviet space, the idea emerged that if the world economy ceases to be a source of growth, at least on the desired scale, then regional cooperation and regional economic integration can become such a source of growth. Indeed, back in the early 2000s, something paradoxical happened, from the point of view of the dominant views. When Russia and Kazakhstan started to experience economic growth in 1999 (with the beginning of a cycle of high prices for energy resources), their trade began to grow at a faster pace, not with the outside world, but with the post-Soviet countries — especially Ukraine and Belarus. It was primarily business to business trade. As soon as funds appeared, they began to spread along the old supply chains, rekindling economic ties. There were ideas that such trade and cooperation could not only be a consequence of growth tied to external factors, but also support growth and increased volumes. This meant that it was in the interest of these countries to create, in earnest, a customs union (rather than simply declaring the intention to do so) and even a common economic space, that is, to pursue cooperation with the ultimate intention of achieving economic integration. Against the backdrop of the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009, there are reasons to believe that regional integration can not only enhance local growth based on external factors, but against the background of a slowdown in the global economy, even become the main source of growth. This gives rise to ideas that the modality of globalisation is changing. Previously, it was seen as direct horizontal interaction among different actors, ideally leading to the “Flat World” the famous neo-liberal author Thomas Friedman described. But ideas have emerged that the new modality of globalisation will be that large regional integration associations will become its main participants, and dozens of states will pursue globalisation through them. It was on the basis of these ideas, and directly citing them, that Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev presented the Eurasian Economic Union project ten years ago. Understanding the genesis of these ideas should leave no doubt that the Eurasian Economic Union was not conceived as an isolationist bloc, or as, to paraphrase a well-known expression, a “new geopolitical prison”, that is, as a cover for some political and geopolitical projects.
In Central Asia, there is an interest in both a regional and a global vision of their region.
To maintain long-term social stability, the region needs broad economic development, coupled with re-industrialisation to create jobs. Objectively, this can be facilitated by both globalisation and regionalisation. The key is to find a safe balance.
Finding a balance between globalisation and regionalisation will not be easy. For example, in the context of the globalisation trend, being at the intersection of regions looked like an advantage. Everyone dreamed of becoming “bridges” between North and South, East and West. In the process of regionalisation, the “borderline state” turned out to be a serious challenge. The Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014, when the local elite split over the choice of a direction for deeper cooperation — with Russia or the EU — is a frightening illustration. There are other examples of unsuccessful attempts to get involved in big geopolitical games in the post-Soviet space — Saakashvili in Georgia and Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan.
There are global challenges in the world, but there are no universal answers. We are entering a new historical era — the world is materially connected, and in this sense, global, but ideologically polymorphic and non-universal. Global institutions are not effective enough, but national governments, especially small and medium-sized states, cannot do everything themselves. This only increases interest in regional cooperation.
Given such conditions, the elites of Central Asia will have to make strategic decisions, perhaps the most difficult ones since independence. The previous three decades were mainly a period of formation, the strengthening of statehood and the laying of the foundations for some kind of a “bright future”. Now decisions have to be made that will determine the appearance of individual countries and the entire region for one or two generations. Will the countries of the region be able to fully participate in Eurasian integration projects and conduct foreign relations from the standpoint of this policy of the world system? Or will they give priority to a large Chinese project, sharing a “common destiny” with it? Or will they focus on southern projects, expanding ties with South Asia and the Middle East?
Large-scale projects, economic and infrastructural ones, are being discussed in all designated areas. But regarding which of them will be pursued and which will remain unrealised for now, it is difficult to say unequivocally. Under conditions of strategic uncertainty, it is natural not to “put all your eggs in one basket” and not to miss any potential opportunities. This yields the desire to pursue every objective at once. However, this desire may have another dimension.
Choices are made not only about how societies will get rich, but also largely about what kind of societies they will be. It would seem that foreign policy and foreign economic decisions will actually have internal consequences in the medium-term. They will become decisions on the basic ideological and social issues of the internal organisation of societies. And this further explains the caution in choice. However, the line between prudent caution and dangerous indecision, between thoughtful choice and inability to make a choice, can be thin. And the elites of the Central Asian countries will have to demonstrate maturity in making strategic decisions in the coming years.