Asia and Eurasia
Central Asian Integration: An Impossible Puzzle?

Under geopolitical pressure, the Central Asian states will strive to position themselves not as a set of post-Soviet states, but as a stable and promising region for interaction with the outside world. In practice, this does not necessarily require formal signs of unification, Daria Rekeda writes.

During 2022 and 2023, the Central Asia+ format has become one of the most active forums for negotiation. Almost all major non-regional players have met at different levels with Central Asian leaders to discuss problems and prospects, including Russia, the US, China, South Korea, Japan and the EU.

The position of external players is clear – only a few of them have separate interests necessitating bilateral redress. At the same time, Central Asia itself, as a transit area for land routes, which has many natural resources to offer, forces even the most geographically distant powers to keep their finger on its pulse, especially taking into account the subregion’s political and economic proximity to Russia and China and geographical proximity to Afghanistan.

After 2018, the consultative meetings of the heads of state of Central Asia were also resumed. The meetings ended a long hiatus, and the expert community started talking about a new push towards the formation of a sustainable configuration for the subregion. Moreover, such discussions are facilitated in every possible way by the official bodies of all Central Asian countries. Partly it is a desire to show external partners their unity and partly because of the political significance of this topic in general.

It would seem that the presence of political will among the heads of state of the region, as well as unconditional international support, can and should spur a new stage of regional integration. In any case, it is becoming really interesting to watch how the negotiation process is going within the Central Asian Five.

However, in practice, the results do not always meet expectations. An analysis of the results of the CA+ meetings demonstrates that the goals of such events are more of a general political rather than a pragmatic nature, aimed at joint “moderation” of complex issues of regional development. In this sense, it is also interesting that even the Central Asian states themselves prefer to resolve pressing issues with their neighbours in a bilateral form, despite the fact that the problems of the region are largely shared ones. An incomplete list includes water resources management, energy, land transit conditions, religious extremism, etc.

The Central Asian states are striving for intraregional cooperation, but are in no hurry to create sustainable forms of integration. Such attempts were observed throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

The reasons for this approach include several factors that should be considered separately.
Asia and Eurasia
Central Asia: Towards a New Calibre of Relations in the Region
Rashid Alimov
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.

Sovereignty as a basic value

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the formation of new states that did not previously exist within their current borders. At the same time, the leadership of the countries, in addition to economic issues, faced the challenge of building the ideological foundations of new countries. One of the most important constructs has become sovereignty as a basic value that requires constant protection. This narrative has served as the basis of national history, state identity policy, etc.
In this sense, any integration associations that involve delegation of some sovereignty to supranational structures fail to generate support either among the elites or among the population. For many states, support for integration formats is hampered by the presence of direct or indirect conflicts – in 30 years, not all borders have become completely demarcated, and periodic interethnic and national conflicts have become the subject of expression of public discontent.

It is noteworthy that public opinion polls (for example, the Eurasian Barometer, 6th wave) demonstrate that in assessing the friendliness of states, external players – Russia, Turkey – often have greater support among the Central Asian states than their neighbours in the region.

Intraregional competition

Despite the significant potential of the region (the Eurasian Development Bank assesses the market of Central Asian countries as promising for investment) the attractiveness of each state varies.

Uzbekistan, which has become a kind of investment hub since 2016 thanks to Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s rise to power and his embrace of a new economic strategy, clearly “beats its neighbours” due to indirect accompanying factors – growing demographics (and, accordingly, competitive labour costs), low base effect, and a flexible government policy regarding the protection of foreign investment.

At the same time, the most promising and significant area for the states of Central Asia, declared in all countries, is investment not so much in the mining sector as in the manufacturing sector, where these factors make Uzbekistan attractive for new industry.

Kazakhstan, as the country with the strongest economy in the region, is also interested in diversifying its own economy and industrial production development. Taking into account the fact that sales markets have problems that need to be solved, as well as access to electricity and transport connectivity, the issue of internal competition also remains open.

A solution could be the creation of production chains; the region had experience with these during the Soviet period. However, due to political factors, it is impossible to imagine such cooperation at the moment.

Demography and a complex range of intraregional problems

The growing demographics mentioned above directly affects the internal strategies of the Central Asian states. A striking example is water policy, which is often aggravated by energy shortages.

During the Soviet period, four republics of Central Asia and the south of Kazakhstan were connected into a single energy ring, which made it possible to fill energy deficits (in winter and summer), as well as regulate agricultural activities that were significant for their economies.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, due to the exit of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan from the common energy ring, the construction of new hydraulic structures, the deterioration of old infrastructure, demographic growth and, as a consequence, an increase in water consumption, both energy and water use became chaotic.

In practice, this resulted in constant blackouts in large cities, lack of electricity in winter, and serious shortage of water for agricultural purposes, and in the future, for drinking water. These problems are of a permanent nature and there are no “national” ways to solve them yet.

In the context of constant crises and predictable “black swans”, the leaders of the Central Asian states try to solve emerging problems independently – sometimes, despite the existence of bilateral agreements or even contrary to them. Vivid examples include periodic introduction of restrictions on energy exports, water supply restrictions, and others that affect the economy and social stability of neighbours.

Development of regional strategies in this sense is even more difficult – the short-term interests of each country’s own population and political elites are more urgent than the medium-term contribution to the stability of the region. Moreover, the underdevelopment of integration processes does not create conditions for the problems of neighbours to become “their own” for each individual Central Asian state.

Effective third-party interaction formats

Two out of the five states are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (Uzbekistan has an observer status), three are in the CSTO, four are in the SCO and all Central Asian countries are members of the CIS. This creates a certain institutional framework for resolving the region’s systemic problems. Other issues are resolved in a bilateral format, when mutual benefits are obvious and the economy comes to the fore.

The bottom line is that given the unwillingness of the Central Asian states to delegate part of their sovereignty in order to arrive at common solutions, there is no real need for a new integration association. What can be done is done within the framework of the CIS and SCO, and what is not yet possible, due to internal reasons, cannot be done at all, regardless of what additional formats are established for this.

Under these conditions, the creation of a sustainable format for an integration association in Central Asia in the near future is unlikely. However, under geopolitical pressure, the Central Asian states will strive to position themselves not as a set of post-Soviet states, but as a stable and promising region for interaction with the outside world. In practice, this does not necessarily require formal signs of unification. If we turn to history, it was precisely for these purposes that the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, proposed the term Central Asia. We will have to see in the coming years how much the political demand to increase the level of representativity of the region as a whole in world affairs will compete with the objective lack of prerequisites for practical cooperation.
Eurasia and Asia
Central Asia: Competition or Cooperation?
Grigory Mikhailov
The regional elites, under the influence of stereotypes, as well as internal and external propaganda, had an impression that things were not going too well for Russia. Only in recent months, the assessments of Russia’s prospects began to change for the better, writes Grigory Mikhailov.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.