After 30 years of development, against the backdrop of tremendous changes in world politics and economics, the Central Asian countries have a strong desire to embrace innovation, change, development and modernisation, writes Valdai Club expert Zhao Huasheng.
Central Asia is home to five countries, all of which are very different from each other. As a region, its characteristics can only be summed up in general terms, given its regional representativeness, but not every country is necessarily the same.
As a whole, change is the basic feature of the current Central Asia region, or rather Central Asia is undergoing a period of great transformation. This is the biggest overall trend shift in the Central Asian countries since their independence in 1991, and it is clearly reflected in its domestic politics, regional relations and foreign policies.
In the field of domestic politics, change is characterised by reform, as can be seen in the two major powers of Central Asia, Uzbekistan, the most populous country, and Kazakhstan, the largest country in territory. The two countries have had a change of presidents in 2016 and 2019, respectively, and entered the second generation of leaders, which led to the beginning of domestic reforms in both countries.
Among the Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan is the most unique in terms of style. After independence, it differed from other Central Asian countries in its choice of a national development model. During the reign of the late former president Karimov, there were both significant achievements and problems. Instead of radical market-based economic reforms, it opted for a more conservative and old-fashioned approach, and as a result, for a period of time, its economy had fewer ups and downs, but it also developed relatively slowly.
In foreign policy, like other Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan’s pursuit of diplomacy was multi-faceted, but it has stumbled somewhat in the balance of great power relations. At first it moved closer to America and away from Russia, withdrawing from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty. It was the first country to agree to an American military base on its territory after 9/11, which it did without consulting Russia. However, its relations with the US broke down after the riots in Andijan in 2005. Uzbekistan ousted the Americans from the Hannabad military base and declared an alliance with Russia.
In terms of regional relations, Uzbekistan was not on good terms with some of its neighbours, especially Tajikistan. The two countries had been embroiled in serious conflicts over water resources, even going so far as to talk about the use of force. Despite its enthusiasm for regional integration, cooperation with other countries was not easy, especially with Kazakhstan. In terms of social governance, Uzbekistan’s policies were relatively strict, which made people’s minds more confined and society more closed.
President Karimov died suddenly in 2016. Former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over as president and began to promote reforms and innovations both in domestic and foreign policies. He set five priorities for the state’s development for the first five years (state and social development; judicial reform; economic liberalization; development in the social field; and prudent and constructive diplomacy), and proceeded to formulate a 2022-2026 development strategy to build a new Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s domestic and foreign policies have taken on a new look. It is making efforts to attract investment and develop the economy; improving social governance and enlivening society; improving relations with neighbouring countries and eliminating accumulated grievances; promoting regional integration by uniting with Central Asian countries; and conducting comprehensive diplomacy and actively developing relations with all other countries.
Kazakhstan also got a new president, in 2019, when Nursultan Nazarbayev handed over the executive role to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. In Kazakhstan, unlike his former peer in Uzbekistan, Mr. Nazarbayev is not only alive but also politically privileged. The former president is the founder of Kazakhstan state. During his 29 years in power, he made great achievements and contributed to Kazakhstan significantly. However, there were also a lot of problems which accumulated. At first, President Tokayev’s steps of reform were modest. In January 2022, a mass riot exploded in Kazakhstan, with various people mixed in and various actors hidden behind the scenes. The riot was so fierce that it even threatened the survival of the government.
This dealt a heavy blow to the country’s stability, but it also freed President Tokayev to intensify and accelerate reforms. In March 2022, President Tokayev introduced his vision of political reform in his national address, which was followed by a referendum on a constitutional amendment in June. President Tokayev sees the constitutional amendment and referendum as a historic turning point for Kazakhstan, marking the official start of the new reforms. His goal was to introduce a more effective mode of state administration, promote economic development, rationally distribute power, expand popular participation in the state administration, strengthen the protection of civil rights, promote political democratisation, and fully modernise the country.
Although the reforms of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan do not cover all Central Asian countries, they have a key shaping influence on the formation of regional development trend due to their special status in Central Asia’s politics, economy and diplomacy. While it is difficult to determine how far Central Asia will go down this path, whether it will move towards a new model and what that model will ultimately be, the new trend itself is certainly emerging. It is fundamentally motivated by the fact that after 30 years of development, against the backdrop of tremendous changes in world politics and economics, the Central Asian countries have a strong desire to embrace innovation, change, development and modernisation. In fact, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have followed this trend to varying degrees. This is an important feature of Central Asia today.
The integration of Central Asia is another important trend in the region. The five Central Asian countries occupy the same region and they are similar or identical in terms of history, culture, religion, language, customs, and so on, which gives them a great sense of commonality.
Central Asian integration started a long time ago. In January 1994, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan signed a treaty establishing a “common economic space”, which is regarded as the beginning of Central Asian integration. Kyrgyzstan joined it the same year, and Tajikistan followed in 1998, after the end of its civil war. The mechanism was renamed several times, first to the Central Asian Economic Union and then to the Central Asian Economic Community. Under the framework of the Central Asian Economic Community, institutional mechanisms ranging from the president and Prime Minister to the ministers of foreign affairs and defence were established, executive agencies were set up, the Central Asia Cooperation Development Bank was registered, and an integrated development strategy was formulated. However, none of this was ever really implemented or played a substantial role.
In 2001, the Central Asian Economic Community was again elevated, to Central Asia Cooperation Organization. In 2004, at the suggestion of the President of Uzbekistan, Russia entered the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, which changed the nature of Central Asian integration. A year later, in 2005, in response to President Putin’s proposal, the Central Asian Cooperation Organisation was merged into the Eurasian Economic Community, and the Central Asian integration process was interrupted.
It is generally believed that the struggle for leadership between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan was the main reason for the failure of Central Asian integration during this period. With Central Asia’s biggest economy and a GDP equivalent to that of the other four combined in the 1990s (it is now twice as big), Kazakhstan naturally saw itself as the leader of the region. Uzbekistan, which had been the traditional political and cultural centre of Central Asia in Soviet times, and had an industrial base and the highest population of the five, was not willing to be subordinate to the others. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, two small countries that cannot compete economically with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, were hesitating because they feared that integration would hurt their economic interests.
Central Asian integration was re-launched in 2018 after a 13-year interruption. In March of that year, the heads of the four Central Asian states and the speaker of Turkmenistan met in Astana. This was the first gathering of all the Central Asian leaders in 20 years, thus once again launching the process of Central Asian integration. This round of integration started from a high point: all the five Central Asian countries joined from the very beginning. From the second meeting, all the presidents of the five countries participated in it, which became the real Central Asia Summit (officially named “Consultative Meeting of Central Asian Leaders”). Four Central Asian summits have been held; the last was held in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, in July 2022, at which it was decided to sign the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation for the Development of Central Asia in the 21st Century.
The main initiator of this round of integration is Uzbekistan President Mirziyoyev, and it has received a positive response from Kazakhstan. The side-by-side tandem driving this integration is an important reason for its smooth development. Conditions are also more favourable now.
Uzbekistan’s relations with all the Central Asian countries have improved and political obstacles have been removed. Intra-regional trade and investment have increased, and economic ties are getting closer. The disruption and restructuring of international industries and supply chains have also encouraged Central Asian countries to strengthen cooperation. Moreover, in the new security environment, the Central Asian States feel the need to support each other to fend off security risks and to preserve their independence and territorial integrity, as clearly expressed in the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation.
Analysts have mixed views on the prospects of Central Asian integration, with both optimistic and pessimistic forecasts. The pessimistic view is that Central Asia looks monolithic from the outside, but internally it is very different; its political cultures are not the same and the countries are not moving in the same direction. Some say that the integration of Central Asia is impossible because Central Asian countries share a common history but not a common present. There are also views that the economic complementarity of Central Asian countries is low, and doubts are expressed about whether integration will yield significant economic benefits. Some people also believe that the integration of Central Asia has no prospect without the participation of neighbouring big powers. However, in any case, a new Central Asian integration process is on its way, with the fifth Central Asian summit to be held in Tajikistan in this September.
Increased regional identity is also an important trend in Central Asia. Now the countries of Central Asia are increasingly recognizing a shared identity as Central Asians, which is the result of both internal and external functions. The countries feel that Central Asia as a collective is more easily recognized by the world; that it is better able to enhance its international standing and carry more weight in dealing with the outside world.
The international community has also played a significant role in shaping Central Asia’s collective identity. For many countries, especially those that do not have a particularly big stake in Central Asia, it is easier and convenient diplomatically to deal with Central Asia as a whole, hence the “5+1” model, in which the five Central Asian countries meet with one dialogue partner. The pioneer of this model was Japan. As early as 2004, Japan held a 5+1 dialogue with the five Central Asian countries. South Korea followed suit in 2007, and many other countries have followed the example. Relatively major countries such as China, Russia, the United States and India had paid more attention to bilateral channels for quite a long time, because bilateral dialogues are more targeted, with different issues in their relations with each other. The US did not launch the 5+1 model with Central Asia until 2015, Russia and India in 2019, and China in 2020. Now, the “5+1” model has become a popular way for the international community to deal with Central Asia, and it has begun to be promoted from the ministerial level to the level of head of state, which undoubtedly greatly promotes the formation of the collective identity of Central Asia.
It can also be seen that the independence, autonomy and subjectivity of the Central Asian region is growing. The five countries of Central Asia emerged from the ruins of the collapse of the Soviet Union and are affected and restricted by various relations formed by history. Therefore, initially, this region objectively had some special political tint in international politics and it is often regarded as a region dominated by other countries. Now that sense is eroding fast, as evidenced by the revival of Central Asian integration. At the first Central Asian Summit, President Nazarbayev said that Central Asia does not need a third party to solve its own affairs, which also underscores this premise.
Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Central Asian countries have been continuing to maintain and develop particularly close relations with Russia. However, they are also showing greater autonomy and determination in expanding their political, economic, and security ties in all directions, and working to create the physical conditions for connectivity with other parts of the world. The surrounding regions in particular are vigorously promoting construction of infrastructure and transportation projects, and integrating more deeply into the world economy.
Central Asia is increasingly becoming an ordinary region, with the political overtones left by its historic legacy gradually fading away. This is also a long-term trend in the region.