Wider Eurasia
Granite Does Not Melt: The Prospects for Cooperation Between Central Asia and Russia

The well-being of the peoples of the six countries of Eurasia, as well as, in many ways, the peace and stability of the region depends on how the trust-based bilateral and multilateral (Central Asia plus Russia) dialogue, as well as the multifaceted cooperation that has developed between the parties is maintained and improved upon, writes Rashid Alimov, Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor at the Academy of Public Administration under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan and the Taihe Institute (China), Secretary General of the SCO (2016-2018). The material was prepared especially for the 4th Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discusdion Club.

Powerful winds of change are unpredictably affecting contemporary international relations, which are constantly evolving but slowly crystallizing into a new global order. The world is in turmoil. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, there were 183 regional conflicts in 2023, reflecting a grim trend of increasing war and violence across the globe and a record high in the last 30 years. Geostrategic rivalry has reached an unprecedented scale, with dangerous consequences. The deepening division among permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, principally responsible for maintaining global peace and stability, is mirrored in all member states and beyond. The nascent just world order is facing its greatest challenges.

Against this background, relations between Russia and the states of Central Asia are characterised by stability, a high level of trust and mutual respect, and are essentially privileged in nature. Not only the well-being of the peoples of the six countries, but also, in many ways, peace and stability in Eurasia depend on how the trust-based bilateral and multilateral (Central Asia plus Russia) dialogue, as well as the multifaceted cooperation that has developed between the parties is maintained and improved upon. The successes of one of the parties invariably affect the achievements of the other partners, as well as the problems they face. The unprecedented challenges and threats that Russia has encountered recently, including the sanctions tsunami unleashed by the “collective West,” have not broken Russia and the spirit of cooperation with the countries of Central Asia in any of the existing formats. This confirms the granite strength of the existing relations between Russia and the countries of the region in the new era, as well as the futility of attempts to split them. Granite is known to be resistant to external influences and does not melt.

Russia and the countries of Central Asia equally value peace and treat it with care. The common great Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and the sacred memory of its heroic deeds have forever cemented the friendship between the peoples of Russia and Central Asia. The participation of all five leaders of the countries of the region in the Victory Parade on Red Square on May 9, 2024 is clear evidence of this. Next year, 2025, marks the 80th anniversary of the Great Victory over fascism and the end of the Second World War. It is important to take full advantage of the preparations for this anniversary in order to convey to the greater public, primarily young people, the truth about the inexorable victory of good over evil, justice over lawlessness.

On youth

Political and socio-economic upheavals, as well as difficulties in international affairs are characterised by an increase in terrorist activity and violent extremism – these and many other factors aggravate the challenges faced by the youth of Central Asia and Russia. The fragile consciousness of young people becomes the object of targeted influence from various kinds of terrorist organisations and extremist groups, including those who have found refuge in Afghanistan. Their main goal is to destroy moral foundations and generally accepted norms of behaviour, to impose an ideology alien to national values, to sow poisonous seeds of hostility and anger, and most importantly, to involve young men and women in their destructive activities. This directly threatens peace and stability in Eurasia and deprives young people of their prospects for self-realisation and a decent future.

Global and regional socio-economic difficulties necessitate that we pay particularly close attention to the youth. In 2023, the heads of state of Central Asia, home to over 38 million young people (half of the region’s population), agreed to implement a common youth policy that includes about twenty areas. An agreement on this topic was adopted for the first time, which indicates that youth issues are a priority for the region.

The energy of youth can provide a powerful impetus to the development of the regional economy. It is important that this energy is channelled in creative ways to create a safer and more just world.

Global events such as World Youth Festivals and the Games of the Future, initiated by Russia, provide a unique opportunity to establish friendships between young leaders from all continents and discuss joint plans in the fields of business, sports, culture, science and new technology. Delegates from Central Asian countries took advantage of this, and the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan offered to host the next Games of the Future in their countries. This is a clear example of how Russia’s social initiatives are reflected in strengthening cooperation and involve young people in processes aimed at improving the future. Encouraging dialogue and mutual understanding between young people in Russia and Central Asia is not only an urgent task, but also a guarantee that relations between Russia and the countries of the region will move forward in a stable, sustainable manner and in the interests of all parties.

For young people from Central Asian countries, Russia has been and remains the most attractive and prestigious place to receive a higher education. The top five countries from which the largest number of students are sent to study in Russia are Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; Kyrgyzstan ranks tenth. According to Russian sources, they account for more than half of the 355 thousand foreign students studying at Russian universities. This is largely due to knowledge of the Russian language, which has no serious competitors in the region.

Forward to the Future: Between Fear and Hope
The Valdai Club youth conference on March 5 consisted of three thematic sessions and an open discussion. As during the closed-door workshops held on March 3–4, which you can read about here, the participants in the open session were guided by the image of the future presented in the new Valdai Club report “Charting the 2040: Younger Generation Insight on the World in the Making.”
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The Russian language

The Russian language has deep roots in Central Asian countries. It fulfils an extremely important social and cultural mission and is actively used as a means of interethnic and international communication, which is reflected in the Basic Laws – the Constitutions of the Central Asian states. It is believed that over the years of independence, the Russian language has lost its position in the region. However, this assessment does not entirely objectively reflect the state of affairs. The 1989 All-USSR Population Census showed that on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, 37% of Kazakhs, 63% of Kyrgyz, 70% of Tajiks, 72% of Turkmen and 87% of Uzbeks were not fluent in Russian. These were mainly residents of rural and remote areas. According to modern estimates by various researchers, during the years of independence, the level of knowledge of the Russian language among the population of the region has not decreased, but on the contrary, it has increased, and in some countries, almost doubled (for example, in Kazakhstan). It is important to keep in mind that compared to 1989, the populations of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have almost doubled.

What has been achieved over the years of independence is the result of the consistent efforts of the leaders and governments of the countries of Central Asia, which, along with the state, are paying increased attention to the study of the Russian language. Largely due to this, the language of Pushkin and Dostoevsky is not perceived as foreign in the region. However, in the long term it may not become so for various reasons. For example, the volume of labour migration has led to a lack of Russian language teachers. Their acute shortage has been felt in the region for decades, not only in schools, but also in universities. The media space in Russian has also narrowed. It is important that Russia strongly encourages and supports efforts to maintain interest in the Russian language. Schools with a Russian curriculum are being built in the region; twenty-five branches of leading Russian universities are operating there and could expand. Every third student from Central Asia studies under Russian government programmes. “Ambassadors of the Russian language,” although not in large numbers, are welcome guests in the region. Russia also provides assistance in training national personnel – Russian language teachers in schools in Central Asian countries.

However, there are problems, as well as ways to solve them. The topic of the Russian language, as a rule, is discussed at the highest level, since it is of an interstate nature. Appropriate decisions are made. There are great expectations in this respect from the efforts of Rossotrudnichestvo, whose activities in the countries of Central Asia are very effective, but still unaffordable for only one such department. It is important to remember that when it comes to language, which is the main carrier of culture, it is necessary to minimise bureaucracy and give room for flexibility and efficiency. The 225th anniversary of Alexander Pushkin’s birth provides a unique opportunity to convey the charm of the Russian language to everyone who in the countries of Central Asia strives to participate in the dialogue of civilisations and speak one of the official languages of the UN, SCO and CIS.

Russia – Central Asia: No Alternative or Natural Partnership?
On May 14–15, 2024, in Ufa, the very heart of Eurasia, the 4th Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club took place. One of the participants lauded it as “a feast of intellectual thought.” We invite our readers to explore what was said, because not all discussions were open to the general public, and the most interesting things happen, as we know, behind closed doors. We will open this door for you.
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The dialogue of cultures

In modern conditions, more than ever, it is necessary in every possible way to support and mutually enrich the intercultural dialogue between Russia and the countries of Central Asia, which is an important factor in strengthening Russian-Central Asian relations. The rich spiritual and cultural soil of Central Asia has long attracted the attention of outstanding Russian Asia specialists and researchers. Nikolay Przhevalsky, Vasily Bartold, Alexey Fedchenko, Andrey Semyonov, Ivan Mushketov, Vasily Oshanin and many, many other scientists (it’s impossible to count them all) have made a significant contribution to the study of the history, archaeology, and ethnography of the region. Many of their works are included in the treasury of Asian studies, and their names are forever included in the general history of science in Russia and Central Asia. And not just their names.

For example, over the course of a whole century, film dialogue has been maintained and developed between filmmakers from Russia and the countries of the region. A remarkable fact: exactly 90 years ago, in 1934, a group of Moscow writers and playwrights – Viktor Shklovsky, Vsevolod Vishnevsky, Lev Kuleshov and Osip Brik started offering film acting courses and a screenwriting workshop for Tajik writers in Dushanbe. During WWII, the Mosfilm and Lenfilm studios worked in Almaty, and Soyuzdetfilm and the Odessa Film Studio, as well as 17 theatres were evacuated to Dushanbe, along with such famous actors as Faina Ranevskaya and Rina Zelenaya, Boris Tenin and Boris Andreev, Georgy Miller and Sergey Martinson. During the evacuation, close creative cooperation was established between Russian and Tajik filmmakers, 15 feature films and over 100 documentaries were shot. In our time, examples of such effective cooperation are rare. In particular, the talented Tajik film director Bakhtiyor Khudoynazarov, together with Russian film masters, released a number of feature films that became a striking event in world cinema. It is obvious that cooperation in the field of cinema can be very useful and promising, taking into account more than a century of Russian experience in film production.

Just as the culture and art of Russia and the countries of Central Asia are multifaceted and diverse, the possibilities for intercultural dialogue and cooperation are wide and limitless. Over the years of independence, the countries of Central Asia have been returning to their unique national cultures and traditions; their rapid revival has gained powerful energy. Over the past twenty years, 47 monuments and sites from the countries of Central Asia have been included into the World Cultural Heritage List. The region is experiencing a real tourism boom. For example, over the past four years, the number of trips by Russian tourists to Uzbekistan has increased more than 10-fold – from about 37,000 to over 403,000 people, and the number of tourists from Russia visiting Tajikistan in 2023 increased by 92.8% compared to 2022 – to approximately 262,400 people. The number of Central Asian citizens visiting Russia as tourists has also increased. Apparently, this trend will continue and strengthen. It is in the interests of Russia and the countries of Central Asia to raise the role of cultural and humanitarian ties to a qualitatively new level, which will contribute to the deepening of mutual understanding and the development of their traditional, age-old friendship. The strengthening of this cultural community and the countries’ expansion of knowledge about each other in the new era is necessary for strengthening ties for the sake of joint development.

The Central Asia + Russia format

In recent years, the atmosphere in Central Asia has changed radically, filled with a spirit of mutual trust and predictability, and joint plans for the region’s future. Thanks to the wisdom and foresight of the leaders and their political will, an atmosphere of consolidation, good neighbourliness and friendly communication has prevailed. The consolidated view of the heads of state of the Central Asian countries on the peaceful and prosperous future of the region served as themes of the Consultative Meetings initiated in 2017 by Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. An open, trusting and constructive dialogue between the leaders of the countries of Central Asia has opened the main road to a sustainable, economically developed and prosperous region, which, according to UN forecasts, will be home to over 100 million people by 2050.

Through joint efforts, Central Asia is, step by step, transforming into a space of new opportunities in economics and trade, investment and science, innovation and technology. As noted at the 5th annual Meeting of the Leaders of the Region’s Countries in Dushanbe in September 2023, over the past five years, intraregional trade turnover has grown by more than 80% and successfully surpassed 10 billion USD. Experts believe that with the full implementation of transport and logistics potential and the strengthening of transport connectivity, trade turnover within the region could reach $15 billion or even $20 billion in the near future. The countries of Central Asia are known to be landlocked, but there is a fair wind in their economic sails. It is important that Russia fully supports efforts aimed at strengthening the sovereignty of the Central Asian countries and creating conditions for the gradual formation of an economically prosperous Eurasia.

The first Central Asia + Russia summit, held in Astana in mid-October 2022, confirmed the special privileged status of relations between the parties and mutual interest in taking them to a qualitatively new level. The countries of Central Asia see in Russia a time-tested, loyal friend, a reliable strategic partner and ally, with whom they can and should build a common future. The joint action plan adopted following the first summit became a kind of “road map” for bringing cooperation between Russia and the countries of the region to a qualitatively new level. The plan involves the launch of six expert platforms in the fields of trade, transport and communications, science and education, and humanitarian cooperation. The programme to stimulate industrial cooperation between the countries of Central Asia and Russia is designed to create favourable conditions for joint ventures and the exchange of experience.

For Russia, strengthening ties with the region in different formats is nothing new. All countries of Central Asia are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States; two countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are members of the Eurasian Economic Union, where Uzbekistan is an observer; three countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation; four countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – along with Russia and China are co-founders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, created in June 2001. It is important to note that back in July 2000 in the city of Dushanbe, when discussing the goals and objectives of a new regional organisation which was universal and comprehensive in nature, the heads of the Shanghai Five proposed focusing their attention, first of all, on the problems of Central Asia. In other words, the region was initially seen by the founding fathers of the SCO as the core of the Organisation. Over more than two decades, the SCO has turned into a trans-regional association of global significance, connecting vast geopolitical spaces that go far beyond the borders of Eurasia. At the same time, in the process of its expansion and transformation, the focus of the SCO has not shifted, and the problems of Central Asia continue to remain among the special priorities of the Organisation’s member states. Much credit goes to Russia and China for this, which have shown great interest in cooperation with the countries of the region in countering the threats of the spread of extremism and international terrorism, and the economic development of the Central Asian states. At the same time, this does not prevent them from deepening relations with the countries of the region in the new 5+1 formats they created.

The Central Asia plus Russia format has its own characteristics. First, Russia has accumulated a wealth of experience in partnership and allied relations with countries in the region. Second, this format is the only one that covers all countries of the region, which makes it possible to conduct an in-depth dialogue with all involved actors simultaneously. Third, the wide-format dialogue between Central Asia and Russia was formed against the backdrop of centripetal processes within the region and the complex geopolitical and geo-economic situation in the world. In other words, the Central Asia + Russia format provides a unique opportunity for all parties involved to form a joint strategic vision of the prospects for strengthening cooperation, not directed against third parties, but aimed at a common future.

Wider Eurasia
Cooperation Between Good Neighbours
On May 20th, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion titled “Russia and Central Asia in new strategic conditions” following the 4th Central Asian Conference that took place in Ufa on May 14-15. The discussion was moderated by Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.