Processes and Mechanisms for Multilateral Interaction in Central Asia at the Present Stage

The current year may mark an important step for Central Asian countries – constantly vacillating between rapprochement and disunity – toward the former. It is essential that they do so if there is to be a collective response to present-day global and regional challenges. There are also mutually beneficial economic, transport, logistical, cultural, humanitarian, and other projects to be implemented.

Existing, institutionally formalized vectors of Central Asian multilateral cooperation can currently be categorized as follows:

1)    The post-Soviet vector (CIS, CSTO, EAEU);

2)    The Chinese vector (SCO);

3)    The Turkic vector (CCTSS, TURKSOY);

4)    The European vector (EU – Central Asia);

5)    The US vector (C5+1);

6)    The Caspian vector (Caspian summits, Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea);

7)    The East Asian vector (“Central Asia plus Japan” Dialogue, Central Asia-Republic of Korea Cooperation Forum).

In the meantime, the interstate unions and dialogue venues formed within these vectors are primarily characterized by the involvement of extra-regional actors along with the Central Asian republics. Therefore, the agendas and objectives of these unions and venues are either largely geopolitical and not confined to Central Asia, or related to two or three countries in the region, or mostly cater to respective foreign policy partners.

Against this background, the Working (Consultative) Meeting of the Central Asian Heads of State (Turkmenistan was represented by Mejlis Speaker Akdzha Nurberdiyeva) held in Astana on March 15 actually revitalized the Central Asian vector of multilateral cooperation.

The last interstate Central Asian union – Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) – ceased to exist in 2005, when it was folded into the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), largely because both this organization and its predecessors (CAC, CAEC) proved unable to reach their regional cooperation objectives. What’s more, Turkmenistan originally steered clear of involvement in this process. The next time the Central Asian presidents met independently, without official representatives of other states and international organizations in attendance, was on April 28, 2009, in Almaty, where the Summit of States Founders of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) was held.

The Astana meeting was made possible largely by changes in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. Upon assuming office in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev opted for a “reset” with neighboring countries in a bid to end existing antagonisms and establish a constructive atmosphere. The Astana meeting focused on border delimitation and demarcation in Central Asia, the use of water and energy resources, trade and economic cooperation, regional security, etc. The next summit is scheduled for March 2019 in Tashkent.

The Central Asian vector was further promoted by President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s state visit to Uzbekistan on April 23-25, 2018. He not only expressed support for the process in question but also proposed to institutionalize it by establishing a Consultative Council of the Central Asian Heads of State. Judging by all appearances, Ashkhabad can no longer sustain its self-imposed isolation based on permanent neutrality, given the complex developments in and around the region today, particularly in neighboring Afghanistan. Turkmenistan is also interested in neighboring countries as potential partners in various projects. For example, the two leaders have coordinated Uzbekistan’s involvement in the TAPI gas pipeline project launched in 2015. It’s possible that the Council will be established at the next summit in Tashkent, provided the other Central Asian presidents accept Turkmenistan’s proposal.

The post-Soviet vector has been promoted with vigor as well. The annual CIS summits are attended by Central Asian presidents or their prime ministers (or deputy prime ministers). In 2018, Tajikistan chairs the CIS. In 2019, it will hand over the chairmanship to Turkmenistan despite its associate member status. Uzbekistan is seeking the chairmanship in 2020, for the first time in CIS history. Moreover, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has volunteered to draft a roadmap for boosting his country’s participation in the CIS. Among other things, Uzbekistan intends to join a number of CIS sectoral bodies, which it previously avoided.

Most likely, the Central Asian countries, particularly those remaining outside the EAEU, still prioritize beneficial and barrier-free trade and economic relations with Russia and other CIS partners, all of which except Turkmenistan signed and ratified the Free Trade Treaty in 2011. In addition, the post-Soviet vector is important for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as a means of securing employment for a lot of their citizens in Russia.

The CIS also attracts the Central Asian countries with its promise of multilateral defense and security cooperation, as embodied in the CIS Joint Air Defense System and the Anti-Terrorism Center. For example, the former held a joint exercise, Combat Brotherhood 2017, in Russia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in September 2017. In April 2018, an identical exercise took place in Uzbekistan. At the same time, Uzbekistan is in no hurry to resume its CSTO membership suspended in 2012.

The US vector (C5+1) was revitalized earlier this year in the form of periodic foreign minister meetings to discuss regional cooperation. The US has actually borrowed this dialogue format from Japan and the EU that have held similar meetings since 2004 and 2008, respectively. It was launched by then Secretary of State John Kerry during his tour of the Central Asian states in November 2015.

Central Asia essentially ceased to be a priority for Washington after January 2017, when president elect Donald Trump assumed office, which was followed by controversial statements on international cooperation, specifically the suggestion that he was going to revise the political course of his predecessor. However, the new State Secretary, Rex Tillerson, did attend the C5+1 meeting in New York on September 22, 2017, to discuss prospects for further cooperation.

An even more important meeting was held between the Kazakhstani and US presidents in Washington on January 17, 2018, when the former was paying an official visit to America. The parties expressed readiness to respond to common challenges in Central Asia by using regional cooperation formats such as C5+1. Thus, the Trump administration showed an interest in maintaining the format to cooperate with the Central Asian countries on a multilateral basis.

At the same time, Washington has long viewed Central Asia as an extension of South Asia and has worked toward the economic integration of these two largely different, if geographically proximate, regions. Moreover, its interest in Central Asia is predicated on the need to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan. As such, Trump called for including that country in the process of multilateral cooperation in Central Asia. But it is doubtful that his call will be supported by all countries in the region, which, though concerned with stabilizing Afghanistan, prefer to keep it at arm’s length to avoid risks. But in this case, the US may lose interest in the C5+1 if it fails to meet expectations.

The European vector is characterized by the EU having a regional cooperation strategy of its own and implementation mechanisms such as ministerial dialogue venues and the High-Level Security Dialogue involving Central Asian foreign ministers and vice-ministers, respectively. On March 26, for example, Tashkent hosted EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini’s meeting with her Central Asian counterparts, at which prospects for further cooperation were discussed. The next meeting in this format is scheduled for the latter half of this year in Brussels.

Currently, authorized EU institutions are drafting a new Central Asia strategy to be submitted to the European Council by late 2019. This effort has been joined by government authorities, civil society institutions and independent experts from countries in the region. At the same time, it is still unclear to what extent the document will take into account the specifics of Central Asia’s current development and interests of its countries and whether the EU will change the main approaches and mechanisms of cooperation with them.

The Chinese vector, as represented by the SCO, has much to do with Central Asia as well. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, for example, took turns chairing the organization between 2015 and 2017. Turkmenistan has also shown an interest in working with the SCO. Although Turkmenistan has no official status at the SCO, its president regularly attends the organization’s summits. It cannot be ruled out, therefore, that Ashkhabad may apply for the status of dialogue partner or observer.

While the SCO is most active in matters of regional security, particularly through the Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS), it is essentially absent from full-scale economic cooperation, including joint projects involving all or most member states. Although the SCO has voted to establish a development bank and a development fund, these decisions failed to be enacted because China has basically withheld consent. Engrossed in implementing its Road and Belt initiative, China is focusing on bilateral cooperation with partner countries, for which reason the Chinese vector is not significantly influencing multilateral cooperation in the interests of the Central Asian republics. Besides, with India and Pakistan acceding to the SCO in 2017, the focus may shift to promoting cooperation with their participation.

The East Asian vector in Central Asia’s multilateral cooperation looks quite modest owing to the lack of serious political intentions and a low level of public awareness. Nevertheless, there is the Central Asia + Japan Dialogue, launched in 2004, the first format involving all five Central Asian countries and one foreign state. This venue, as well as the Central Asia – Republic of Korea Cooperation Forum, are clearly intended to meet certain interests of Tokyo and Seoul and in no way influence Central Asian cooperation.

Tajikistan is automatically out of the Turkic vector for ethnic and language reasons. The Caspian vector extends only to two Central Asian states, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which interact with Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia in determining the legal status of the Caspian Sea and delimiting its bottom and water area. In December 2017, it was announced that the drafting of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea had been completed and that the document would be adopted at the Fifth Caspian Summit due to be held in Kazakhstan. This will make it possible to solve this long-running problem in relations between the four post-Soviet countries and Iran and take their regional cooperation to a qualitatively new level.

Thus, due to its multi-vector nature, multilateral cooperation in Central Asia is sufficiently intensive, if not without ambiguities. The most important factor of all, however, is the development of the regional vector. If the process accelerates and proves successful, Central Asian interstate cooperation with third countries and international organizations can play an auxiliary role.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.