Russia and Central Asia: Common Challenges and Points of Growth

What challenges face Central Asia? What limits the development of opportunities? Artem Dankov, Associate Professor of the Department of World Politics at Tomsk State University discusses the most important long-term trends that are shaping the socio-economic landscape of Central Asia for the coming decades.

Today, Russia and Central Asia are facing challenges that can only be addressed through the coordination of joint efforts. Infrastructural limitations, the quality of human capital, climate change, difficulties in maintaining social stability, the need to transform economic models, sanctions pressure — all of these have prompted our countries to act in unison. It is no secret that Russia’s opponents in the West can use the difficulties of our closest neighbours to foment destabilisation in such a sensitive region. Therefore, it is important to formulate common responses to the challenges facing Russia and the countries of Central Asia.

What challenges face Central Asia? What limits the development of opportunities? Let’s start with the most important long-term trends that are shaping the socio-economic landscape of Central Asia for the coming decades.

The first trend is population growth. Despite a general decline in the birth rate, Central Asia is the only region in the post-Soviet space where the population continues to grow. The predominance of young people, a large number of children per family and an increase in life expectancy have yielded stable population growth of 1-2% per year. Despite its strong migration outflow, the region’s population has grown 60% since the collapse of the USSR, or almost 30 million people. Early this year, it reached 79 million, and by 2030 it will exceed 85 million. This figure is comparable to the population of Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula or the Maghreb, which will turn the region into a new demographic centre of the post-Soviet space.

The second trend is that economic models are focused on raw materials. Central Asia entered into the world economy as a supplier of minerals. On the one hand, this allowed the countries of the region to receive significant dividends from the growth of world prices for raw materials over the past 25 years, on the other hand, it made their economies sensitive to volatility in world markets. In the near future, not a single country in the region will be able to radically reduce its dependence on the export of raw mineral resources.

Population growth in the context of the preservation of the resource-based nature of the economy in Central Asia gives rise to a number of challenges that hinder the stable development of the region.

First, food security remains a topical issue, given the growing population. The share of family spending on food in the region is still very high. Over the past 20 years, the countries of Central Asia have made some progress. The number of people who suffer from food shortages has drastically reduced, and agricultural exports are expanding. If you look at the statistics, in general, foreign trade in food has grown significantly over the past 20 years. However, food problems have been resolved primarily by increasing imports. The region still needs a stable supply of food and has to develop its own agricultural sector. Russia can and should expand food supplies and the transfer of agro-biotechnology to Central Asia.

Second, the deplorable state of infrastructure remains a serious challenge for Central Asia. This applies to all types of infrastructure (energy, utilities, transport, water and irrigation, etc.) It’s no secret that urban utility infrastructure in many parts of Central Asia collapsed back in the 1990s and early 2000s, but recent infrastructure crises have reached the big cities (an accident at a thermal power plant in Bishkek in 2018 and the problems with heating and the electricity supply in Tashkent this past winter clearly illustrate the problem). Neither transport nor water-irrigation infrastructure are ready to solve the problems that the countries of Central Asia face. There is not enough energy capacity for the development of cities and industry. The region needs large-scale infrastructure modernisation programmes, including in a multilateral format. Russia can also help here; we ourselves have a lot to modernise, but our experience and technology will be in demand among our neighbours.

The third challenge is environmental problems, against the backdrop of climate change. The climate in Central Asia is changing faster than in the world as a whole; its transformations are becoming unpredictable. The pressure on the environment has increased many times over, for example, the population has increased six-fold over the past 100 years. Climate change has brought serious consequences, such as frequent droughts, desertification, an increase in the number of landslides, mudflows, floods, dust and sandstorms. This has led to the degradation of agriculture and environmental migration. Solving environmental problems is impossible without coordinating the efforts of all countries in the region and attracting external partners, one of which is Russia. Technological solutions, monitoring systems, waste disposal and recycling technologies are the most important areas of cooperation. At the same time, the struggle for limited natural resources is intensifying within the countries of Central Asia.

Another challenge is the preservation of interethnic harmony. Central Asia has always been culturally diverse. Despite the high level of emigration, ethnic minorities still make up between 15% and 30% of the population of the Central Asian republics; their number exceeds 15 million people. These ethnic minorities continue to live compacted in certain areas; their share is especially high in the border zones. The position of minorities is precarious; for them, many areas of activity and social elevators are closed or access is limited. Particularly at risk are overpopulated agrarian areas, where a combination of poverty, environmental problems and competition for scarce resources often leads to severe tensions. Russia can help maintain interethnic harmony in Central Asia. Our common cultural code and shared history is the key to the stable development of the region. The scale of Russian cultural influence is difficult to overestimate. Even now, Russian is the most widely spoken language in the region. Support for the Russian language as a means of interethnic communication, as a regional lingua franca, will do more than help maintain stability in the region. The Russian language provides access to the Russian labour market, higher education, technological solutions, and to a huge layer of Russian culture. The failure to use this tool, and even more so artificially limiting it, is not just a mistake, it is a crime.

The countries of Central Asia cannot cope with these identified challenges on their own; a number of restrictions hinder this. The first limitation is low quality of human capital. The countries of the region are experiencing an acute shortage of qualified specialists. One of the main reasons for this situation is that the national systems of professional education cannot prepare the necessary number of specialists with a sufficient level of training for the economies of the countries of the region. The high level of corruption, low level of qualifications among teachers and the weak material and technical base do not allow for the high-quality training of students. Therefore, a significant proportion of young people from Central Asia receive their education abroad.

Leadership in the field of personnel training for the region is firmly held by Russia. At the moment, more than 180 thousand people from Central Asian countries are studying in Russia. Specialists with Russian degrees determine the economic development of the region. Russia is ready to continue to play a key role in improving the quality of Central Asia’s human potential.

The second limitation is the lack of technology. The Central Asian countries are critically dependent on technology imports. There are few developments, and when economic growth began in the early 2000s, it was faster and easier to buy ready-made technological solutions than for the countries of the region to develop their own. Times have changed; the concept of technological sovereignty is now more relevant than ever. Obviously, the countries of Central Asia cannot develop complex technological chains alone, but they are quite capable of integrating into joint technological projects with Russia, using the potential of industrial cooperation within the framework of the EAEU.

There is also a third limitation — the lack of money. This is probably the hardest one. Russia is cut off from Western capital markets, domestic sources in Central Asia are limited, and the level of external debt of some countries in the region is too high. It is necessary to develop multilateral mechanisms for financing joint projects between Russia and the countries of Central Asia through the involvement of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Eurasian Development Bank and other financial organisations.

I am sure that Russia and the countries of Central Asia will be able to join forces to overcome, as the Chinese like to say, “four challenges and three restrictions”, and such Russian regions as the Volga region, the Urals and Western Siberia will become key points of growth, since Central Asia remains for them a major trading partner, a source of human capital and an important logistics hub.

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