The general trend of the past two decades indicates a growing diversification among Central Asian countries in their relationship with Russia. Russian cooperation with the five Central Asian republics became a part of various bilateral and multilateral tracks and projects. Some of them seem to be proving more successful (like the Customs Union), while others are not making much progress.
The general trend of the past two decades indicates a growing diversification among Central Asian countries in their relationship with Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan embarked upon their own independent paths of development, a significant element of which was a multi-vector foreign policy. Each republic started to look for new partners in neighboring regions and beyond.
Russia has undertaken several attempts to implement a workable mechanism of post-Soviet cooperation within the Commonwealth of Independent States and other frameworks, including those intended for closer cooperation with Central Asia. However, these initiatives have not been productive, eventually leading to the political and economic disintegration of the Central Asian factor in Russia's foreign policy. Russian cooperation with the five Central Asian republics became a part of various bilateral and multilateral tracks and projects. Some of them seem to be proving more successful (like the Customs Union uniting Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus), while others are not making much progress.
However, the region still faces formidable security threats emanating primarily from the unstable and unpredictable situation in Afghanistan post-2014. These threats seem to unite Central Asian countries with their immediate neighbours, like Russia and China, and put security cooperation at the top of the agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a region-building initiative in terms of security and confidence measures. Alongside security cooperation, which Russia has traditionally backed as a priority within the SCO, socio-economic cooperation has gradually become a second important pillar of SCO activities. Until now this area of cooperation has mainly been promoted by China, obviously interested in linking the region economically as well as in terms of infrastructure to Chinese development of the Northwestern regions. However, China’s economic projects with Central Asia, important in terms of overall regional development, still do not fully address the common problems of all the Central Asian countries. The most significant of them are the looming major challenge of drug trafficking and the urgent need for large-scale economic modernization to prevent secular regimes from falling victim to radical Islamist movements burgeoning in neighbouring Afghanistan and in the region.
As a result, in December 2012, during their meeting in Bishkek, the prime ministers of the SCO member states launched a full-fledged discussion on ways to improve the economic dimension of cooperation between organizations, which could address the development problems of the region. The still ongoing discussion is focused primarily on the financial mechanisms the SCO can use in its economic projects. Among the possible options being considered by the member states for financing joint projects are Interbank Consortium reserves, Eurasian Development Bank opportunities or using the SCO's own development bank or special account.
Russia has actively supported the expansion of the economic dimension in the SCO's activities. Moreover, Russia recently launched its own socio-economic initiative on a regional scale, which has the potential to reconsolidate the Central Asian direction in Russian foreign policy. In April this year the Federal Drug Control Service of the Russian Federation (FSKN) proposed creating a Russian Corporation for Cooperation with Central Asian states. If it gets approval at the top level, this corporation will unite state and private resources and will operate as a truly public-private partnership. Head of FSKN Viktor Ivanov said that the corporation will need about two billion rubles from the state budget to start operating. This input will be equal to a 51% state share in this corporation. The remaining 49% will go to the business sector. The potential partners from the business sector include companies such as RusHydro (Russian hydroelectric company), Rusnano (Russian state company responsible for the development of nanotechnologies) and Rosneft (one of the leading oil companies in Russia).
In advancing such an initiative the Federal Drug Control Service hopes to enhance Russia’s input in the socio-economic development of the Central Asian countries. This can be done primarily through the creation of new jobs, thereby reducing the threat of the growing number of drug traffickers in the region. The target areas for regional projects include agriculture, technology, hydroelectricity and energy in general. The proposed initiative clearly has positive practical implications for the business sectors of the Central Asian countries as well. The project also corresponds to the UN-set goals of alternative development for countries and regions facing the threat of drug trafficking. The reasons for Russia’s greater economic involvement in the region are determined by the drug trafficking threat Russia faces itself. If the corporation is launched successfully, its work will enable rates of deaths from drug dependency in Russia and in the region to be significantly reduced.
The proposed corporation will support Russia’s actions to improve the socio-economic agenda in its bilateral relations with the Central Asian countries and within multilateral structures in the region. More importantly it will create the much needed economic background to reinforce Russia’s positions within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and in the region as a whole. In a situation where Central Asian countries cannot fully address the drug threat by military means, joint socio-economic projects can become a viable alternative with long-term implications.
The author is a laureate of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program .