Security threats and opportunities were the topics of the second and third sessions of the Valdai Club Central Asian Conference, which opened on May 20 in Kazan. Both discussions were conducted in accordance with Chatham House rules, which allowed the speakers to express themselves as openly as possible. We will briefly describe what the experts spoke about, without naming them.
Session 2. Shared and Differing Security Threats to Russia and Central Asia.
The session on security focused mostly on threats posed by Afghanistan. All the experts of the session, including the Western ones, agreed that the US decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan could lead to destabilisation not only in that state, but also in Central Asia as a whole. After the departure of Soviet troops in 1989, Muhammad Najibullah remained in power for just three more years. But there is no reason to compare that situation with the current one.
Afghanistan and Security Providers for the Region
For twenty years, the main task of the United States in Afghanistan was engagement in military activity, not the reconstruction of the country. The Taliban (banned in Russia) outplayed the Americans, since the ideology of this group is an element of the Afghan identity. The Taliban are not expected to change their behaviour — they will not share influence with the current government, and they will never sit down at a table for discussions.
However, the degree of the Taliban’s ambitions remains an open question: do the Taliban want to return to the radical scenario of the 90s, or have they learned some lessons from the experience of that time? The idea of an Islamic caliphate remains very popular. However, there is some concern among the Taliban that they will be perceived as warmongers intent upon civil war after the American withdrawal.
Perhaps South and Central Asia need a new security system that would strengthen cooperation between states bordering Afghanistan (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Pakistan, China) and those who have priority interests in the Afghan state (Russia, India and the United States) — a 7+3 format to coordinate and unite efforts against threats.
But Central Asia’s problems are not limited to Afghanistan — there are many more of them. It is worth making an inventory of challenges, and then arranging them according to their priority. Moreover, Central Asia is an asymmetric region in all respects, and this should be taken into account by any policymaker.
USA Against China. Which Side Are We on?
The second major challenge is the confrontation between the United States and China. Many hoped that after the arrival of Joseph Biden, the situation would change. But this did not happen, since it is important for the United States to maintain its superiority, and China is already ahead of the United States in a number of areas. There is even an opinion that the Belt and Road project is a mechanism for Chinese control over US influence in Asia, just as the Trans-Pacific Partnership project, previously conceived by Barack Obama, was supposed to become an instrument for containing the PRC.
The Western powers are fanning concerns about the influence of China, arising from the Central Asian countries and Russia. Indeed, the financial dependence of some states in the region on China is great. But is it really dangerous?
The United States is still present in the region. It is impossible to completely eliminate US influence, but it is also impossible to refuse to interact with the United States. The space for manoeuvre is shrinking every day. How can the Central Asian countries maintain a balance?
For example, Russia and China are important partners for Kazakhstan. But when the pandemic began, Kazakhstan immediately closed its border with China, but did not close its borders to Europe, and the virus entered Kazakhstan from Europe. And when it spread, Russian, rather than European, doctors came to save the people. It’s time to prioritise. Which side are we on?
In addition to external challenges, there are also intraregional ones in Central Asia. Recently there was a “low intensity” border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the experts said. There was no underlying religious or ethnic confrontation, which could have been very tough to resolve; the reason is the land. But it is clear how to regulate such conflicts.
Where did the skirmish come from? The borders that were established thirty years ago during the collapse of the Soviet Union still remain. The demarcation of borders is a critical factor in resolving such conflicts. However, the process is rather slow.
The CSTO and Russia should offer specific assistance — maps, ways to resolve conflicts: what to do with enclaves, and how to demarcate the complex areas that caused the conflict. It is important to emphasise that Russia does not take sides.
Session 3. New “Windows of Opportunity” of the Global Economy for Russia and Central Asia
The experts of the Valdai Club conference moved from threats to an analysis of opportunities. One of the main ones is the common labour market. Moreover, in Central Asia, this is not just an opportunity, but a vital necessity.
The speakers suggested solving the problem of an acute shortage of labour (and some specified — cheap labour) in different ways. For example, they recalled that Uzbekistan in 2020 proposed to adopt a programme of cooperation on labour migration within the CIS. In Kazan, which heads the United Nations Advisory Committee of Local Authorities, they want to create an international university for municipal and regional development, where specialists in the field of local and regional self-government will be trained. An idea was voiced to make the WorldSkills Russia championship not only a Russian, but a Eurasian one in order to prepare people for work in the EAEU market.
The experts emphasised that there is a shortage of labour resources everywhere. The question is which model of migration policy would be suitable. The answer was found — the creation of common labour legislation in the region — but it inspired few experts, because it is too difficult to implement.
Windows of Opportunity
In fact, there are many more “windows of opportunity” and ideas for cooperation between the Central Asian countries and Russia than there are ways to implement them. Among the priority areas are the activation of trade and economic interaction, the deepening of industrial cooperation, the establishment of logistics channels, and the development of a common energy market in the region, as well as water infrastructure, urbanisation, and inclusive industrialisation.
It is time to establish cooperation in the field of countering climate change. The “green agenda” is perceived by Russia and the Central Asian countries through the prism of the European attitude. But for them, this idea should primarily be a tool for developing nature conservation, and not the overall European goal in itself — reducing emissions.
Cooperation in the field of digitalisation is also an opportunity: now all countries have different strategies in this area, and it is important to coordinate them. Central Asia is a region with a young population that will consume a lot in the near future.
For Central Asia, one of the windows of opportunity is cooperation with Russia. It is important to develop cultural interaction, which is necessary to build a common identity and shared values.
Inequality and Development Scenarios
All these opportunities are viable if the region develops according to a favourable scenario. It is important to overcome one fundamental problem — inequality. According to the Human Development Index, in the year of the pandemic, the region fell back ten years. Central Asia’s birth rate is growing, but it has regressed in terms of education: in Kazakhstan, for example, there are very few specialists in specific scientific disciplines. If this does not change within individual countries, then the problem will very soon spread outside.
The Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club this year was held in Kazan from May 20-21. You can read about the participants of the closed-door sessions in our Programme. More details about the 2021 forum and broadcasts of the open sessions can be found on our social media. We are on Facebook, Vkontakte, Telegram and Twitter. The photos can be viewed in our Instagram account. Stay tuned!