This year the Valdai Club Central Asian Conference was held in Kazan for the first time. The choice of the venue for the forum was not accidental: this city is one of the most multinational in Russia, and the interfaith and interethnic accord in the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan undoubtedly put the experts and guests of the conference in a good mood. The dialogue turned out to be frank, but friendly.
In his welcome speech at the opening of the conference, Rustam Minnikhanov, head of the Republic of Tatarstan, noted that the Valdai Club discussions have from year to year helped to objectively assess international problems and find ways to solve them. Therefore, he said, it is symbolic that the Central Asian conference of the Club is being held in Tatarstan, which is an example of “dialogue of cultures,” where East meets West. The basis of social development, he said, is the preservation of spiritual and moral guidelines, as well as the cultural heritage of each ethnic group. This ensures stability and good relations between people from different nationalities and confessions. Tatarstan actively participates in the processes of Eurasian integration; strong trade and economic ties contribute to the strengthening of relations with the states of Central Asia.
Continuing the topic, Andrei Rudenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, noted that the EAEU is the main instrument of economic integration, from which all participants benefit mutually. The total volume of Russian accumulated investments in the Central Asian countries is approaching $50 billion. These figures contradict the false notion that Russia has no serious economic interests in Central Asia. Transport corridors are actively being developed in Eurasia. Together, Russia and Central Asia are trying to achieve the United Nation’s seventh sustainable development goal — the transition to environmentally friendly energy sources. Even during the pandemic, it was possible to maintain, and in some areas even increase, Russia’s trade turnover with the Central Asian countries.
Central Asia is a region that today attracts the attention of the leading players in the geopolitical field. Russia is linked with it by a common history, a significant potential for cooperation is to be found in the CSTO, the Eurasian Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Thirty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, we see the beginning of a new stage in the transformation of Eurasia in general, and Central Asia in particular. The value of the region has increased over the years, said Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, who served as moderator of the first session of the conference. If earlier Eurasia, as the “Heartland”, was considered an object, now it is becoming a subject. How did the countries of the region pass the pandemic stress test?
Acceleration and New Standards of Openness
Oleg Salagay, Deputy Minister of Health of the Russian Federation, spoke about the medical consequences of the pandemic. With 163 million cases worldwide, the alarm was sounded; medical workers and volunteers were called upon to jointly solve the problem. The consequence of the pandemic was the development of technologies that contributed to the establishment of Russian interaction with the countries of Central Asia.
The pandemic sped up all the processes — many decisions were made within a few hours. New standards of openness have been established. Almost within the first hours of the pandemic, an official website was created, where anyone can get up-to-date information.
The world will still change dramatically in the wake of the coronavirus. However, Salagay stressed, we should not forget that 70 percent of deaths occur from non-communicable diseases.
Freedom of Movement and the “Green Swan”
Fyodor Lukyanov recalled that globalisation means four freedoms of movement: goods, services, people, money (and information, we can add). But after the pandemic, most of these freedoms were limited, to the least extent, it affected goods. Anton Kozlov, Director of the Department of Foreign Projects and International Cooperation at JSC Russian Railways, spoke about this in more detail.
According to him, Russian Railways benefits greatly from the friendship of peoples: it is an international company, and 40 percent of cargo “goes to us, from us and through us”. Partners from Central Asia are working actively with Russian Railways in terms of the development of international transportation. There is a bold idea of building a transit route through Afghanistan. The Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway will open a new and shorter route to the South Asian markets. Russian Railways also plans to join the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project, of which China is still the main beneficiary.
The railway is complemented by digital infrastructure. It not only forms sustainable interaction between states, but also does it in the most environmentally friendly way. The pandemic was a black swan, but other swans will follow. One of them is “green”, the environmental agenda is becoming the leitmotif of world politics. Russian Railways is ready to issue green financial instruments, to help other, less “clean” transport companies — for example, maritime companies, picking up their cargo on accessible sections of the route. “We will hedge the industries that are not ready for the emergence of the ‘green swan’ and will lend our shoulder,” Kozlov assured.
First Wave, Second Wave
Oksana Sinyavskaya, Deputy Director of the Institute for Social Policy at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, spoke about the specifics of the national response to the pandemic. The Russian response to the first wave of the pandemic, she said, was similar to that of Western countries and different from that of Asian countries.
But the reaction to the second wave was different: here the experience of the 90s informed policymakers. It manifested itself in the fact that the desire to save income outweighed fears associated with the pandemic. Therefore, the second wave in Russia was characterised by the gradual abolition of restrictions and social assistance to the population. (You can read more about the social lessons of the pandemic in the related article by Oksana Sinyavskaya on our website).
A View from Kazakhstan: Who to Save?
Yerlan Karin, Aide to the President of Kazakhstan, and Chairman of the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations (CASMO), presented a view of the pandemic from Kazakhstan. He noted that the pandemic had accelerated the republic’s national agenda rather than slowing it down: the reforms announced before the pandemic continued to be implemented. Kazakhstan managed to move from the format of state programmes to national projects.
The pandemic presented the country with a challenge: to save citizens or to save the economy. As a result, financial assistance was provided to citizens and small businesses.
Russia provided great support in the fight against the coronavirus: Russian specialists worked in the regions and humanitarian assistance was provided, but it was bilateral. This is a concrete example of interaction between countries.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has affected the general socio-economic situation, and new anti-crisis measures are already required.
A View From Kyrgyzstan: If There Had Been No Pandemic, Then It Would Have to Be Invented
Kubatbek Rakhimov, Director of the Eurasia Center for Strategic Research, a former adviser to the Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic, believes that if there hadn’t been a pandemic, it would have to be invented. In his opinion, 2019 was actually a year of preparation for war. Let us recall the situation with oil: what was happening in the futures market brought growing threats to the world economy. In fact, the pandemic has become a boon for the global economy in terms of the overall result. The overheating needed some way out, which the pandemic provided. So its creative effect must be understood and taken into account.
In addition, and this was confirmed more than once by other speakers, the pandemic demonstrated a convincing victory for the role of the state: everyone (even convinced classical liberals) appealed to the state for help and protection. The state provided both. In fact, the people received a signal: stay at home — we will give money. We saw the prototype, if not of socialism, then of a very social society.
During the crisis, it became clear that the mobilisation economy proved to be extremely effective.
In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has suffered most from the pandemic: here the government and even the constitutional order have been forcibly changed. The republic also set an example of an “infodemic” crisis: until October, the media were full of news about the coronavirus, after the elections the coronavirus disappeared from the media, and everyone began to walk around without masks. Blind compliance with the requirements of the WHO has done more harm than good to the republic. However, as an anti-example, Kyrgyzstan should undoubtedly become an object of study.
The map of leaders in the development of biotechnology coincided with the geopolitical map of world political actors. Kubatbek Rakhimov proposed to create a common Eurasian vaccine — with its appearance it would be much easier to fight the pandemic.
A View From Uzbekistan: Good Neighborly Assistance From Russia
Bakhtiyor Mustafaev, Deputy Director of the International Institute of Central Asia under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, noted that the pandemic has caused serious damage to the global economy and exacerbated tensions in the international arena.
Against this background, in the framework of the fight against coronavirus, Russia has provided and continues to provide all possible assistance in terms of medicine and economy to the countries of the regions, including Uzbekistan. As a result, Central Asia managed to avoid an explosive, uncontrolled increase in morbidity and socio-economic upheavals.
Incidentally, effectively all of the experts from the Central Asian states spoke about good-neighborly assistance from Russia during the pandemic, including during closed-door sessions.
Read the closed-door sessions summary here and stay tuned.