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Central Asia: Strategic Partnership Is Not a Propaganda Cliché
Tashkent, Uzbekistan
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The “spirit of Central Asia” is not just a beautiful metaphor. These are specific projects in various fields that connect the countries of the region to one another and to Russia. On September 20, Tashkent hosted a conference of the Valdai Club and the Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, titled “Russia and Uzbekistan in the Face of Development and Security Challenges at a New Historical Stage of Interaction”. The first session, dedicated to Russian-Uzbek interaction in Central Asia, was open to the media, and later the experts talked about regional security, trade and integration in the confidential Chatham House format, so we will omit the names of some speakers. Below is a summary of the discussions.

Belt of friendship

Thanks to purposeful cooperation in Central Asia over the course of a very short period - just five years – it has been possible to form a belt of friendship, security and stability. The political climate in the region, as the Uzbek experts said, has changed dramatically, although, as the interlocutors from the Russian side noted, there are still many problems that need to be resolved.

In order to immediately dot the i's, Andrei Rudenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, in his welcoming speech stressed that Russia’s policy towards the countries of Central Asia is as open as possible. “We have no secret agenda. We strive to build equal cooperation with all countries of the region in a trusting manner, as honestly as possible,” he said. Russia is not trying to put the countries of the region in front of a geopolitical choice: with Russia or against it. The main goal is to ensure regional security.

Farhod Arziev, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, recalled that next year will mark the thirty-year anniversary of the establishment of Russian-Uzbek diplomatic relations. But, in his opinion, relations between Uzbekistan and Russia reached a "qualitatively new and unprecedented level of content" only in the last five years. The development of close allied ties with the Russian Federation is one of the priorities of Uzbekistan's foreign policy. Russia, in turn, supports and takes part in the implementation of the major international initiatives of the republic.

Of course, the transition to this "new and unprecedented level" of relations would be impossible without practical interaction - especially in the sphere of trade and economics.

Reforms, trade and sovereignty

The trade-related and economic successes of the region, particularly Uzbekistan, were discussed willingly and at length at all of the sessions. The Uzbek colleagues cited figures confirming the success of the reforms being pursued by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. For example, Uzbek First Deputy Foreign Minister Farhod Arziev said that in 2020 the trade turnover between Russia and Uzbekistan amounted to almost $6 billion. In the medium term, it should reach $10 billion. According to Anvar Nasyrov, director of the International Institute of Central Asia, the total foreign trade of the Central Asian region from 2016 to 2020 increased 56 percent, reaching $156 billion. The Central Asian countries plan to double the volume of mutual trade next year.

Professor Stanislav Tkachenko also confirmed that the reforms are working - last year Uzbekistan became one of the few economies that showed growth. Today, the Uzbek economy is focused on export-oriented growth and is moving from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. The development aims to reduce poverty. The state is reducing its participation in industry, which creates opportunities for capital inflows. However, there were also unresolved problems: inflation and the growth of external debt. In addition, Uzbekistan is overly dependent on gas. But here Russia is helping it diversify energy flows by building a nuclear power plant on Lake Tuzkan, which is slated to be operational in 2028.
In general, as Tkachenko noted, political cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan is now on the rise, and its institutional framework will expand. The countries are already actively interacting within the SCO, the CSTO (even despite the fact that Uzbekistan suspended its membership in 2012), and the EAEU, where Uzbekistan is an observer. But integration, in particular within the Union, is a complex issue.

Uzbekistan, like any country, is sensitive about its sovereignty and fears the spread of integration processes to political issues and the security sphere.
The Uzbek experts noted that so far, the country’s status as an observer in the EAEU is completely satisfactory to everyone. As an observer, Uzbekistan will be able to understand and "test" all the benefits of full membership.

In addition to its attitude towards joining the EAEU, Uzbekistan is equally cautious about joining the WTO, weighing the pros and cons. There is an understanding that joining these institutions will contribute to the country's full-scale integration into the world economy. But this is one side of the coin. On the other hand, there are many "buts". Since for Russia such experiences are behind it, Andrei Rudenko assured that Russia is ready to provide Uzbekistan with the necessary assistance in joining the WTO, including in terms which would prevent infringement of the economic interests of the republic. At the same time, it was noted on the sidelines that the prospects of the World Trade Organisation itself are not quite obvious now; the world is changing and is rather moving away from the principles on which this international institution is based.

If Uzbekistan plans to strengthen foreign trade, then it needs to develop overland transport and logistics routes. And this, according to the Russian experts, is one of the promising areas of Russian-Uzbek cooperation.

Transport and logistics: there is nothing fantastic in this world

"Will the rapid development of the transport system in Eurasia and in Uzbekistan in particular become an obstacle in Russia’s way?" - some Uzbek colleagues asked diplomatically, starting a conversation about logistics.

No, they were told in response, because the more alternative land-based transport routes appear in  Eurasia, the more Russia will be able to offer its partners. It's just a matter of time. “The more delivery options there are, the more often they will contact us, and all of us,” said one of the Russian experts. Russia has unique experience in the transport and logistics sector, and Uzbekistan has a lot to learn from it. “We will have to cooperate,” he said, “because you will not learn anything interesting from either the Chinese, or the Europeans, or the Indians - only Russia has such experience today, and to a limited extent our Kazakhstani colleagues have such experience.”

To begin with, Uzbekistan needs to build a universal unified logistics system for the citizens of the country, which will then allow for the export of services. And then this system can already be offered to the foreign market.

During the third transport and logistics session, the Valdai Club also presented a new report, titled “Eurasia’s Iron Frame: Achievements, Problems and Prospects for Continental Connectivity,” prepared by a group of experts from the Valdai Club and CCEMI NRU HSE with the assistance of ISMI.

This work is the fruit of one long-term study of the dynamics of development and promotion of transport and logistics systems in Eurasia. We live in a market economy, which assumes that companies - exporters and importers - are guided by factors - by benefits. Just as a few years ago, no one believed that overland trade in Eurasia would be able to compete successfully with sea trade, so now it may seem unrealistic to many to develop a transport and logistics system that includes Central Asia and the territory of Afghanistan. However, it shouldn’t be dismissed as entirely fantastic. There is nothing fantastic in this world. The report, prepared on the basis of statistics for 2020, is devoted to the real state of the development of international trade.

No reason to be on the sidelines of the digital revolution

Transport links are undoubtedly important, but connections in the virtual world are no less important. Alisher Faizullaev, professor at Webster University in Tashkent, noted that the future belongs to information technology: it is necessary to finally understand the threats and challenges associated with information security, the development of AI, and ensure a decent life in the digital economy.

“The pandemic has spurred digital development, but it’s just the beginning,” he said. "You can't stay on the sidelines of the digital revolution." Uzbekistan has developed and adopted the strategy “Digital Uzbekistan - 2030”. Russia and Uzbekistan are digitally connected by a number of areas – the ‘Russian internet’ or Runet, the Russian companies Sber, Ozon and Wildberries, Russian mobile operators, Yandex, cooperation between the universities of the two countries, and the prevalence of the Russian language play a big role in Uzbekistan. Russian investments can be directed to companies that produce digital products.

Alexander Vysotsky, Head of Government Affairs at Yandex Go & Market, confirmed that Uzbekistan is attractive for his company - and primarily from the point of view of the target audience. There is a young population who knows how and wants to use modern technology. This means that online services have bright prospects.

Labor migration: a social issue

With the onset of the pandemic, the problem of labour migration became even more acute than before:  it was painfully felt not only by the migrants themselves, but also by the receiving parties. Up to 40 percent of Russia’s labour migrants left during the height of the pandemic, and labour shortages became very noticeable. Moscow, for example, needs an additional 200,000 workers, since the pace of construction is high. But even if pandemic-related restrictions on movement are eased, this will not solve more global problems.

According to Yuri Vasilyev, a special correspondent for the business newspaper vz.ru, a highly qualified specialist will come to Russia, take advanced training courses, and then strive to obtain Russian citizenship. A low-skilled specialist, however, will provide money for his family and return back to his homeland to be with the relatives for whom he left to work. This imbalance affects the competition between markets, as well as the general development of the countries from which migrants come.

An Uzbek expert who spoke at the third session, agreeing in general with the speech of Yuri Vasilyev, noted that labour migrants from Central Asia are a security factor for Russia as well. The environment of labour migrants is vulnerable - it is receptive to extremist ideas. A person can immediately start terrorist activities or become a latent carrier – returning with these ideas to his homeland and spreading them there. This can be likened to a ticking time bomb, laid under society: the “Arab spring” may have burst out unexpectedly, but it is precisely the product of an environment that had been forming for a very long time.

Capital is not only economic - cultural capital is no less important. Money sent by labour migrants to the Central Asia countries is usually viewed in terms of economic capital: for example, how it affects consumer activity. How much money is invested in the system of cultural capital:  the education of children, the formation of society’s cultural underpinnings which change the environment? The issue of building up cultural capital with migrants' money could alter this environment.

The experts agreed that access to education will strategically help solve the problem of migration. As one Russian expert noted, migration problems are usually viewed technocratically, but this is still more of a social issue.

Security and/or freedom

Thanks to the breathtaking departure of the Americans from Afghanistan, we now live in a new reality, said Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director of the Valdai Club, while opening the discussion on regional security.

When it comes to Central Asia, everyone immediately turns to the "Great Game" - let's remember how it was and discuss how it will be. Afghanistan has demonstrated something simple: you can play as long as you want, but this makes sense only when the situation in the game zone is manageable. If something goes wrong and, despite the current restrained optimism, the situation makes it to the next round, it turns out that there is no longer anything to play there. The "great game" had ended in nothing: at best, the parties depart with what they came in with, even with difficulty.

The awareness that it is not worth repeating what we have observed over the past thirty years is still present in many, Lukyanov noted. But the gambling instinct has not gone away, and sharp contradictions between individual actors (for example, Pakistan and India) persist. Moreover, we see a change in the behaviour of the largest player: America no longer considers Afghanistan to be in its national interest.

Almost twenty years ago, at a meeting of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy in Moscow, then-president of Kyrgyzstan Askar Akayev delivered a lecture. In particular, he said: “We value good-neighbourliness in Kyrgyzstan, but we have three main neighbours - Russia, China and the United States. Why the United States? Because it is the neighbour of all countries on Earth."

We have reached a time when many countries must accept that they no longer have a neighbour like the United States.

Responding to Lukyanov's speech, one Russian expert confirmed that the constant of international politics - the domination of Western countries and the United States - really disappeared with the withdrawal of American troops. Over the past thirty years, both Russia and China, as well as the Central Asian states, have been satisfied with the American presence in Afghanistan. This caused a little discomfort, but it made it possible to be ready for the future, and not live, as they say, "for the moment". But the constant disappeared and regional problems emerged. Russia does not assess this as dramatically as everyone expected. Russia's interest is in building security and stability in the Eurasian space.
But how canthis security be built? Another Russian expert suggested moving away from Afghan-centricity in the region - recently it really was even fashionable, but now it is necessary to devalue Afghanistan. Thanks to the Taliban, Kabul's role in Central Asia has diminished - it has again become a buffer, not a centre.

Have the Taliban changed? On the one hand, a lot of good things can be said about the Taliban: the terrible thing that everyone feared is not happening. But, on the other hand, what everyone hoped for is not happening either. Yes, the Taliban have ceased to be part of the global jihad, but they have not changed: they believe in what they believed in, and over the years they have only strengthened their convictions.

From the point of view of observers, it will be a non-modern, non-inclusive, strange regime, but, most likely, the population will accept it.

There was a hope, that for the sake of international recognition, the Taliban would make concessions, and the international community, dreaming of buying off Afghanistan, would be able to recognise the regime. But the past month has shown that the Taliban are unwilling to accept the changes that have taken place in the country over the past forty to fifty years. The Pashtun core is determined to correct this temporary zigzag, they want their significance back. The Taliban want to pursue a hard line, but have decided not to force events, but to gradually regain space for themselves.

Now the world is divided into those who want to make life easier for the Taliban, and those who want to make it difficult for them. Russia undoubtedly wants to make it easier, and much of the world to make it difficult, turning them into a toxic regional asset. So what to do?

One expert representing Uzbekistan optimistically noted that positive changes in Afghanistan were quite expected, and now they are happening. The situation in Afghanistan has once again demonstrated that attempts to artificially change a traditional society are doomed to fail. They may or may not like the Taliban, but they are the legitimate government of Afghanistan, they are the masters, a self-sufficient segment of Afghan society that has its own hierarchy. Yes, there are contradictions within the Taliban leadership, but they will be able to overcome them. It is now important for Afghanistan to become sovereign and self-reliant, as this will entail predictability in its actions.

Of course, everyone is concerned that human, women's and minority rights are respected in the country. To do this, one needs to form a government on a broad basis. But by closing itself off from the Taliban and expecting them to fulfil all the requirements at once, the world will make a big mistake. The Taliban are interested in being recognised by the world community, and we must help them - for the sake of the Afghan people who are suffering and living on the brink of poverty.

Of course, no one says that you need to fully trust the Taliban, but the international community must develop a unified approach to interacting with this country so that Afghanistan turns into a civilised partner and does not pose a threat to peace. A new zero-sum game cannot be allowed.

The topic of choosing between "security or freedom" was raised more than once during the conference. One Russian expert noted that a lot was written about this dilemma in the nineties and was inclined towards freedom, but in 2001 a tilt towards security was made. From the point of view of Uzbekistan, there is no need to choose between security and freedom. Here it is more appropriate to use ‘through than ‘or’ security is achieved through ensuring guarantees of human rights.

Returning to the hot topic, another Uzbek expert noted that the world is on the verge of a new Afghanistan, but with old problems. Although the Central Asian countries have not experienced a direct threat from the Afghan side, the idea of ​​radicalism has not gone anywhere. There are more than twenty terrorist organisations on the territory of Afghanistan. The population of the countries of Central Asia is part of the Muslim world. In some groups of people, radical ideas penetrate very quickly, and they perceive the victory of the Taliban as a victory for radicalism and Islamism. Can this be stopped? The expert proposed restoring the channels of cooperation with the Afghan clergy, which were established at the end of the Soviet regime. The Muslim clergy are the largest group in Afghan society, with half a million worshipers who will broadcast Taliban ideas. This channel of interaction must be built - along with the diplomatic means.

Another Uzbek expert spoke about the defence potential of the region. The speaker noted that in recent years, all the Central Asian countries have undergone reforms in the defence sphere, and now all of them are at a high degree of combat readiness. A system of interaction between the countries of the region and the Armed Forces of Russia has been created. Everyone speaks the same language, they are able to act according to a single plan. Today the level of security of the region is higher than it had been in Soviet times. This is nothing  if not cause for rejoice.

Summing up the results of their speeches at the conference, many experts noted that new development trends are turning Central Asia into a predictable and stable region. The main thing is that strategic partnership is not some kind of propaganda cliché, but a concept that has concrete practical content.