Farewell to the Comfort Zone: Russia and Central Asia in the New World
Nizhny Novgorod

On Tuesday, May 17, the Second Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club began its work in Nizhny Novgorod. During the opening ceremony, the participants of the conference were greeted by Gleb Nikitin, Governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Region, and Andrey Rudenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

According to the governor, the choice of Nizhny Novgorod as the venue for this event indicates the growing importance of the region on Russia's international agenda. Preparations for the 800th anniversary of the city, which was celebrated last year, became an occasion to rethink its role, he noted. “The most successful period in the history of Nizhny Novgorod was the period when it was an international financial centre, Russia's 'wallet',” said Gleb Nikitin. “Global prices for a huge number of commodities were determined At the Nizhny Novgorod fair. We have focused and defined our own mission and development strategy, also based on international cooperation.” 

The governor added that the cooperation of the Nizhny Novgorod region with the countries of Central Asia, which accounts for up to 10% of the total exports of the region, is of particular importance. Cardinal changes in the geopolitical situation are opening up more and more opportunities for the implementation of joint projects, he noted.

In turn, Andrey Rudenko spoke about the importance of Central Asia for Russia. Last year, the trade turnover between Russia and the countries of the region amounted to $27 billion, which is about 30% higher than in 2020. Russia is a major investor: the volume of accumulated investments in the countries of Central Asia is 30.5 billion dollars. Finally, more than four million citizens of the countries of the region reside in Russia on a permanent basis, creating up to 8% of GDP; 160,000 citizens of these countries are studying in Russian universities, including 60,000 who are doing so at the expense of the state. Rudenko noted that Central Asia is a region that in our turbulent times is perceived as an island of stability. According to the deputy minister, the Central Asian partners "are sympathetic to the ongoing processes and are ready to give us a shoulder". In the context of geopolitical changes, Russia's foreign policy should be adjusted, and Central Asia will occupy an important, privileged place, he stressed.

The first, open session of the conference was devoted to geopolitical challenges and the joint development of the countries of the region and their neighbours. As Fyodor Lukyanov, Reseach director of the Valdai Club, noted, the club's experts have written many times about the collapse of the world order, sometimes making rather radical predictions. However, the changes taking place before our eyes have turned out to be even more global, and there will be no return to the reality to which we have become accustomed over the past decades. The participants, representing both the countries of the region and neighbouring states, shared their perspective on the ongoing changes and their consequences.

According to the experts, the world in general and Central Asia in particular are facing an extremely dangerous combination of factors. Wang Wen, Executive Dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies (RDCY) and Deputy Dean of the Silk Road School at China’s Renmin University, said that there have been no challenges of this magnitude since 1945. These include the unresolved consequences of the pandemic, a large-scale armed conflict in Europe, climate change, a food crisis, inflation, and the erosion of confidence in the global financial system as a result of the confiscation of Russian assets by Western countries. Nuclear war is not impossible either. The Chinese scientist urged the United States, which considers itself a world leader, to think about its responsibility for what is happening.

A similar point of view was voiced by Muhammad Athar Javed, founder and CEO of Pakistan House. According to him, Russia's special military operation in Ukraine began in response to NATO's expansion to the East. The Western community stubbornly denies this fact, as well as the threat of neo-Nazism in Europe, which, according to the Pakistani expert, is absolutely real. Under the new conditions, precise and focused strategic communication is of particular importance, and countries that are in opposition to the US and Europe must understand how they will exercise their strategic rationality, he stressed.

The key role of regional and interregional interaction and interconnectedness was pointed out by Daniyar Kurbanov, Director of the Information and Analytical Centre for International Relations under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan. He noted that Uzbekistan and the countries of Central Asia consider Russia one of their most important partners, and the promotion of multifaceted cooperation with Moscow can contribute to the solution of the tasks facing the states of the region to ensure security, socio-economic stability, and the implementation of national modernisation strategies. The countries of Central Asia and Russia can intensify practical cooperation within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to which Uzbekistan, as the chairman of the SCO, intends to contribute as much as possible.

According to Rustam Khaydarov, Deputy Director of Tajikistan’s Bahovaddinov Institute of Philosophy, Political Science and Law, the security and prosperity of all Eurasia has always depended on Russia. Today Russia is regaining the status of a country that will determine the vector of civilisational development in the world and will remain the guarantor of the region's security. Russia's special military operation in Ukraine has completed the formation of a tripolar world, which can shift international politics and economics to a new development track, he stressed.

In general, the participants of the first session demonstrated that, despite the crisis in Europe and the virtual collapse of globalisation as we knew it, they see opportunities for the region's development.

Further sessions on the first day were held behind closed doors. The second session was devoted to threats and opportunities in the field of collective security. A significant part of the discussion was devoted to the situation in Afghanistan, which appears to be the central security threat in Central Asia, both from inside the region and from outside. The need for peace in that country is obvious to everyone, as well as the inadmissibility of turning Afghanistan into a pariah country. There is an almost universal consensus on cooperation with the Taliban (with the exception of Tajikistan, which maintains a tough stance against the Taliban). The countries of the region, as a rule, do not see an immediate threat from the Taliban, who are not interested in spreading their ideology to their neighbours. The problem, however, is that more than 20 terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan, including the Islamic State (banned in Russia), which claims responsibility for 99% of the attacks. No one is sure that the Taliban will be able to cope with these groups, especially against the backdrop of socio-economic problems exacerbated by the food crisis - and, in fact, the threat of famine.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is an example of a trend that is observed in one way or another in all countries of Central Asia, namely the traditionalisation and archaisation of society.

According to one expert, the coming to power of the Taliban demonstrated the desire of the Afghan people to preserve their identity, even at the expense of development. This raises the question, important for all non-Western countries, whether states in the modern world can develop while maintaining ideological independence. For twenty years Russia tried to act through compromises, but after the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, it was cut off from the benefits of globalisation. If Russia successfully overcomes the difficulties that have arisen, primarily economic ones, all countries that are faced with the dilemma of “development or ideological independence” imposed by the West will obtain an example of how to find their own options for combining material prosperity with cultural ​​sovereignty.

However, security threats are not limited to Afghanistan. A complex set of problems has accumulated there, including terrorism, drug trafficking, radical ideology and a refugee crisis. The threat of a food crisis is growing, which was previously associated with climate change, but now with geopolitical reasons. Cooperation in this area is of particular importance. An example is the activity of Uzbekistan, which has established cooperation with India, Israel and Saudi Arabia on the cultivation of drought-resistant varieties of wheat.

The third session was devoted to international trade and transport in Central Eurasia and emerging opportunities. In connection with the change in trade flows, Russia needs to redirect 45-50% of the container turnover. So far, Turkey has been the most active, which, both in terms of logistics and supplies, meets Russia's demands and puts a minimum margin on risk. Participation in the redirection of logistics flows can bring billions of dollars in profits to the countries of Central Asia.

New conditions require non-standard solutions. So it is proposed to change some of the rules of the EAEU - in particular, to allow Russia to register trucks in Kazakhstan (trucks from Russia and Belarus are prohibited from entering the EU), to allow cabotage transportation.

A special issue is the export of natural gas. With a significant decline in gas supplies to Europe expected, Russia will face difficulties. According to one of the experts, LNG is not an option, since the plants for its production were built using Western technology. In the event that gas from Western Siberia is redirected, for example, to the Chinese market, it will be most expedient to use the existing pipeline infrastructure of Central Asia, which is not in the best condition and requires modernisation investments.

The final session was devoted to interregional cooperation, and the most discussed topic was the interaction between the border regions of Russia and Kazakhstan. It has both its own problems and opportunities, including those opening up due to geopolitical upheavals. The problems include, first of all, the difficult demographic situation in the border areas and the almost complete cessation of commuter migration due to Covid restrictions. At the same time, it was the situation of recent months that showed many in Kazakhstan how closely it is connected with Russia. According to one of the experts, Russia plays first fiddle both in security, and in the economy, and even in the information field: “Kazakh Russophobes, not knowing foreign languages ​​other than Russian, read not Western, but Russian Russophobes.”

Regarding logistics, there is room for creative solutions. Thus, it was proposed to open shopping centres for Russians in the border regions of Kazakhstan, so that they could purchase products that are not available in Russia due to Western sanctions. An increase in air traffic from northern Kazakhstan is predicted due to the closure of EU airspace for Russian airlines. All this, along with the legalisation of "gray" imports, indicates the securitisation of foreign economic relations, which is our new reality.