Russia – Central Asia: No Alternative or Natural Partnership?
Ufa, Sheraton Plaza Hotel, Tsyurupa St., 7

On May 14–15, 2024, in Ufa, the very heart of Eurasia, the 4th Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club took place. One of the participants lauded it as “a feast of intellectual thought.” We invite our readers to explore what was said, because not all discussions were open to the general public, and the most interesting things happen, as we know, behind closed doors. We will open this door for you.

Over the course of the two-day conference, participants from Russia, India, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan managed to discuss many global and regional problems: some saw their solution in mutually beneficial cooperation with Russia, while others wanted to shift responsibility for their failures to their “big neighbour”; one tried to isolate themselves from this “neighbour”. Despite the polarity of opinions, the word “neighbour” was used in all disputes. As the representative of Uzbekistan Turdikul Butayarov rightly noted, one cannot help but communicate with neighbours. The Valdai Club event came in very handy in this sense – we had a fruitful conversation.

Opening the conference, Mikhail Galuzin, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, spoke about the natural partnership between Russia and the countries of Central Asia - primarily due to geographical proximity. In essence, it is the very “neighbourhood” that experts from the region later recalled more than once. However, what unites us is not only geography or even history, but also common external challenges and threats. Jointly confronting these threats makes Russia not only a natural partner, but even one “without alternative” – a guarantor of stability and security.

Session 1. Russia and Central Asia in a Shared Regional System: Bilateral and Multilateral Dimensions

As the world entered the 1990s, a uniquely stable period for the world system ended; the risk of a major war before that point had been minimal due to the alignment of interests and influence, said Fyodor Lukyanov, research director of the Valdai Club, starting the first session. Today we live between the pages of a history textbook and cannot be unbiased: changes are taking place in the world very fast and they are very comprehensive. They didn’t begin two years ago, but thirty years ago - the special military operation in Ukraine only served as a catalyst for these changes, which affect the whole world and Eurasia in particular.

Continuing Lukyanov’s idea that the transformation of the world order didn’t just begin a couple of years ago, Muratbek Azymbakiev, head of the foreign policy department of the Presidential Administration of the Kyrgyz Republic, noted that the new reality emerged precisely after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and one can debate for a long time whether the glass was half empty or half full during this period. It’s better to think about how to protect what you already have and get additional benefits, he relayed. Today we can see how political will is being transformed into concrete actions and decisions. Many issues that have not been resolved in the region for decades have moved forward. What role does Russia play in this coordinate system? According to Azymbakiev, Russia is a constant. How it interacts with the region will determine how it develops.

Fyodor Lukyanov, half-jokingly suggested abandoning the metaphor of a half-full or half-empty glass, since in fact the glass never runs dry, and the strength of our politics lies in the flow that fills it.

Bulat Sultanov, Director of the Research Institute of International and Regional Cooperation at the Kazakh-German University,  noted in a Marxist manner that being determines consciousness, and, according to this, Russia is the leading foreign economic and foreign policy partner of Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, messages about mutual unreliability have appeared recently on the social networks of both Russia and Kazakhstan. These messages are not accidental, since there is a confrontation between Russia and the West, and between the “collective West” and the Global South. Western leaders do not hide the fact that they are exerting great efforts to make Kazakhstan an anti-Russian country. Therefore, it is important to listen not to what social networks offer, but to the official position of Kazakhstan and Russia. “There is a statement that even the Lord God cannot change history, but for some reason our historians can change it,” Sultanov said. To prevent this from happening, it is necessary to start using “soft power”, develop a dialogue, study joint history, and strengthen the positive image of Russia in Kazakhstan. Security is not only about weapons, but also about the struggle for the souls of people.

Rustam Haidarzoda, director of the Institute for the Study of Asian and European Countries of the National Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, also spoke about the importance of dialogue between the peoples of Russia and Central Asia. Although the countries of the region have become mature states and are guided by the principle of multi-vector foreign policy, Russia as a strategic partner can always count on their support, and they, in turn, expect Russia to expand its economic presence. The countries of the Global South and East are tired of the American and Eurocentric world. We need new platforms for dialogue that have not discredited themselves with double standards, like many Western ones. The SCO and BRICS+ must join forces and take responsibility for the fate of humanity. Russia and the countries of Central Asia could initiate this process now.

Stanislav Tkachenko, professor of the Department of European Studies at St. Petersburg State University, recalled that a year ago the special military operation was a factor limiting Russia’s initiative and resources in Central Asia. However, now a lot has changed, and our economic relations have stabilised. Integration models borrowed from the West, which Russia tried to introduce in Central Asia, have generally showed their ineffectiveness, probably because they were not close to the regional elites. However, there is another model, originally used by China and Japan: “hot economics, cold politics.” Now it is precisely this that is increasingly used by the states of Central Asia, both in relations with each other and with regard to external players. In the future, it will probably become key for Russia.

Shamil Valeev, First Deputy Chairman of the Committee of the State Assembly - Kurultai of the Republic of Bashkortostan for the development of civil society institutions, information policy and religious affairs, spoke about the historical and spiritual ties of our fraternal peoples using the example of the fate of two diplomats - Karim Khakimov and Nazir Tyuryakulov. “There were many who wanted to pull us apart in different corners in the past,” Valeev noted. Today the world is returning to its organic, multipolar state, but at all times it is important to remember the common spiritual space.

Session 2. Security and Extremism: A Set of Challenges to Stability and Development in Central Eurasia

The second session took place behind closed doors, but we will briefly tell you what the participants discussed, without naming names. The experts began talking about security in Central Asia, and it was impossible not to mention China. China sees the world in panorama and perspective. Some say the world has returned to 1914, but from the Chinese point of view, this is an era of taking stock, reflecting and rethinking. Although the international situation is very uncertain, Chinese-Russian cooperation seems strong. Of course, conflicts and sanctions entail some difficulties, but Russia and China will continue to cooperate for the development of the Eurasian region, caring for prosperity throughout the world. For many years, peace and cooperation reigned in Central Asia, which confirms the desire of elites not to impede the development of the region and demonstrates their desire to not allow extremism to destroy the peace that they have worked so hard to maintain. Both the Russian Eurasian vector (EAEU) and the Chinese Belt and Road initiative demonstrate enormous viability in the countries of Central Asia, since they are based on mutual benefit and mutual respect.

A participant from Kazakhstan addressed an urgent matter - Central Asia is on the threshold of a total changing of the guard among its elites, so the values that were once associated with common history are losing significance - due to the fact that people who are bearers of these values are leaving. Completely different people are coming to replace them, with different attitudes, and the question is what Russia will offer them. Previously, there were four horsemen of the Apocalypse - Plague, War, Famine and Death – and humanity somehow dealt with them. But they were replaced by new ones. For the region, such horsemen are, in particular, Archaisation (the desire to return to the emotional state of previous generations, the restoration of archaic laws, the strengthening of religious movements); Degradation of education (occurring against the background of increasing religious activity); New ethics (non-traditional guidelines brought from the West); Social networks (any attempts by the government to interfere has led nowhere); Poverty (today everyone sees that the world order is unfair, and what this will lead to is unclear). In addition, all post-colonial countries today suffer from resentment, and this is a problem that, if the situation is not controlled, will definitely erupt, which can become a trigger for the development of a power clash.

From the Indian point of view, one of the main horsemen of the Apocalypse, especially for the countries of Central Asia, today is still terrorism, since it knows no boundaries and has no principles. Historically, Russia has played an important role in ensuring the security of countries in the region. Today, it also actively contributes to maintaining stability and security there, in particular through the CSTO and the SCO. India, in turn, has established counter-terrorism working groups with almost all countries in the region, and this serves as a platform for regular and meaningful dialogue. We need to strengthen the security capabilities of these countries through joint efforts to create a safe environment for everyone. 

According to one of the Uzbek participants, life in the region as a whole is getting better. Despite the consequences of protectionism, sanctions pressure, and breaks in supply chains, the countries of Central Asia have managed to maintain good neighbourly relations, cooperation and economic development. Ever since Central Asia began to demonstrate independence and emerge as a strategically important entity, it is natural that it has attracted the attention of many external players. There are several issues that need to be addressed. In particular, it would be nice to create a unified network for the whole of Eurasia to counter terrorism in the region. The issue of demography opens up great opportunities, but also creates new challenges - the younger generation needs education and work, and in order to avoid the radicalisation of young people, it is necessary to provide them with everything necessary for a full life. The example of Afghanistan can be contagious - a low level of education leads to the radicalisation of young people.

A participant from Kyrgyzstan did not agree with his Kazakh colleague, who called the archaisation of Central Asian society one of the new horseman of the Apocalypse. In his opinion, there is a positive aspect to this. In order to prevent the radicalisation of the population, certain measures are needed - simple bans cannot defeat pseudo-Islam. An alternative would be a “correct” interpretation of the scriptures that would bring religious faiths closer together.

The expert from Kazakhstan who had proposed the new horseman of the Apocalypse countered that interpretation in the fight will not help in any way, since it will not be based on a scientific approach. Only education and the development of the ability to think analytically can defeat radicalisation, since the “universe of knowledge” teaches us to separate reality from myths.

An unexpected idea was expressed by a representative of Bashkortostan - changes, it turns out, are taking place not only in Central Asia, but also in Russia (unexpectedly, because most of the participants spoke about Russia through the prism of the problems and successes of their countries). First of all, Russia's self-awareness has changed. Russian society remembered that Russia is a civilisation-state and realised that there are useful things that can be adopted, and there are those that are not suitable for it. Most importantly, Russia does not need to ask anyone for permission on how to develop. The combination of different cultural principles in Russia is completely natural. The Russian world is not an attempt to dominate one ethnic group, but a proposal for interaction on the principles that are accepted in the general Russian environment. Different views and religions coexist with each other, pushing each other to develop.

Session 3. Trade and Migration: On the Way to Mutually Beneficial Solutions

The third session was also held behind closed doors and became, perhaps, the hottest dish of the Valdai “intellectual feast”. You need to run as fast as you can just to stay in place, and to get somewhere, you need to run at least twice as fast. So who is running and where? And if he runs but remains in place, then why?

Trade is impossible without logistics. One of the session participants, the one who remembered the quote from Lewis Carroll’s fairy tale, explained why the development of a huge project to build the North-South international transport corridor, despite loud statements, is being slowed down. This has happens for several reasons: weak trade potential (Middle Eastern countries trade less willingly than, for example, China), lack of investment – Russia would have to implement the project at its own expense (it was assumed that Iran would invest, but this did not happen), poorly developed infrastructure (only Turkmenistan has approached this responsibly), insufficient coordination of the participating countries, lack of information (the level of statistics for analysis and work is still insufficient) and qualified personnel. It is necessary to clearly set goals and give the business guarantees of non-interference in the project. Well, then, of course, everything will move twice as fast.

Another speaker focused directly on trade. He said that the countries of Central Asia are striving to maintain the variability of economic ties and, at the same time, to avoid pressure from external players. However, the desire to ensure national security and preserve liberal principles of trade could lead to disintegration in the Eurasian space. There are three important issues that need to be urgently and collectively resolved, otherwise there is a risk of closing markets: the first is raising professional standards and the quality of the workforce, the second is ensuring sanitary and epidemiological control so that the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic shock does not repeat itself, the third is the regulation of food security. The instruments are the same for all countries of Eurasia, including those that are not members of the EAEU, and, given the complementarity of the economies, states should develop in the same direction, following a common logic, which will benefit everyone.

Nevertheless, as another expert from Kazakhstan emphasised, the importance of the EAEU is undeniable. This “seamless structure”, including a single customs space, helped soften the shock after the start of the special military operation in 2022. We can say that the EAEU has already played its role. The speaker also repeated the thesis of Deputy Minister Galuzin that Russia and Central Asia are uncontested partners for each other. But if Galuzin spoke about security, then here we were talking about migration. The numbers are absolutely stunning: the population of Central Asia is 72 million and 17 million are permanent migrants; for 90 percent of them, the host country is Russia. Russia’s problem is regulating migration, but it will undoubtedly solve it.

The worst-case scenario for Central Asia would be its transformation into an arena for geopolitical games. In this regard, the situation is quite alarming, because the countries of the region are already becoming targets for secondary sanctions (for example, Kazakhstan refuses to service Russian Mir cards). However, for now, the Central Asian states are trying to pursue a policy of non-alignment - a clear refusal to participate in any anti-Russian alliances and a demonstration of the desire to remain a “window” for the Western world.

The speakers, in general, did not deviate from the topic of the session and spoke in a constructive manner, until one of the session participants stated that four generations had already passed since the Soviet friendship of peoples ended, and Uzbekistan sees Russia as only one of its strategic partners. It does not want to be called a post-Soviet republic, it is not a member of the EAEU, it has left the CSTO, it cooperates with the United States, in particular on Ukraine, and defends democratic values. Therefore, it was advised that Russia perceive Uzbekistan, for example, as being akin to Pakistan, and not as part of the post-Soviet space.

Many experts from that very “post-Soviet space” immediately responded to this statement with indignation. Pakistan, they noted, is part of the post-British space, and the relationship between England and Pakistan is a special one. Where do people migrating from Pakistan go? To England. This is a relationship between an ex-metropolis and an ex-colony, they lived in the same state. There is nothing wrong with the term “post-Soviet” - we were all once one country, we share a common past, and connections.

Anastasia Likhacheva, moderator of the next, fourth session, Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Politics at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, who listened to the discussion from the hall, said that it has now become more clear why we cannot reduce relations between our countries  to profit and investment alone.

Session 4. Environment, Climate, Water: A Shared Area for Life in Central Eurasia

The problem of water and ecology is transregional. It is characterised by a paradox of certainty and uncertainty: we know that the problem is strategic, but we do not know what the water balance in the region will be like in ten to fifteen years, what water is needed for and where to get energy for the life and development of people. The fourth session, dedicated to ecology, was open to all curious people, but moderator Anastasia Likhacheva asked the participants not to hold back in their assessments, including discussing painful points.
Shamil Enikeev, professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, noted that in the countries of Central Asia, the problem of water and energy shortages is quite acute. It is obvious that a government strategy for regulating these resources is needed. Under Soviet rule, certain mechanisms existed: there was a system of mutual settlement for water supplies. Now the situation is different: give us water for free, but you’ll have to pay for electricity. According to Enikeev, the energy issues are easier to solve than the water problem. The creation of a triple alliance - Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and the entry of Russian gas into these countries will solve both the problem of energy shortages in these countries and the problem of energy supplies to China, which may have difficulties with LNG delivery by sea due to the brewing confrontation with the United States, and expansion of markets for Gazprom. The world has entered an era of conflict that will last from ten to thirty years. The shortage of energy resources can be used by both internal and external players to destabilise the situation within the Central Asian countries. So it’s time to start harmonising processes in the field of energy and water resources.

Ecology has become one of the factors affecting political stability, emphasised Daniyar Abdrakhmanov, rector of the Bashkir Academy of Public Administration and Governance under the Head of the Republic of Bashkortostan, and chairman of the Public Chamber of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Since ancient times, the vulnerability of nature has left people no choice but to either: engage in careful treatment, or extermination, hunger and resettlement to other territories. Today, the environmental topic is extremely politicised and has becomes the subject of speculation. Tursun Akhmedov, Deputy Director of the Institute of Macroeconomic and Regional Studies under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan, spoke in favour of developing a common environmental policy in the region - after all, Eurasia is a common climate space.

Water will eventually be more important than oil, says Olzhas Baidildinov, a former adviser to the Kazakh energy minister. By 2050, water scarcity could lead to a drop of 1 to 1.5 percent of potential GDP and an increase in the number of climate migrants. The idea of creating a Water and Energy Consortium, proposed by the President of Kazakhstan, would work better if implemented jointly with Russia. In addition, when the question of energy security arises, we must understand that the region cannot cope without Russia. According to Baidildinov, the introduction of secondary sanctions against Kazakhstan is inevitable in any case. So why not start preparing for this in advance? As Vladimir Putin said, if a fight is inevitable, strike first. “Some believe that relations with Russia are cooperation to which we are doomed. But why not, if this neighboring country, among other things, can also help with resources?” Baidildinov noted rhetorically.

Open discussion

Traditionally, the Valdai Club holds an open session, during which everyone can speak out about pressing issues, ask questions and formulate a backlog of topics for the next Valdai Club Conferences. We will present only some of the participants’ speeches, since it is impossible to embrace the all the immensity.

The moderator of the discussion, Timofei Bordachev, programme director of the Valdai Club, suggested  starting the conversation with what the participants had discussed the previous day - water and energy.

A problem that affects the entire Central Asian region was outlined by Guzel Majtdinova director of the Centre for Geopolitical Research at the Russian-Tajik (Slavic) University. According to her, the construction by the Taliban (banned in Russia) of the Qosh-Tepa canal, which will take water from the transboundary Amu Darya River, does not take into account the interests of neighbouring states. It is necessary to review the technical and economic base of Qosh-Tepa and involve other interested states in the project. A group should be created at the UN to deal with this problem. International legal aspects should be universal for all Central Asian states. If a conflict breaks out, Russia will be forced to join it through the SCO and CSTO.

According to Anastasia Likhacheva, dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Politics at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, the problem of building a canal in Afghanistan can only be solved by placing the water problem in a broader framework of issues (for example, the economic development of the entire region), since we are talking about an object on the territory of another state. It is impossible to resolve this issue without the intervention of third countries, and China can help here first of all.

Continuing the theme of Afghanistan, Turdikul Butayarov, head of department at the International Institute of Central Asia, said: “Today we have what we have: the Amu Darya became a trans-border river after the division of spheres of influence between the Russian and British empires. We are now neighbours with Afghanistan, and neighbours must communicate. If your neighbour is calm, and you are also calm.” The Taliban have a right to their share of the water, but there is an international order to regulate issues related to transboundary rivers (“although the Taliban probably haven’t heard of it,” he added). Uzbekistan, for its part, is doing everything it can. This is a question of water use culture: today there is enough water in the region, the question is how we use it.

Yelena Kuzmina, Sector Head, Centre for Post-Soviet Studies at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that the question is not how much water there is in the region, but how to save it: there is deterioration of not only the irrigation systems, but also the entire infrastructure. In some countries, industrial modernisation is underway, but this is not happening at all in agriculture. More than 60 percent of the population of Central Asia lives in rural areas - and this is already a food security problem.

Yuri Chernogaev, political scientist and expert at the Eurasia Heritage Foundation, philosophically noted that no one said that the political component of the Qosh-Tepa issue is broader than the geographical one. He even heard the word “war” in this connection. It is impossible to conduct bilateral negotiations with Afghanistan, so there is no way out for now.

Turdikul Butayarov, objecting to Chernogaev, said that negotiations with the Taliban are underway and requested that the word “war” not be used at all. The region's elites, leaders, and the socio-political consciousness of the region have matured. The region has long been integrated in humanitarian terms: all peoples live together. “We realised that we can only survive together,” he emphasised.
However, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, research director at the Valdai Club, “growing up” does not at all guarantee a renunciation of hostilities. Rather, on the contrary: they have strengthened themselves and realised that they can now solve issues using other methods. In addition, they spoke about related peoples and the impossibility of starting a conflict because of this - but “relatedness” is also not a guarantee of peace, as we know. What can solve the conflict over water? To conquer a river from another state? But then it’s not about water, but about redrawing the geographical map, and all “well-wishers” from the outside will join this war.

Grigory Mikhailov, an expert on Central Asia and former editor-in-chief of REGNUM news agency, suggested that a war for water can affect water resources technically: as a result of a military defeat, the operation of enemy hydroelectric power stations can be changed, the uncoordinated release of water can be carried out, and this will affect downstream countries. Of course, the elites have matured and are focused on mutually beneficial cooperation, but countries are also reviewing their position in the region, and there is a desire to push through their state interests. These are two mutually exclusive and complementary processes.

In turn, Anastasia Likhacheva noted that 90 percent of what we call water wars have so far occurred between Israel and neighbouring countries - a dispute over who controls the water sources in the Golan Heights. There really haven't been any such conflicts in Central Asia in thirty years, but water could be an opportunity to fuel existing divisions.

Bulat Sultanov, director of the Research Institute for International and Regional Cooperation at the Kazakh-German University, said that for 33 years the Central Asian republics have lived in independence and still appeal to Tsarist Russia and point out the mistakes of the Soviet Union. But in 33 years, has it been possible for them to do something themselves, without moaning about what happened in the past? We need to live today. In his opinion, there will be no war for water, since the lower states of the region will not fight with the upper ones. There can be no integration in Central Asia, because the countries trade the same goods outside the region and are competitors. You can take the Visegrad Four as a model for integration and create the Turkestan Five within Central Asia, where everyone is equal.

Trying to move beyond the acute water problem, Kubatbek Rakhimov, executive director of the Applicata Center for Strategic Solutions, said that we have reached a moment when we can talk about the redevelopment of Central Asia, about the reindustrialisation of the region in connection with the events of 02.22. The Valdai Club conference showed that there is unploughed field for the construction of transport corridors. Transport is infrastructure, but economic development is key. There is one thing that could “stitch” the region together – a peaceful nuclear programme. Nuclear power drives development in key countries throughout the world, and without breakthrough solutions in this area, the region will not be able to resolve its problems, including with water. Russia is a leader in the field of nuclear energy. We need to combine the best, and many problems will be solved.

Responding to Rakhimov’s optimistic statement, Bulat Sultanov recalled that Russia built factories in Central Asia, not due to positive sentiments, but because Russia itself needed it: the factories were evacuated during the war, they remained in Russia, and in those days it was good for both sides. But today the countries of Central Asia are not ready to host nuclear power plants - in view of the potential danger inherent in the peaceful atom. Kazakhstan also has the experience of the Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, which strengthens the rejection of new projects in the nuclear field.


In fact, the Valdai Club conference in Ufa was dedicated to the search for common, mutually beneficial areas for cooperation in the new reality, where Russia and the countries of Central Asia (almost unexpectedly for themselves) found themselves 33 years after the dissolution of the USSR. Perhaps the peaceful Russian atom is not in demand in Central Asia, but all participants spoke about the friendship of the Russian and Central Asian peoples. This is the most valuable heritage of the Soviet Union, which, despite everything, was still preserved. Maybe it will be possible to improve upon it.

Let us recall that the first Central Asian conference of the Valdai Discussion Club was held in Kazan, the second in Nizhny Novgorod, and the third in Tomsk. Why Bashkortostan became the venue this time explained by the host party. The head of the republic, Radiy Khabirov, opening the Valdai Conference in Ufa, noted: “We are located at the junction of two civilizations: European and Asian. Our different nationalities live together as one big family.” This can be said about all of Russia.