Five Heads are Better than One: Central Asian Presidents Meet for Annual Leaders’ Summit
The Third Consultative Meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia took place August 5-6 in Avaza, Turkmenistan, bringing all of the Central Asian presidents together in this format for the first time. Although this is the third summit, with the prior two occurring in Astana, then Tashkent, previously, not all current presidents of the region attended, despite invitations to do so. The meeting represents a continued diplomatic endeavor to host an annual in-person conference. Unlike the C5+1 format that involves all five Central Asian states plus the United States or summits including Russia, the Consultative Meetings gather Central Asian leaders absent any outside diplomatic leadership. The conference, originally scheduled to take place in 2020 before the pandemic forced a year-long delay, highlighted many regional challenges and potential solutions.
The successful execution of the summit is no small feat. COVID-19 is surging in at least four of the Central Asian countries, the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. Moreover, for the past several months, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have exchanged hostilities due to a border dispute. Against this backdrop, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov hosted President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Sadyr Japaorv, Emomali Rahmon, and Shavkat Mirziyoyev. These consultative meetings began in 2018 to foster regional cooperation and rebuild interstate relationships that were previously strained. Now, in 2021, these priorities of cooperation and diplomacy are even more imperative.
Several major themes emerged from the official joint statement signed by all five presidents at the end of the meeting. Notably, the heads of state agreed to regular five-sided foreign ministry meetings. In the statement, the leaders also expressed their hope to sign a treaty cementing regional cooperation and support at the next consultative meeting in 2022. The presidents agreed to a number of proposals in support of the goal to increase regional communication through diplomatic coordination.
Importantly, the presidents agreed on the need to increase the ease of trade between countries. While manufacturing costs in each country remain relatively low, goods held up for hours at border crossings increase the associated costs. To combat this long-standing problem, the leaders created a council with business representatives from each state that will meet to resolve these barriers.
Complimenting the commitment to strengthening physical trade, the presidents concurred on the need to fortify the digital infrastructure of the region to support modern commerce and communication. The joint statement hailed the Astana International Financial Center, an initiative led by Kazakhstan to attract foreign investment and incubate domestic innovation as a key to further technological and economic growth for Central Asia.
COVID-19 loomed large at the conference, and President Berdimuhamedov proposed the creation of a regional information system that would help governments track the pandemic across Central Asia. Given that Turkmenistan still has not officially reported cases of COVID-19, this proposal came as a welcome surprise that could potentially strengthen the region’s public health response.
Several other Central Asian conferences ran in concurrence with the Heads of State Summit, most notably, the Dialogue of Women Leaders from Central Asian States. The Dialogue discussed gender equality, women empowerment, and women leadership. This conference also had members representing all five Central Asian states, and the presidents’ joint statement specifically thanked the women’s conference and committed Central Asia to continue the push for women’s equal representation in all facets of life. Although a promising statement, it will require meaningful follow through.
Of course, Afghanistan was discussed, and President Rahmon warned of the dire consequences of a potential power vacuum in the region’s southern neighbor. Each president committed his country to supporting a stable Afghanistan, although no specifics on how to achieve that goal were released after the conference.
In general, the Avaza summit demonstrated a positive step for a region that, not too long ago, lacked intra-regional collaboration. In the face of internal and external challenges, the commitment of continued top-level diplomatic engagement was a promising step in the right direction. While this is the third consultative meeting, it is the first that all five current heads of state for the region attended because President Berdimuhamedov did not go in 2018, and former President Nazarbayev represented Kazakhstan in 2019 after he had resigned from the presidency. For a region where the heads of state are extremely important in the decision-making process, this summit indicates that the regional leadership is heading in the right direction. Instead of engaging in bouts of political theater to telegraph their intentions, the presidents met and discussed the issues that unite them, and chose collaboration over divisive politicking.
Image source: Akorda.kz