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the time has come for an association of central asian states

The Time Has Come for an Association of Central Asian States

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The five sovereign states of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – have explored various forms of mutual cooperation almost from the beginning of their independence more than three decades ago.  Likewise, world powers and other states have explored ways to work with the region as a region. For example, in 2015, during the Obama Administration, the United States began to meet with the five in a format known as the C5+1.  But there are other +1’s for Central Asia:  Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and, occasionally or for special purposes, other countries.  

What has intriguingly developed since 2018, is a C5 without a +1, and the full and permanent institutionalization of that development should be the next concrete goal of the five Central Asian states.  But before we explore that option, let’s look briefly at what defines the region as a whole and then at the various attempts over the past three decades, both internal and external, to create some sort of regional, Central Asian organization.

What the West – and specifically the U.S. government – found difficult to understand early after the independence of the five Central Asian former Soviet republics was how fundamentally different they were from the Western international standard where cultural values, political structures, economic systems, and, indeed, their entire world view developed over centuries, strongly influenced by the European Renaissance, the Reformation, and the 18th-century English Enlightenment.  

By contrast, the five Central Asian states had about 70 years of the Soviet Empire and, before that, depending on their location, several hundred years of the Tsarist Empire that, skirting the heritages of the West, looked directly back to the Byzantine Empire, as well as to their own Turkic, Persian, Mongol, and nomadic histories and traditions.  Moreover, these five republics really had not been agitating for their independence; and so, it came to them as a surprise, almost as a shock.  The new states spent their early years of independence mostly looking inward, trying to get by with their once familiar and comfortable economic structures now broken and concentrating on how to be independent countries in the modern world.  

Moreover, each state’s first leader came, quite naturally, with a strong Soviet heritage and worldview.  There was one exception in the first generation of leaders:  Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.  Although he, too, came from the senior levels of the Soviet nomenklatura, at independence, he looked forward rather than cling to the past, and had the foresight to begin reforming Kazakhstan’s economy and financial institutions to meet international standards.  Even more important, he said that if Kazakhstan were to be an independent nation, it would need a new generation of leaders who think differently.  And to that end, he established the Bolashak Program (bolashak means future in Kazakhstani) to send his new nation’s young citizens abroad for their entire university, and in some cases even graduate, educations.  As a result, there is now an alumni cohort of about 16,000 Kazakhstani citizens with international views and experience who are assuming leadership roles in their nation’s public and private sectors.  

At independence, most international observers had actually predicted that Uzbekistan would become the leading country in the region because of the size of its educated population and because it was relatively industrialized.  However, first President Islam Karimov kept Uzbekistan firmly planted in the cultural and economic Soviet past.  It was only with Karimov’s death in September 2016 and the ascendence of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev that Uzbekistan began moving toward the same kind of internationalization that Kazakhstan had already achieved.

Early Attempts at Regional Organization

What about regional and international structures to help the new states in the region begin to work together?  Quite early on in their independence, in 1994, the Central Asia Union emerged, although Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were never full members, Tajikistan because it was engulfed in a civil war and Turkmenistan because it had established a strict policy of non-alignment.  Although this Central Asia Union had both economic and military elements, it never really took off as a viable international organization.  

Another little-known fact is that those Central Asian states interested in working together later set up what they called the Central Asian Cooperation Organization.  But that, too, faded into obscurity by 2005.  Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin was establishing the Commonwealth Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and, eventually, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).  Behind the scenes, Putin and his colleagues made it clear that CSTO and EAEU memberships would trump all other regional or even subregional memberships.  That did not, however, preclude the five Central Asian states from joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that China, working closely with Russia, established in 2001.  However, in a move that somewhat diluted the Central Asian influence in the SCO, in 2017 the organization added Pakistan and India as new member states, and in 2023, Iran became a member.  

But, Russia and China were not the only nations to establish new international organizations after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Europe established the Vienna-based Committee for Security and Cooperation in Europe that then became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), although Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have yet to become full member states.  Also, NATO offered to the new post-Soviet states, including those in Central Asia, a cooperative program called the Partnership for Peace.  However, this program was not necessarily calculated to offer eventual NATO membership but to help the new states establish their own militaries.  And then there were, and still are, other regional organizations that include the Central Asian states, like the Organization of Turkic States, although Persian-heritage Tajikistan is not a member, and other lesser-known organizations.  

And so, it should now be clear that almost from the beginning of their independence there has been regional and international value seen in forming organizations that include the Central Asian states.  But where do the Central Asian states themselves currently stand more than three decades after their independence? 

Re-emergence of the Desire for Regional Association 

It wasn’t until 2018 that a new movement emerged within Central Asia itself to hold regular regional summits without a plus one.  In fact, this was a direct outgrowth of Washington’s original C5+1 that then-Secretary of State John Kerry conducted with the five Central Asian foreign ministers in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in November 2015.  At that first meeting, the six leading participants agreed to focus on three sectors of common interest:  security, with a focus on terrorist threats; economics, with a focus on improving regional trade flows and prospects for U.S. trade and investment; and environmental challenges. They also agreed to form working groups for each sector and to focus on achieving practical results.  The goal of the U.S. C5+1 was practical results; it was not to be just one more international talk shop.

It was a result of this practicality that led the Central Asian leaders to renew their vision of the true value of working together and that then led to the first Consultative Meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia, suggested by Uzbekistan and hosted by Kazakhstan at Astana in 2018.  Early on, there was talk of studying ASEAN and the Nordic Council as examples of nations coming together to work for practical results.  Subsequently, the Central Asian heads of state have met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (2019); Awaza, Turkmenistan (2021); Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan (2022); and most recently in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (2023).  That most recent meeting is especially intriguing because it looked trans-Caspian and invited an honored guest, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.  Furthermore, there is now a Council of Coordinators for this annual meeting to promote coordination, coexistence, and – especially – pragmatic cooperation.

I would suggest that it is now high time to do everything possible to encourage this positive development by the Central Asian states themselves to move further forward and finally establish a concrete international organization in which all five nations maintain their sovereignty and independence, as do the members of ASEAN, but increasingly work together.  Certainly, the emergence of the Middle Corridor for China-to-Europe trade, because of international sanctions against Russia, should encourage the development of this new regional organization.  

From the perspective of finance, trade, and business, full coordination among the five states would be of great value.  For example, business people in the region often comment on the importance of harmonizing tariffs throughout the region to enhance the value of the Middle Corridor as a permanent long-term route for trade and transit between China and Europe and not just a temporary work-around because of Russia’s war against Ukraine.  The current U.S. C5+1 understands the need to focus on trade and investment with USAID’s current Central Asia Trade Forum and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Commercial Law Development Program.

Other developments that regional and international businesses would certainly value would be the creation of a Central Asia Regional Chamber of Commerce and a Central Asia Regional Coordination Council on electronic commerce and other sector-specific coordination platforms.  The establishment of a Council of Coordinators after the most recent Dushanbe Summit is most definitely a move in the right direction.

Let’s hope that the next step, sooner rather than later, will be the official establishment of an Association of Central Asian States. 

 [NOTE:  This commentary, in shorter form, was originally a presentation that the author delivered at the B5+1 Forum (B stands for business) conducted by the Washington-based Center for International Private Enterprise in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on March 14-15, 2024.] 

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