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After Ukraine crisis, Central Asia takes control of its destiny

The President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed a speech at the Consultative Meeting of the Heads of Central Asian States in Cholpon-Ata.

The Fourth Consultative Meeting of the heads of state of Central Asian in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan last month was qualitatively different from the preceding ones. A sense of urgency, and resolve to forge greater regional unity underlined the meeting, which took place under the shadow of the Ukraine crisis as well as in the wake of wide unrest and secessionist tendencies in at least three of the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. While Turkmenistan has seen a change of guard, in neighbouring Afghanistan the Taliban have completed one year in power.

Three main factors underpin the resolve for greater regional unity and integration.

First, Central Asian states fear a threat to their sovereignty and on the 30th anniversary of their independence, they continue to face external threats.

The year has seen widespread unrest and uprising in Kazakhstan, violence and secessionist tendencies in Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan, and in Gorno Badakshan Autonomous region of Tajikistan.

In all three cases a foreign hand and instigation from outside has been blamed. When Russia led CSTO troops were invited to quell the violence in Kazakhstan, there was indignation and even condemnation by Kazakhstan's neighbours. A regional force equivalent to the CSTO was mooted, amidst fears that the presence of the CSTO would be a pretext for a return of Russian presence in the region. Predictably, within a short span of time CSTO troops were asked to withdraw from Kazakh territory once their "mission" had been accomplished.

Second, Russia's military intervention in Ukraine has set alarm bells ringing in the region. Faced with the spectre of possible secessionist tendencies on their own territories, the biggest and richest of the CARS like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have refused to recognise the independence of breakaway Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Neither have they recognised the accession of the Crimea to the Russian federation for that matter. A number of protests and demonstrations in solidarity with the Ukrainian people were witnessed in many of the CARS.

The third factor, emanating from the second, has been the disruption of supply chains, threatening trade, and in particular, food security. The Ukraine crisis has caused food insecurity with wheat scarcity. There has been a spike in food prices, shortages arising from ban on wheat and sugar exports from Russia, spiking energy prices and inflation. Food prices have shot up by about 30 per cent; in some places like in Turkmenistan there have even been violent protests against rocketing prices.

At the same time the economies of CARS are inextricably linked with Russia, which still remains one of the biggest trade partners in the region, and sanctions against Russia have hurt the economies of the region. The war has severely impacted immigration to Russia and remittances back to countries like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, heavily dependent on such remittances. Almost 80 per cent of all remittances to Kyrgyzstan for example come from Russia. The war has also sent many migrant workers who have lost their jobs back to their home countries, adding to growing unemployment in the region. The sudden closure of Kazakh oil pipelines transiting through Russian territory has necessitated the search for alternate routes.

"Yes, the recent Consultative Meeting of Central Asian presidents in Kyrgyzstan was held in the context of the war in Ukraine. Although this format which was set up yet in 2018 has its self-value and revitalized the regional integration endeavour, the 4th Meeting took place in the time of profound geopolitical turbulence in the former Soviet space. Central Asian countries do face challenges from Russia and in this context try to consolidate their regional collaboration. The Treaty which was signed in Bishkek is indicative of such intention," says senior Uzbek analyst Farhod Tolipov.

All the heads of state focused on regional security, and then sustainable development and food security. For Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the dangers emanating from the chaos in Afghanistan was upfront, for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan it was religious radicalism, imported ideologies, and internal anarchy that was the main focus. For all of them food security and regional self-sufficiency was a priority.

To that end, the summit ended with the pledge for a number of measures that would enhance food production, and access to resources, manage water resources, reduce dependence on imports from outside the region, and create greater self-sufficiency. As Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov articulated in his opening address, “Finally, common security, stability and well-being depend on the atmosphere of relations between the states of the region.”

The  primary takeaways from the summit meeting was the agreement to launch a network of border trade and economic hubs as a basis for the Unified Commodity Distribution System of the Central Asian countries, to undertake speedier domestic industrialization, accelerate trade and investments in each other’s countries, Development of a comprehensive scheme for guaranteed provision of the population with a wide range of food products, cooperate in hydropower and managing joint water resources, and very importantly, delineate international borders between states in the region to preempt border conflicts and get on with regional cooperation and integration. A most important aspect was prioritizing connectivity networks, in particular the “Middle” Trans-Caspian Corridor from China through Central Asia and the Caucuses to Europe, the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail corridor and the Mazar-i-Sharif – Kabul – Peshawar rail route connecting Central Asia with South Asia.

According to Kazakh specialist and head of the Foreign Policy Research Institute Bolat Nurgaliyev, the main message from the Cholpon Ata summit was that the Central Asian five is ready to cooperate meaningfully with other partners as a “determined entity fully conscious of its capacity to make a substantial contribution to world peace and regional stability.”

That the potential is tremendous is of little doubt. Over the last year, for instance, regional trade grew by 27%, exceeding US $8 billion. The recession caused by Covid-19 disruptions first and now by the Russian-Ukraine conflict now seeks to accelerate the slow but steady integration process in the region.

“There are certain limits of integration defined by several influential factors of political and economic character – among them unequal level of economic development of Central Asian states, influence of external geopolitical actors (firstly, Russia), contradicting interests and positions of ruling elites, disagreements over distribution of local water resources, etc.,” cautions Tajik historian and analyst Pervaiz Mulladjanov. “There could be some prospects of closer cooperation in geopolitical and economic spheres but creation of an entity similar to EU and Eurasian Economic Union is doubtful.” Thus, for instance, the document produced at the end of the meeting titled “Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation for Development of Central Asia in the Twenty-First Century '' was signed only by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

But the very fact that there has been acknowledgement and concrete proposals outlined instead of simple feel- good platitudes, demonstrate that Central Asia is on an irreversible course for further integration and delivery of regional mechanisms for dealing with regional challenges.

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