any countries, "including in Central Asia, want better infrastructure [and] want major powers to provide more alternatives, to cooperate [with them] but not make them choose sides,” said Professor Anna Kireeva while discussing the status of Sino-Russian relations and the interests of Beijing and Moscow in Central Asia.
The remarks, made during a late-May, on-the-record conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, highlight Central Asia’s geopolitical situation: its foreign policy is heavily influenced by its neighboring global powers, while regional integration remains a challenge.
A Central Asian Alphabet Soup
Central Asia is a region with several multinational organizations that have an overlapping membership, including the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Moreover, there are trade and infrastructure-related projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI).
If we expand past Central Asia, there are other regional bodies to keep in mind, like the Turkic Council, the Turkic parliamentary Assembly, the International organization of Turkic culture, and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia. Similarly, the Spring 2019 Rumsfeld Fellows of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, coined a new term: the CAMCA nations (Caucasus, Mongolia, and Central Asia).
Nevertheless, there is no regional entity exclusively for all five Central Asian states, which highlights the lack of cohesion among these governments. There was one attempt at establishing such a bloc, but it was short-lived: in 1994 former Kazakhstani President Nazarbayev proposed the idea of a Central Asian Union—as one of its first steps, the Agreement on eternal friendship was signed in 1997 between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, this entity disbanded by the early 2000s.
More intraregional integration would also help trade. For example, trade between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan amounted to around USD $3 billion in 2018 and the goal is to reach USD $5 billion by 2020.
Is there a Central Asian Blueprint for Integration?
There are obvious advantages to greater regional integration, as this will lower the chances of interstate conflict while promoting trust and development via the mutual cooperation of Central Asian governments.
There are some ongoing interesting initiatives worth highlighting, for example Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan want to create a “silk visa,” to promote tourism to both countries. There are also similar discussions to create a Central Asian “Schengen” visa. The Financial Times interprets these initiatives as an example that Central Asia, a “region known for mutual hostility and glacial change shows signs of opening up.”
More intraregional integration would also help trade. For example, trade between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan amounted to around USD $3 billion in 2018 and the goal is to reach USD $5 billion by 2020. On the other hand, trade between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan was only USD $302 million. Moreover, the volume of trade between Tajikistan and the CIS countries, according to the latest data by the Tajik Ministry of economic development and trade, decreased by 5.1% last year. In other words, there is ample room for growth, and an umbrella organization could help promote more trade and investment.
Even more, such an organization could help the five countries deal with security challenges in the region, namely containing the expansion of IS and other radical groups, which have already carried out attacks in Tajikistan, by the border with Afghanistan.
So far there has been no major discussion towards a Central Asian Union 2.0. Outstanding issues that prevent the establishment of such an entity include the lack of clear delimitation of borders between a number of states, trade issues, occasional disputes, not to mention the urgent need for better infrastructure, including more direct flights, to make it easier for individuals, goods, and services to cross borders.
You Cannot Escape Geography
Due to its geographic location, sandwiched between China and Russia, not far from Iran and troubled Afghanistan, the five Central Asian states have to design their foreign policies while keeping in mind how they could affect their neighboring global powers. While Professor Kireeva, from Moscow State Institute of International Relations, was correct to state that Central Asian governments would welcome more beneficial alternatives and projects out of Beijing and Moscow, the five countries must also increase interconnectivity amongst themselves. A potential Central Asian Union would help reduce, to some extent, pressures from these two global powers by establishing a common front.
In spite of its flaws, the short-lived Central Asian Union of the late 1990s had valid objectives, namely bring together fraternal republics that share similar traditions and a common worldview. As a new decade is upon us, now is the time to discuss again the potential benefits of a Central Asian. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s victory in Kazakhstan’s June 9 elections and the pro-cooperation agenda of Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev suggest that now is the ideal for Central Asian governments to once again discuss the issue of a Central Asian Union 2.0.