Strengthening integration and cohesion in Central Asia

Strengthening integration and cohesion in Central Asia

Promoted by the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Brussels. The views belong to the sponsor.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the appearance of 15 new independent countries on the world map. The euphoria that prevailed after gaining independence was replaced by the realities faced by all the new republics.

The countries of Central Asia faced an urgent need to create new interstate political and economic ties, which were previously based on the Russian Federation. At the same time, these countries began to demonstrate a willingness for regional cooperation. The need for integration was intensified by a set of common socio-economic problems that could only be solved by combining the resources and efforts of different countries of the region.

Causes and factors hindering the integration process in the region

Integration processes in Central Asia began in 1994 with the signing of the Common Economic Space Treaty by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In 1998 Tajikistan joined the treaty and as a result, this union became known as the Central Asian Economic Union. The main objectives of this regional organization were to ensure intensive economic development in the region. However, it soon became clear that multilateral economic cooperation in the first integration projects in Central Asia did not develop as well as expected, and attempts to create a common economic space failed. The main problem in deepening integration that has remained up to the present day are the significant asymmetries in the development of the countries, which differ in the size of territory, population, socio-economic development, as well as the availability of natural resources and access to key transit routes.

Integration impulses in the region were changing depending on the current geopolitical situation and the nature of interstate relations in Central Asia itself. Contemporary integration processes in the post-Soviet area have primarily economic rather than political character. Economic integration is a response to the challenges of globalization, as well as a way to manage economic interdependence at the regional level. The region of post-Soviet Central Asia is in the zone of interest of the world's leading powers due to the geopolitical location of the region, the presence of vast natural resources, economic and political transformation processes. Several power centers - Russia, the USA, China and the European Union compete for mutual influence towards the countries of the region. Russia retains one of the key roles in the region, and the most successful integration initiatives are associated with its presence and leadership.

Central Asia as a new model of integration

Nowadays, Central Asia faces the task of strengthening its own geopolitical and geo-economic subjectivity, transforming the existing bilateral relations into a system of full-fledged multilateral relations built on solid foundations. Despite the existence of many converging factors, the countries of the region have not managed to form a full-fledged integration association yet. In addition, periodically there is an escalation of conflicts between them regarding security, border demarcation and water resources.

Prospects for the revival of the Central Asian multilateral development vector became possible after 2016, when the new President of Uzbekistan S. Mirziyoyev activated cooperation with the countries of the region, and Central Asia was declared a priority of Uzbekistan's foreign policy.

Uzbekistan - a new regional leader?

It is obvious that the CA region was condemned to the role of Russian backyard, on which such countries as China, Turkey, the EU or even USA could occasionally appear. Surprisingly to all of them, this trend has been reversed in recent years, - since 2016, to be more precise.

Almost immediately after being elected as a President of Uzbekistan in 2016, Shavkat Mirziyoyev took a pro-active position by launching a number of initiatives, aiming to solve main regional problems. Delimitation and demarcation of the boundaries between the Central Asian states, water and border-crossing issues as well as building good working relations with Central Asian counterparts – these were the main problems that remained unsolved despite many previous internal and external attempts. In 2016-2017 it became clear, that improved regional cooperation and integration turned out to be a priority of Uzbek’s foreign policy.

First of all, Uzbekistan has begun to demarcate the borders with its neighbours. Unfortunately, the border issue in Central Asia has been the bone of contention for many years, the issue which negated any cooperation initiatives. Remarkably, almost in two years of its Presidency, Shavkat Mirziyoyev reached the border agreements with all neighbours of Uzbekistan. Even though some of these accords were not solving the border issue in 100%, still they had a qualitative impact on the situation, moving things forward.

Back in 2016, Tashkent hosted a working meeting between the governmental delegations of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to discuss the demarcation and delimitation of their borders. Uzbek-Tajik commitments had a measurable impact as border crossings were reopened and visa rules relaxed. Now it has been stated that thanks to the work of the Joint Uzbek-Tajik Demarcation Commission both sides are moving forward from delimiting their border to demarcation.

Uzbekistan was even able to solve one of the biggest problems of the region which is the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. This border is known for its small-sized armed incidents that sometimes lead to human casualties. As of late November 2016, both sides agreed on 56 joint areas of the border, while another 49 disputed border territories were rigorously negotiated by working groups of the governmental delegations until 2017. After many years of intense and devoted work, on the 25th of April 2021, Presidents of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan signed a protocol on the final delimitation and demarcation of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

What is more, Uzbekistan not simply solves its border issues, but also helps its neighbours in addressing their border disputes. That was the case in April 2021, when it was reported on the tensions between civilians along a Tajik-Kyrgyz border stretch which quickly escalated into shooting between security forces. Shavkat Mirziyoyev was one of the first to speak with and assist both presidents during the crisis.

It is clear that there are still many border matters in Central Asia that must be addressed, such as the issue of 8 enclaves in Central Asia, or management of Fergana valley. However, Uzbekistan shows by its own example that there are no unsolvable problems, there is just a need for political will to resolve them. Uzbekistan's proactive actions in this area not only inspire its neighbours, but also give a hopes for the future of reinforced regional integration and cooperation.

Secondly, in parallel with solving the border issues, that are sine qua non for the prosperous future of the whole region. Uzbekistan puts forward some bold initiatives to deepen regional cooperation in the field of water and energy use, connectivity, development of trade, economic and investment cooperation and the common promotion of their cultures and the tourism opportunities.

Due to Uzbekistan's commitment, the water and energy cooperation in the region becomes more diverse. A joint bilateral water management commission with Kyrgyzstan together with a working group were created to develop proposals on all areas of water relations between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. While trilateral working group with Turkmenistan which also involves the private sector now jointly works for the same purpose. Uzbekistan is also pursuing the idea of launching the full-fledged operation of a single energy ring in Central Asia. First steps towards this bold vision have been already made as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan plan to construct two 320 MW HPPs on the Zarafshan River.

Efforts of Uzbekistan in contributing to the system of regional and international transport corridors are also worth mentioning. Turkmenabad-Farab railway and road bridges have been jointly built by Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, providing the Central Asian countries with the shortest access to the markets of the Middle East.

The construction of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China railway route, opening the way to the Persian Gulf and Turkey through the Caucasus, is still a highly possible project, lobbied mostly by Uzbekistan. In June 2020, the first train on the multimodal route linking the above-mentioned three countries was launched. This train makes the whole journey of 920 km in 7 days, which is 5 days faster than by any other means of transport. With this, the route from China to Southeast Europe could be reduced up to 900 kilometers, equal to up to seven or eight days.

The implementation of these projects will significantly increase the geo-economic attractiveness of Central Asia as an important transit and communication hub between East and West.

And lastly, Uzbekistan has been contributing to the development of the new political environment, that provides the basis for a reinforced, resilient and united Central Asian region. In 2018 a Consultative Meetings of the Heads of States of Central Asia was initiated by Shavkat Mirziyoyev to bring all CA leaders together in building up the Central Asia community of interests. During the second Consultative Meeting (November 2019, Tashkent), CA leaders have adopted a Joint Statement, in which they all confirmed their determination to comprehensively deepen regional cooperation, strengthen the existing relations of friendship, good-neighborliness and strategic partnership. It did not take too long to test the strength of these commitments: a breakthrough of the Sardobin reservoir (May 2020) which impacted Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, growing tensions in the Sokh region of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border (May-June 2020), or an escalation of the conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border (May this year) demanded rapid and joint responses. If before, such problems would have ended in a deterioration of bilateral relations, particularly these ones were jointly neutralized with avoidance of the further escalations. All of this was possible thanks to the improvement of the political climate in the region, which proves that Uzbeks regional initiatives seem to be working well.

It is also worth mentioning that for the first time in the history of the region a five-sided document on friendship, good-neighborliness and cooperation in Central Asia in the 21st century is being prepared. Until now, such agreements were concluded only on a bilateral basis. That makes the regional transformation even more tangible and achievable.

Conclusions and perspectives

Internal political contradictions, the relatively low level of economic development, the growing presence of external forces in the Central Asian area, as well as the efforts of some countries to diversify economic and political cooperation, all create serious difficulties for the development of integration processes in the Central Asian area. Despite the intra-regional problems, the achievement of regional integration is still valid. However, Central Asia is transforming. In recent years, the question of the future of the region and what form of cooperation is the most appropriate for Central Asia, has become more relevant than ever. After almost a decade, heads of the countries have begun to organize meetings to discuss the future of regional cooperation. This initiative belongs to Uzbekistan, which is actively coordinating the development of the region and has a keen interest in its stability, prosperity and freedom from an external political influence. Thanks to the country's pro-active stance, unprecedented results have been achieved in resolving such sensitive issues as borders and the use of the region’s water and energy resources.

Regular dialogue at various levels could facilitate a gradual transition to a multilateral format of cooperation and start institutionalising regional relations. However, at first, the Central Asian countries must learn to accommodate each other's interests. With the transition to multilateral cooperation, it will be possible to talk about regional integration. Arguably, the established process of multilateral cooperation can slow down the process of regional fragmentation and reach a new level of cooperation.

By Yana Valchetskaya and Vita Kobiela

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