Grand gestures, small steps: recent agreements and deepening regional cooperation in Central Asia7 min read
Attempts to strengthen relations and foster unity within Central Asia often seem futile. With states locked in relationships with “great powers,” and with internal and external conflict fuelling nationalism, authoritarianism, and border wars, critics often doubt whether the five republics of Central Asia will ever be able to share more than borders. Consensus and stability seem elusive, and past regionalism efforts have had little success. Yet despite this, talk of regional cooperation in Central Asia persists, and it remains on the agenda as we move into 2023. High-level meetings held last year led to commitments to deepen political interaction and regional problem solving. Some of these have started to materialise, with pragmatic, issue-based partnerships demonstrating that many of the problems faced by the region can best be solved within it.
As my research in Bishkek last year suggested, we need to move away from dominant conceptions of regionalism to understand why regionalism perseveres, what form it takes, and why it still matters. Historical and political context is key, and appreciating this will become increasingly important for the region’s future. As the states of the region continue to be pulled in multiple geopolitical directions, these agreements could help to build a crucial sense of Central Asian “togetherness,” despite the challenges they face.
Hydro-Power and High Politics
In the first week of 2023, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan agreed on a “road map” for the construction of the Kambar-Ata-1 hydropower project. Observers often warn about the risk of conflict over water in general, and hydro-power projects in particular. Moreover, the project, which will give a more reliable energy supply, is a timely response to the energy shortages which Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have all faced in the recent harsh winter. As pointed out in RFE’s Central Asia in Focus newsletter, this is a strong start for regional cooperation and a reassuring step for regional stability, demonstrating an ability to coordinate and prioritise long term collective interests.
This is a “small step”; it only involves three of the Central Asian republics and is narrowly focused on a specific project. Nevertheless, it shows that states can and will act together — part of a growing recognition that many of the challenges faced by Central Asia can only be solved within it.
This trend has also started to impact the “grand gestures” of international relations.
The fourth Consultative Meeting of the Central Asian heads of state was held in Kyrgyzstan in July 2022, producing multiple commitments to regional coordination and understanding, as well as renewed calls to deepen economic connectivity. This is a response to gloomy economic forecasts, and to alleviate (or take advantage of) Russia’s economic isolation. The meetings have become a reliable fixture of regional politics, moving beyond their “consultative” remit and providing a platform for all five republics to come together.
Whilst strengthening their internal ties, the Central Asian states have also been cultivating their external affairs. The 5+1 format, allowing the five states to engage an extra-regional power jointly, has continued to grow. First instituted by Japan, it has been adopted by Italy, China, Russia, and India (among others). As external powers have taken a renewed interest in the region, and sought to position themselves accordingly, they have embraced 5+1 meetings. The US has sought to deepen its engagement in the region by committing to the format, and the EU utilised it in its recent high-level meeting with Central Asian leaders in Astana.
Most noticeable, however, has been the increasing cooperation between Turkic-speaking states, bringing political, economic, and cultural alliances. These, it is claimed, provide new political opportunities built on ancient historical and cultural affinities between the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Although sometimes viewed as a tool for Turkey to increase its influence in the region, pan-Turkic cooperation was originally proposed in the 1990s as a platform for cooperation between the newly independent Central Asian states, and continues to be embraced by them in this regard.
Despite these developments, however, movement towards closer regional ties has been difficult, and continues to face challenges. In their 30 years of independence, each of the Central Asian states has attempted to “nation-build,” emphasising their distinctiveness at the cost of political trust and cultural commonality. Pushing such an agenda has had tragic consequences for the region, such as the escalation of the border war between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in September. This was the latest in a series of conflicts fuelled by attempts to strengthen political and ideological boundaries through nationalist rhetoric and militarised borders. These trends have been further exacerbated by the internal instabilities faced by all five of the republics last year, and which have prompted an increase in authoritarian repression.
Given this, it may seem unsurprising that regionalism in Central Asia tends to range from incomplete to non-existent. Efforts tend to be small-scale, often failing to engage some of the states generally considered to be part of the region, notably Turkmenistan. After the collapse of both the Central Asian Union (1994-2001) and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (2001-2005), attempts at comprehensive and binding regional integration have been abandoned. To critics, these are signs of the hopelessness of attempting regional cooperation.
Where it has existed at all, it seems to give way to a reliance on great powers, “weak-state” complexes, and corrupt elites. These, it is argued, have pushed states into joining Western-based, Post-Soviet, Eurasian and Turkic groups simultaneously, which further takes the focus away from Central Asia and allows these states to be exploited by more powerful neighbours. This is exactly what Russia appears to be doing, tightening its grip on the EAEU as it faces increasing global isolation. Pointing to these constraints, and the way they undermine regional unity and consensus, Central Asia has been labelled as a “region that isn’t,” more prone to antagonism than neighbourliness.
The failure of regional integration and the lack of a single regional organisation, however, does not mean that regional cooperation is impossible. Expecting uncomplicated progress towards a single cohesive “region” imposes a European story of regionalism on an area that has a completely different context. But regional cooperation can, and does, take many different forms.
My 2022 fieldwork in Bishkek, which focused on the role of identity in shaping regional relations, demonstrated that regions and senses of belonging to a region shape how local people view and understand the world. These, however, are often layered, with multiple regions forming part of their personal, and therefore political, self. This has its roots in an interconnected historical experience and the current geopolitical context, with opportunities and challenges presenting themselves around the world.
It is natural, therefore, that regional cooperation has also become diverse. Engaging with post-Soviet and Turkic groupings, for example, is not contradictory, but often reflects the complexities of Central Asian nationhood. Moreover, termed “balancing regionalism,” this can be viewed as a strength instead of a weakness, giving Central Asian states a wider range of options in an increasingly polarised world.
Within this spectrum, recent agreements which engage the five republics jointly are important steps towards the development of a “regional order.” However symbolic or small scale, the fact that leaders continue to meet as a group, use the term “Central Asia,” and emphasise its importance, develops it as a shared political space and fosters trust. Cooperation within and as a region will continue where possible and genuinely useful. Instead of a rigid, binding, or exclusive regional format, we can expect flexibility, pragmatism, and practices built on local norms and expectations. In the face of darkening economic prospects, the intensification of the challenges caused by climate change and complicated geopolitical relations, a good case can be made for neighbourly cooperation.
Looking further into the future, as younger generations with different regional experiences begin to direct their countries’ futures, and as awareness of regional affairs and opportunities grows, we might expect shifts in regional alignment, and that cooperation might expand both in breadth and depth. Nevertheless, bilateral relations, extra-regional influence, and conflict remain on the table. In the coming year, however, regional, national, and local identities and options will still come into conflict politically, and perhaps violently. Deepening cooperation within the region is not guaranteed, requires development, and will not be an easy journey. It is, however, starting the year on fertile ground.