Time for Central Asia’s closer integration with rest of Asia - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 19 Mar 2023 0 Comment

Economic integration among the Asian countries through physical connectivity and trade is of prime necessity in coming days to ensure the future physical and economic security of this vast and populous continent. Since the collapse of colonial empires in the mid-twentieth century, the economic inclusion process in the Asian continent proceeded only haltingly, primarily due to the four-decade-long hostile power struggle between the West – the victors of the WWII – and the Socialist Republic of Soviet Russia, which was then imbued with Marxist ideology and challenging the post-WWII world order put in place by the Western powers.


During the decades that followed the end of the Cold War, terrorism took root in the western part of Asia. These restricting factors left a few discernible gaps in Asia’s economies, in particular the continuing isolation of Central Asia, constituting the five former Soviet Republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Despite its size – a landmass that is almost 40 percent that of Europe – and its proximity to the Middle East, India, and other South Asian nations, Central Asia has been left out in the cold with few economic ties to its neighbours.


That situation began to change somewhat with the rise of China as a major economic power in the earlier part of this millennium, exhibiting its thirst for energy and its drive to seek access to the developed European market. For China, Central Asia has become a strategically-important landmass for its westward economic journey and its fight against what China calls the “three evils” – terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Since China and Central Asia established diplomatic ties 30 years ago, Central Asia has sprung up within a decade as a critical node in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a gateway for China’s exports into Europe and an accessible source of energy resources – oil and gas – vital for China’s economic growth and stability.


Construction of roads and railroads by China broke down years of Central Asia’s isolation. Prior to China’s arrival, and during Central Asia’s long period of partnership with the erstwhile Soviet Union, the five nations’ economic and manpower development was largely disregarded by the Russian Bolsheviks. The new world order that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not modify Russia’s policy towards Central Asia. The five nation-states that came to existence following the Cold War days kept holding on to Russia’s skirts, remaining as dependent on it as before while achieving marginal economic benefits.


Despite China’s incursion into Central Asia, Russia’s overall control over the area has not waned. Russia maintains its firm grip, keeping Central Asia in its geopolitical orbit using several multilateral alliances. However, the arrival of China and the growing interest of several other countries, such as Iran, Turkey, India, and the European Union to integrate with Central Asia have made an impact. Some recent developments indicate that the Central Asian countries are increasingly eager to build bridges beyond both Russia and China.


Two events this summer indicated the Central Asian nations’ willingness to move out of the Russian orbit and seek new economic partners in the neighbourhood. The first such signal emerged on July 21 at an event in Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan, where presidents of all five ‘stan’ nations met and signed a far-ranging agreement to coordinate their multilateral efforts through establishment of institutional links, covering areas such as trade, economics, social policy, ecology, medical research, and security. The second event took place on July 26 in Tashkent where representatives of Central and South Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region participated in deliberations on post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan and discussed that country’s integration into regional cooperation processes. While an unstable Afghanistan was the core of deliberations at Tashkent, Central Asian countries took the opportunity to discuss developing transport corridors through Afghanistan to Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia, and Iran, as well.


This new thinking is seen as an effort by the Central Asian countries to break out of the old mould. It is not difficult to fathom why such new thinking is gaining strength among the Central Asian leaders. First is the emergence of at least two independent-thinking leaders in Central Asia: President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan.


Unlike his predecessor Islam Karimov, who had kept Uzbekistan walled-off from its neighbours, President Mirziyoyev is a proponent of incorporation of Central Asia into the global economic, transport, and transit corridors. Mirziyoyev has proposed establishing a Regional Center for the Development of Transport and Communication under the guidance of the United Nations. Addressing the 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly last September, Mirziyoyev said: “Today, the Central Asian states face an important strategic task. This is to ensure deep integration of our region into the global economic, transport, and transit corridors.”


In recent days Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has blossomed as a reformer, becoming a vocal proponent of strengthening relations between the Central Asian nations and emphasizing the broadening of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy objectives. Tokayev attended the online-format of the Central Asia-China Summit in July and a few days later met China’s President Xi Jinping in person while attending the opening ceremony of the XXIV Winter Olympic Games in China. On Jan 27, two days after the Central Asia-China Summit, he attended the first-ever “Central Asia-India Summit,” organized by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Tokayev has also taken initiatives to broaden relations with major East Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea.


Secondly, the abrupt and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States military had a decisive impact on Central Asian leaders. It has not only brought back the threat of terrorism inside Central Asia but has also imperilled Central Asian countries’ plans to seek direct access to the Indian subcontinent through Afghanistan.


Russian Invasion of Ukraine


The third factor in the change of attitude in Central Asia is the messy Russian invasion of Ukraine. Like the five Central Asian nations, Ukraine is a former member of Soviet Russia.  Although none of the five Central Asian countries have openly condemned Moscow’s military aggression, they have not vocally supported the invasion either. They have either abstained or did not vote against Russia at both the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council.  But their discomfort over the war has become plainly visible.


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 statement that “Kazakhs never had any statehood” before the collapse of the Soviet Union is now read in a different light in Kazakhstan following Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine (Russia's War in Ukraine: Implications for Central Asia: The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst: John Engvall: Mar 14, 2022). Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s reported social media posting on the Vkontakte last August describing how Russia should “restore the borders of our Motherland” did not assuage Kazakh people’s fears either. (Russia's Medvedev Deletes Posts Targeting 'Artificial' Kazakhstan, Georgia: Newsweek: Brendan Cole: Aug 2, 2022). Kazakhs have also noted in dismay occasional utterances issued over the years by various Russian politicians asserting that the northern part of Kazakhstan belongs to Russia.


Beyond the veiled threats to their sovereignty and statehood, this war has already brought further economic hardship to the Central Asians. The most pressing issue for them is the Western sanctions imposed on Russia. It has created a trickle-down effect on the Central Asian countries whose economies are closely tied to Russia. These countries realize that the exclusion of Russia from the international economy will further their economic suffering in the post-Covid 19 period. They fully appreciate what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told President Putin in a face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand last September: “I know that today’s era is not of war...”


The Central Asian economies have already begun to feel the pinch caused by this war. As the Russian Ruble took a nosedive, so did the Kazakh currency, Tenge, forcing its National Bank to pump money into the domestic market to maintain price stability. For some others such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the weakening of the Russian economy means loss of available jobs. According to official Russian figures, in 2021 there were more than 4.5 million labour migrants from Uzbekistan registered in Russia, about 2.4 million from Tajikistan, and 900,000 from Kyrgyzstan.


According to World Bank calculations, remittances from work abroad – of which Russia is the primary source – in 2020 accounted for 31 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and 27 percent of Tajikistan’s. The remittances’ share in the much more populous and economically stronger Uzbekistan stands at 10 percent of GDP. (Russia's War in Ukraine: Implications for Central Asia: The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst: John Engvall: Mar 14, 2022)


The effect of this war on the labour market has already become evident. Assessing the effects of declining economic activity in Russia, the World Bank projects remittance flows in 2022 to contract by 33 percent in Kyrgyzstan. For Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, remittances are estimated to fall by more than 20 percent. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are two poorest Central Asian countries. What also worries these countries is the likelihood of social instability as thousands of jobless return from Russia.


Waning Russian Control


The weakening of the Russian economy and the erosion of Russia’s image following its military invasion of Ukraine as a regional peacekeeper has perhaps amplified the Central Asian nations’ zest to broaden ties within Asia. This does not necessarily mean that these five nations are committed to undermining Russia or lowering their relations with Russia, even though the present relationship is essentially one-sided: Central Asia provides security to Russia’s south-western borders. Rise of Islamic extremism in the earlier part of this millennium under al-Qaeda and ISIS in the Middle East and Afghanistan and their efforts to link-up with extremists within, added importance to the Central Asian nations for Russia’s security.


Russian foreign policy towards the newly independent Central Asian countries took shape in the 2000s by incorporating these countries into a Russia-led institutional matrix. Russia set up the Eurasian Economic Community in 2000 in Astana where Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan signed an agreement for the expansion of cooperation. In 2002, the Council for Transport Policy Integration Committee of EurAsEC (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan) was established to coordinate national transport infrastructure. In 2006, Uzbekistan entered this institution.


In addition, the Collective Security Treaty of Russia, which later became the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO), was set up; and in 2002 Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, and Armenia adopted the Charter. In 2006, Uzbekistan joined the CSTO.


Another important institution that came into existence in 1996 under the leadership of Russia and China was the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). When formed, it had five members – China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – and a secretariat in Beijing. Called Shanghai Five, it became the SCO in 2001 when Uzbekistan joined the grouping. The initial target of this set-up was to solve the problem of undefined borders through confidence-building measures.


Subsequently, more nations, including India, joined this grouping who’s stated aim has since been widened to include strengthening confidence and neighbourly relations among member countries and promoting cooperation in politics, trade, economy, and culture as well as education, energy, and transportation.  The SCO has since established a Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent.


No matter how little these institutions have realized their stated goals so far, what is obvious is that they tied up the economically and politically dependent Central Asia countries with large and powerful Russia. This forced togetherness is perhaps the reason why Central Asians avoided criticizing the recent Russian actions against Ukraine. It is a moot question, and wholly hypothetical, how the Central Asian countries would have voted on those occasions if not for those institutional ties to Russia.


Still, the uneasiness of the Central Asian countries over the Russia-Ukraine conflict cannot be brushed under the rug. Kazakhs were the first to voice their reluctance to endorse Russia’s claim to parts of Ukraine. At St Petersburg, while attending the Moscow-organized International Economic Forum months after Russian soldiers moved into Ukraine, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that his country will not recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine as parts of Russia. “If the right to self-determination is put into practice all over the world, then there will be over 600 countries instead of the 193 states that are currently members of the United Nations. Of course, that would be chaos,” Tokayev stated at the forum.


Subsequently, on Oct. 14, at the Central Asia-Russia summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, ostensibly emboldened by an enfeebled Russia, told President Putin and others attending the Summit: “Why do we have to beg [Russia to attend] some miserable forum in Tajikistan? I gave instructions to the Foreign Ministry, I even talked to you to ask [Russia] to attend at least at the ministerial level. No, at the level of deputy ministers. Is this what strategic partner [Russia]. We want respect, too.” (Rahmon complains to Putin about his lack of respect for the Central Asian nations: Asia-Plus: Oct 17, 2022). Observers note that such an outburst by the Tajik president, who is wholly beholden to Russia, was unlikely to have occurred prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


(To be continued …)

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