On November 10 and 11, delegates from across Central and South Asia, plus representatives from significant international partners such as the United States, European Union, and key development and financial institutions such as the United Nations Development Program and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), gathered in Samarkand, Uzbekistan to discuss regional security and cooperation.
As I commented ahead of the conference, there was nothing necessarily new on the agenda. The core themes — security, cooperation, water issues, development — have been Central Asia’s key concerns for the past two decades. What was different and important was the sense of hope that underlined much of the proceedings: Maybe now talk will finally turn to action.
Uzbekistan’s hosting was in itself important, as the country under its previous president, Islam Karimov, acted more often than not as a boulder in the road impeding greater cooperation across the region. New President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who will mark his first year officially at the helm in December, has cast himself and his country into the role of facilitator.
In his opening remarks, Mirziyoyev spoke of Central Asia in familiar terms — having a “shared past and a common future.” Pointing to Samarkand as one of the great hubs of the Silk Road, he repeated his established diplomatic theme of good neighborliness and major goal of a stable, economically developed region.
Mirziyoyev highlighted a border agreement signed between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan ahead of the conference and remarked that so far 85 percent of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border has been delimited, with future negotiations on the schedule.
After remarking on such positive achievements, Mirziyoyev said that the results achieved to date are not a time for “self complacency.” In a way, Mirziyoyev said what was on the lips of many participants: This is a start, a good beginning, but the road is long.
While the event was carefully managed, (in the interest of full disclosure: I was invited and hosted by the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs), with participants bused into the conference venue with police escorts and an organized trip to visit Islam Karimov’s mausoleum after the conference, the conversations among participants were not so controlled. The facilitation of such informal and open conversations marks a departure from the past.
The visit to Karimiov’s tomb was a curious counterpoint to the conference, which focused on the kind of pan-regional cooperation Karimov often eschewed and included, in the remarks of some speakers and the UN speakers in particular, mention of human rights issues. Immediately after Mirziyoyev, conference-goers were treated to a short video message from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres which closed with the pledge: “Let us work together for peace, sustainable development, and human rights for all across Central Asia.”
The joint communique following the 13th EU-Central Asia Ministerial Meeting, which occurred alongside the Samarkand conference, also include positive language regarding human rights, linking human rights into broader efforts to strengthen the resilience of societies.
Furthermore, the conference addressed not only opportunities for cooperation (which everyone can always say is a good idea) but included discussion of challenges and pathways to achieving that cooperation.
Mirziyoyev and a number of other speakers mentioned that the Central Asian governments do not want a supra-national structure — underscoring regional states’ sovereignty concerns and their shared history — but instead need a functional regional dialogue to enable the joint tackling of regional issues.
Roy Allison, director of the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre at Oxford’s St. Anthony’s College, in his remarks outlined how institutional frameworks to date in Central Asia have been of a “macro-regional” rather than truly regional character. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) don’t serve as forums for strictly Central Asian issues. Allison noted that the SCO’s expansion — with India and Pakistan joining this year — diluted the body’s Eurasian focus and shifted its center of gravity out of the region. The CSTO, which includes states like Belarus and Armenia and does not include Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, is led by Russia and the EEU, similarly does not have full Central Asian membership and lacks a truly Central Asian focus, not to mention the body’s other challenging issues.
Rather than Russia or China, it’s the European Union and various United Nations bodies that seem best poised to assist in jump-starting this regional dialogue. The EU is physically far enough removed and without the kind of political baggage that comes with U.S. or Russian efforts, but it is economically interested enough to put in the diplomatic groundwork necessary for success. The EU, rather than China, also serves as better bridge to the rest of the West — namely the United States. So, while Mirziyoyev used Beijing’s favorite phrase (“win-win”) and several speakers made positive mention of the Belt and Road Initiative, there was no heavy Chinese presence. The entire concept of greater cooperation in Central Asia, married with Mirziyoyev’s clearly economic primary objective, casts the entire enterprise also in China’s interest.
At the EU-Central Asia Ministerial Meeting the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states signed a Program on Mutual Cooperation for 2018-2019. The program, like the conference, reflects all the usual areas prime for joint action: security, trade, investment, transportation, energy, tourism, and culture.
Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, spoke in her remarks of the EU as a partner for change, development and security in Central Asia. The comprehensive nature of the EU’s interests — unlike the Afghanistan-driven interests of the United States — further positions the EU, along with the UN, to help Central Asia with regard to establishing cooperative mechanisms.
What was remarkable about Samarkand was not the conference — those are much the same all over the world — but rather the sense that this time optimistic statements about cooperation actually mark the starting point of action, rather than just the repetition of standard talking points. As with all things, time will tell if the meetings on the sidelines of the event and conversations over tea in the lobby can yield positive change for the region.