This week, the sixth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit is scheduled to take place in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. As the inter-governmental forum, which currently has 27 members stretching from the doorstep of Europe through the Middle East and across Asia, gathers and marks its 30th anniversary, there’s renewed conflict and tension across Eurasia.
The leaders of a dozen member states are expected to attend (Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan). Other guests will include the Belarusian president and vice presidents from Vietnam and China.
CICA’s roots are embedded in then-Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s first speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September 1992, in which he proposed a “conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia (CICMA)” as a Eurasian effort in the same vein as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), established in 1975, which has since evolved into the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
In his speech, Nazarbayev dwelled on “the problem of peace and security in our continent of Asia or, more broadly, in Eurasia”:
Politicians and analysts critical of the idea of setting up structures for security and cooperation in Asia often advance the weighty argument that the level of geographical, historical, economic, political social and cultural heterogeneity among Asian countries is much higher than that among the countries of Europe, the Americas, or Africa. Such heterogeneity in economic and political matters naturally interferes with the action of continental structures for collective security.
This can be countered with a well-known piece of Oriental wisdom: A journey of a thousand steps starts with the first step.
Nazarbayev went on to argue that it was not necessary to move toward a “unified Asian structure and collective security in all these types of interaction at once.” Rather, governments could begin to level Asia’s great diversity and differences in one area at a time and “then look for joint approaches in other fields of cooperation.”
In 2002, CICA’s first summit was held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, with subsequent summits roughly every four years (2006 Almaty, 2010 Istanbul, 2014 Shanghai, 2019 Dushanbe). Thirty years after that first summit, analysts continue to question whether effective collective security structures can take root in Eurasia. The Russian invasion of Ukraine (Russia is a CICA member, Ukraine an observer) has complicated many of the political-economic structures in which Moscow is a member, but other difficulties exist too.
As the CICA gathering kicks off on October 12, it’s the flurry of side-events and meetings that will be critical to watch. For example, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov will attend the forum, and reportedly will participate in a meeting of the Council of CIS Heads of State as well. This comes a week after Japarov chose to skip an informal CIS summit in Russia that coincided with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s birthday — ostensibly because the gathering came right after Putin honored Tajik President Emomali Rahmon for “ensuring regional stability and security.” Over the weekend, Bishkek canceled, at the last minute, planned CSTO military exercises, again on account of tensions with Tajikistan.
Russian media, according to RFR/RL, reported that Putin and Japarov would meet to discuss bilateral cooperation issues on the sidelines of the CICA summit.
There is also a planned side-summit between Putin and the Central Asian presidents. Although Russia’s relationship with Central Asia is arguably the deepest of all world powers, the upcoming meeting has been described as the “1st summit in the ‘Central Asia – Russia’ format.” Variations on this format have become increasingly common over the years: At the foreign minister level, for example, there is United States’ C5+1 and China’s C+C5. New in 2022 was a summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Central Asian presidents. These initiatives look to approach Central Asia regionally, rather than bilaterally, and build on internal Central Asian efforts to further intra-regional cooperation. For larger world powers, it’s an efficient diplomatic mechanism. The Central Asian presidents meet and engage relatively often with Russian officials, but typically either bilaterally or within larger frameworks, whether the CSTO, the SCO, or the CIS.
It will be interesting to see if, after meeting with the Central Asian leaders, whether Putin will acknowledge, as he did after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, that the region has “questions and concerns” related to the war in Ukraine. Central Asian leaders certainly do have questions and concerns, most recently in regard to Putin’s “partial mobilization,” the flood of Russians into Central Asia as a result, and the apparent Russian targeting of Central Asians, among other minorities, in Russia for recruitment.
At the present moment, Eurasia certainly needs effective confidence-building measures. The question is whether CICA can contribute as a platform to that end.