On September 14-15, in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, the fifth consultative meeting of heads of state of Central Asia took place. Expectations about it were quite high, and rightly so.
First, this was the first meeting between the Central Asian presidents after the deadly border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan a year ago, which left nearly 100 dead, mostly on the Kyrgyz side.
Second, the meeting took place against the backdrop of two consolidating geopolitical shocks: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now reaching an attrition dimension, and the entrenchment of Taliban rule in neighboring Afghanistan, with important consequences for the management of water resources in the regional hydric basin.
Third, the five presidents gathered at a time of hectic infrastructural developments in the broader Eurasian region, with the Middle Corridor gaining increasing importance, the completion and early launch of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project being considered, and the Kazakh-Chinese railway project under development.
Fourth and lastly, this was the fifth meeting of the five presidents, thus making observers wonder whether, once concluded, more would follow.
So, what lessons can be drawn from this event, and what are the indications for future interactions between the regional leaders?
An initial takeaway is that Central Asian regionalism is developing along pragmatic, and mostly non-sensitive lines. As discussed below, the deepening of economic, infrastructural, cultural, and humanitarian cooperation was the priority for all five presidents. However paradoxical this may sound, there was little politics in Dushanbe.
Apart from Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov’s remarks on the need for political will to resolve border disputes, a point discussed also in his bilateral meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, borders and territorial disputes were not mentioned once during the meeting. In the same way as broader regional security architectures, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, are not eagerly invoked when disputes between Central Asian states arise, the region itself does not seem keen even to discuss an institutionalized mechanism to defuse tensions and manage territorial contradictions between states. In the sphere of security, therefore, bilateralism seems to remain the prevailing norm for the time being.
There are different considerations in the case of external threats, such as potential attacks coming from neighboring Afghanistan. In this respect, both Uzbek President Shavket Mirziyoyev and Rahmon advocated for an early warning system of information-sharing between the different regional security councils.
It is also noteworthy that broader geopolitical events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the current China-U.S. tensions, were not directly mentioned in the meeting. In terms of the war in Ukraine, it is noticeable that not a single word of condemnation,or event worry, was openly uttered during the meeting. This may have well been part of closed-door interactions, but it is telling that nothing on that topic was made public.
Steps Toward Institutionalization?
Moreover, differently from the period 1994-2000, when aspirational organizations like the Central Asian Union and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization were founded, it seems that consultations, consensus, and informality will remain the defining feature of Central Asian regionalism. Yet, even within this informality, we can already observe some elements of institutionalization.
First, the sequence of meetings will resume in 2024 in Kazakhstan, thus inaugurating a second round of annual consultations. This proves that these meetings are not dead letter but are in fact considered beneficial and useful by the parties involved.
In this respect, a development that has been somehow neglected in the media – but is crucial for the further development of Central Asian regionalism – is the creation of Regulations on the Council of National Coordinators for Consultative Meetings of the Heads of State of Central Asia. This aims to establish an institute of national coordinators tasked to monitor the implementation of the agreements reached and the development of new proposals to deepen interaction.
Second, although with inevitable formulaic expression, Central Asia is being institutionalized as a region discursively and practically. These summits do give content to an idea of a penta-lateral regional environment, assigning voice, agency, and agenda-setting prerogatives to regional states that are independent from those of the great powers. While this fifth meeting may be seen as a step back in terms of documents signed – not only were no treaties announced, but the awaited signature of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborhood and Cooperation for the Development of Central Asia in the 21st Century by Tajikistan and Turkmenistan did not materialize – the fact that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stressed the need to speed up consideration of that document is welcome news, for usually such direct statements are avoided in Central Asian meetings.
Third, the region has also institutionalized its own diplomatic award, the Insignia of the Heads of States of Central Asia. While in the third meeting this honor was given to Rahmon, in Dushanbe it was bestowed on Chair of the Turkmen Halk Maslahaty (and former president) Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. The award, on top of the usual celebratory merits in terms of promotion of cooperation and good neighborliness, seems also to be given out by the desire to involve Turkmenistan in regional politics more, and to conform to more subtle, yet influential norms, such as seniority and reciprocity, as if to indicate the existence of a separate, yet very important set of norms binding together the Central Asian nations. To stress this even more, in his acceptance speech, Berdimuhamedov thanked each president present in their own language, quoting proverbs on friendship and togetherness. Ceremony aside, this is also an indication of the willingness to ensure peaceful coexistence in the region.
The summit in Dushanbe provided also an indication that the regionalization of Central Asia continues to happen along statist and presidential lines, but this does not mean that there are not other vectors of dialogue and collaboration. One of the documents signed by the five heads of state pertains to youth policy and its development, aimed at defining a strategy to incorporate the young into regional politics more substantially. This should be considered in conjunction with the first Central Asian Youth Forum, held last August in Cholpon Ata, dedicated to the 95th anniversary of Chyngyz Aitmatov and with the participation of the ministers of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy from the regional countries.
As part of the parallel events, Dushanbe also hosted a forum of youth organizations, a forum of Young Entrepreneurs, and a forum of Heads of State Bodies for Youth Affairs from the five regional states. Furthermore, the second meeting of rectors from universities of the five states met to discuss exchange and joint programs to enhance regional awareness not just of academic systems, but of intellectual and cultural positive overlaps. Scholarships named after Al-Khorezmi, Farabi, Jami, Magtymguly, and Chingiz Aitmatov were also considered.
This, on top of the Dialogue of Central Asian Women, also hosted in Dushanbe, is clearly government-driven and top-down, but also demonstrates the gradual understanding that coexistence and cooperation between people without the involvement of people themselves will fail to materialize.
A Focus on Economics
Another important indication that we got from Dushanbe is that the economy and trade are gaining the upper hand in the Central Asian framework for cooperation, as well as climate change. In fact, as Tajik Minister of Foreign Affairs Sirojiddin Muhriddin stated in the post-summit briefing, “the leaders of the countries of the region said that the primary task is to develop cooperation in the trade and economic field and create favorable conditions for trade and investment.”
All five presidents emphasized the strategic location of the region, the need to harmonize trade and transport flows, and the opportunities to increase intraregional turnover (which, in the past five years, has grown by 80 percent). Mirziyoyev has gone as far as proposing a free trade area in the region “without exemptions and restrictions,” while other presidents emphasized how the region is becoming one of the important centers of economic growth and investment activity, once again regaining its historical role as a transport hub connecting West with East and North with South. In fact, in recent years, the combined gross product of the region’s countries has increased by 40 percent.
There has been a steady increase in trade between Central Asian countries, and trade turnover has increased by more than 2.5 times. The volume of mutual investments increased almost six times, while foreign direct investment grew by 45 percent. In addition, intraregional tourism indicators have almost doubled.
At the same time, the effects of climate change and the vulnerabilities deriving from it also constituted one of the most pressing issues discussed, with the presidents considering the establishment of a multilateral platform “Central Asian Climate Dialogue” at the level of ministers of Ecology, thus continuing the nascent regional cooperation in this sector in dialogue with the United Nations.
An Open Region
Connected to the above, the region is assuming more and more the characteristics of an open region. The presence of President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev as guest of honor offered an indication of how Central Asia considers itself a region, but not necessarily an exclusionary one. From this specific point, a few things are worth considering.
First, Azerbaijan has, in recent months, become a key partner for the Central Asian economies, both in terms of exchanges and in terms of multimodal transit. It is not by chance that in Dushanbe the first ever meeting of the regional ministers of transport was held, which culminated in the Agreement on Strengthening Land Transport Relations in Central Asia.
Second, Aliyev has been very keen on expanding cooperation with the Central Asian countries from a cultural and civilizational perspective within the Organization of Turkic States. In this respect, the partnership with Mirziyoyev is exemplary.
Third, all the Central Asian states have recently expressed, through their foreign ministers, support for Azerbaijan’s position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by not recognizing the elections there.
Fourth, it is worth mentioning that in the foreign policy sphere Azerbaijan moves very cautiously and with pragmatism, very much in line with the omni-balancing diplomacy of the Central Asian states. Symbolically, the presence of Aliyev in Dushanbe might have also signaled the rising front of small and middle powers studying alternative formats of cooperation against the backdrop of the gradually conflictual Eurasian space.
Furthermore, the presence of Aliyev hints that in the future there may be other guests of honor or, depending on the topic(s) dealt with, ad hoc parties. In Cholpon Ata last year, for example, Tokayev proposed to invite Russia in the future, while in Dushanbe Mirziyoyev suggested inviting the Taliban to discuss water issues.
To conclude, what can we expect from Central Asian regionalism in the near future? The consultative meetings will continue, still informal but semi-institutionalized thanks to the newly established Council of Coordinators. Coordination, coexistence, and pragmatic cooperation will be they key drivers of regional interactions, with implementation of the numerous proposals being slow, yet visible in the least sensitive spheres.
In particular, two main trends will likely be established. First, the fact that integration, understood as pooling of sovereignty, will not take place soon. But we may see some moves in the economic sphere, though still piggy-backing on existing structures, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Zone.
Second, security issues will remain important but will be less prioritized as opposed to economic, infrastructural, and cultural cooperation. This also means that in terms of conflict-management, the region will continue to rely on strict bilateralism, as well as overarching norms of peaceful coexistence and good neighborliness. While it is important that such norms are negotiated, agreed on, and reiterated, the existence of these norms in itself does not prevent the possibility of conflict in the future. In this respect, a meeting of the representatives of border regions together with elders, members of the border communities, and other informal actors within the context of cultural and humanitarian diplomacy may be a good opportunity to enhance common understandings, shared lessons, and good neighborliness.
Finally, Central Asia will continue to define its identity and agency while not secluding itself from broader macroregional and global processes, but keeping itself open to dialogue, partnerships, and opportunities. These first five meetings took place, so to say, to define the priorities and the rules of the game. The next five will likely show how concretely, and fairly, the game is played.