Central Asia’s abundant natural resources and strategic location make it an important player in the adjustment of the international political and economic structure. At the same time, the topic of Central Asian integration has long elicited heated debates among various stakeholders. The regional integration process of the Central Asian countries following their independence can be delineated into three distinct phases.
The initial phase, spanning from 1990 to 2005, was characterized by the emergence of collaborative endeavors among the region’s newly sovereign states. This period witnessed the establishment of the Central Asian Union, which subsequently transformed into the Central Asian Cooperation Organization.
The subsequent phase, spanning from 2005 to 2016, brought a period of stagnation in terms of regional integration within Central Asia. This was primarily due to the integration of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization into the Eurasian Economic Union, which was predominantly influenced by Russia.
The current phase, spanning from 2017 to the present, has witnessed a resurgence in efforts at regional integration. Central Asian countries have initiated annual consultative meetings to address and tackle regional issues and challenges, signifying a renewed commitment to fostering collaboration and cooperation among the nations.
This effort is largely being driven by Uzbekistan. Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, he has embarked on reforms and openness to the outside world, and has prioritized enhancing the level of economic cooperation among Central Asian countries. Uzbekistan has initiated many initiatives to promote regional integration and connectivity through trans-regional projects.
The process of regional integration in Central Asia has taken a significant step forward with the recent decision by Uzbekistan to ease its visa requirements. By simplifying visa procedures, Uzbekistan has paved the way for enhanced people-to-people contacts, economic cooperation, and cultural exchange with other countries in the region, contributing to a more integrated and prosperous Central Asia.
Statistics indicate that the movement of people between Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries has increased in recent years. In particular, in 2017-2018, there was a significant rise in the number of visitors to Uzbekistan from neighboring countries. In that period, Uzbekistan saw 2.3 million arrivals from Kazakhstan, 1.4 million each from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and 600,000 from Turkmenistan. The number of Uzbeks traveling to these countries also grew.
According to Uzbek diplomat Ilhom Nematov, the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan state border has witnessed a significant increase in the number of people crossing it daily, from 200-300 five years ago to more than 30,000 currently. He also reported that an agreement with Tajikistan has enabled all 17 border crossings to operate, whereas they were previously closed. As a result, the daily traffic of citizens crossing the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border has reached 20,000.
Uzbekistan is also an active stakeholder in various regional transport initiatives and has assumed a vital role in their realization. First, there is the $6 billion Trans-Afghan railway project, with a goal of being completed by 2027. The railway would provide a vital transportation link between South Asia and neighboring countries in Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. This would facilitate the movement of goods, people, and services, promoting trade and economic integration in the region. Furthermore, it would offer a more efficient and cost-effective means of transporting goods across Central Asia.
Second, there is the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project, which has been under discussion for more than two decades. The railway recently gained momentum after the three countries signed an agreement to jointly fund a feasibility study in September 2021. The project is expected to bring economic and strategic benefits for the three countries, as well as for the region as a whole.
The Trans-Afghan and China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway projects are two examples of how railway infrastructure can foster regional cooperation and development in Central Asia. By connecting different countries and markets, these projects can enhance trade, mobility, and security in the region, as well as create new opportunities for economic growth and social progress. Therefore, these projects are worth pursuing and supporting by all stakeholders involved.
In another boost to regional integration, Uzbekistan has made significant progress in demarcating and delimiting its borders with neighboring countries. The resolution of border disputes between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, has had a positive impact on regional stability and cooperation. By successfully reaching border agreements with all its neighbors, Uzbekistan has demonstrated its commitment to regional integration and cooperation.
Furthermore, Uzbekistan has not only focused on resolving its own border issues but has also played a constructive role in helping its neighbors address their border disputes. This was evident in the assistance provided by Mirziyoyev during the Tajik-Kyrgyz border crisis in April 2021. While there are still remaining border issues in Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s proactive approach and willingness to find solutions have inspired its neighbors and given hope for reinforced regional integration and cooperation.
Uzbekistan’s efforts in this area have the potential to position it as a regional leader in Central Asia, contributing to the overall stability and development of the region. These initiatives show that Uzbekistan has made regional cooperation and integration a priority of its foreign policy.
Despite the modest progress achieved in regional integration among the Central Asian countries, however, there are still numerous challenges that impede the process of enhancing their cooperation.
First, the reorientation of Uzbek diplomacy could pose a major challenge for the integration process. Under the rule of Islam Karimov, the country followed an isolationist and authoritarian approach that hindered its regional integration. However, since the ascension of Mirziyoyev, the country has adopted a more open and cooperative diplomacy that has enhanced its regional relations. Nevertheless, this situation may be subject to change due to external and internal regional factors. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the integration process that was previously accelerating. Alternatively, the policy may shift based on the interests of the countries involved. In particular, water scarcity issues in the region may alter Uzbekistan’s policy and affect the integration process.
Second, the absence of a collective identity among the Central Asian countries is a major obstacle for the progress of regional integration. The Central Asian countries still have different views on their Central Asian regional identity, which is influenced by their historical, cultural, political, and economic factors. For example, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and see themselves as part of Europe, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are more oriented toward Asia and the Islamic world. Tajikistan has a strong Persian influence, while the others have Turkic origins. Some of them value their Soviet heritage, while others emphasize their national sovereignty. This lack of shared identity will create long-term difficulties for the smooth initiation or advancement of Central Asian integration, as it will hinder the development of mutual trust, respect, and understanding among the Central Asian countries.
Third, organizations like the SCO and EAEU hinder the regional integration of Central Asia in several ways. The SCO and EAEU are driven by the geopolitical agendas of China and Russia, which are not necessarily aligned with the interests and needs of the Central Asian countries. For example, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is closely linked to the SCO, has been criticized for creating debt traps, environmental problems, and social unrest in some of the Central Asian countries. Russia’s EAEU has been accused of undermining the sovereignty and economic autonomy of its members, especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
As the most populous country in the region, Uzbekistan has the potential to influence the dynamics of economic and political integration. To achieve sustained integration, it is essential for Uzbekistan and other regional actors to promote trust-building measures, address disparities, and invest in infrastructure development that connects all the countries in Central Asia. Only through inclusive cooperation and sustained commitment to integration can the region fully realize its potential for economic growth and stability.