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Diplomatic Engagement in Central Asia on the Rise

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Diplomatic Engagement in Central Asia on the Rise

The number of interactions between high-level Central Asian officials has visibly increased since 2015, from 60 interactions that year to 158 in 2023.

Diplomatic Engagement in Central Asia on the Rise
Credit: Facebook / Press Service of the President of Tajikistan

Many experts have remarked on the noticeable increase in diplomatic engagement of Central Asian countries by outside powers in the past two years, tying this development to a potential waning of Russian influence in the region as a result of the war in Ukraine. Notably for intraregional relations, much of this diplomatic activity is centered on trade and connectivity as the United States, the European Union, China, and other countries seek to bolster supply chains that avoid Russia. At the same time, Russia has continued to engage Central Asian countries at the highest levels, with Russian President Vladimir Putin making multiple visits to the region since February 2022. Diplomatic relations within the region, meanwhile, received a new impetus following Uzbekistan’s leadership transition in 2016, and high-level contacts continued despite the challenges to regional integration efforts presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In order to examine whether and how intraregional relations have shifted in the context of both regional developments and external geopolitical changes, we compiled a dataset of bilateral and multilateral intraregional engagements among the presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers of Central Asian states, including visits, meetings, phone calls, video calls, and telegrams as reported by official government sources. Our dataset covers interactions for four years: 2015 (before Uzbekistan’s presidential transition), 2019 (after the presidential transition in Uzbekistan and before the COVID-19 pandemic), 2022, and 2023 (after the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).

The dataset reveals a marked shift in the dynamics of regional relations, with a significant increase in the number of high-level interactions and a move toward more substantive forms of engagement. At the same time, most recorded intraregional interactions occurred on a bilateral basis, rather than involving more than two Central Asian states, reflecting a lack of institutionalization of Central Asian regional relations. Our findings further demonstrate that Central Asia’s intraregional contacts remain driven by presidents and show that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are the most active players in high-level engagement among regional countries. 

The number of interactions between high-level Central Asian officials has visibly increased since 2015. Our dataset includes 60 interactions for 2015; in 2019, the number of recorded interactions rose to 87, further growing to 147 in 2022. this rising trend continued in 2023, reaching 158 recorded interactions among top government officials.

Not only did the number of annual interactions more than double during this period, but the substance of those interactions appears to have grown considerably. For instance, in 2015, half of recorded interactions were telegram exchanges between presidents (34 out of 66) on the occasion of presidential elections in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, presidential birthdays, independence days, and on other similar occasions. These telegram exchanges are formal practices and do not offer much in terms of real substance. We argue that phone calls, and, to an even greater extent, personal meetings, are more important when it comes to deepening regional cooperation. In other words, the value of phone calls and personal meetings is notably higher than that of telegram exchanges in terms of the substance of these interactions.

Compared to 2015, there were more phone calls between Central Asian officials in 2019, 2022, and 2023. If registered in-person interactions constituted only 23 instances in 2015, that figure almost tripled by 2023. As a result, it can be argued that not only the quantity, but also the quality of Central Asian intraregional interactions has significantly increased since 2015.

The dataset suggests that Central Asian cooperation is largely driven by heads of state, and that the frequency and substance of presidential meetings in Central Asia remain visibly higher than those of prime ministers and foreign ministers. On average, about two-thirds of interactions occurred at the president-to-president level. We see that this indicator remains relatively stable throughout 2015, 2019, 2022, and 2023. This may be a reflection of the fact that, in the Central Asian political context, foreign policy is traditionally in the hands of presidents, whereas foreign ministers mainly play the role of policy implementers rather than formulators. Prime ministers’ role in Central Asia is inward-looking; they mostly deal with domestic rather than external issues. Moreover, the informational coverage of presidents might be much higher. The dataset may also be distorted in favor of presidents as it includes a large number of formal telegrams or phone calls made at the presidential level.  

Another finding is that the bilateral format of interactions remains dominant among high-ranking Central Asian officials. For instance, all recorded interactions in 2015 were held bilaterally, whereas only two events took place in a multilateral setting in 2019. In 2022 and 2023 there were four multilateral engagements out of 110 and 160, respectively. In other words, intraregional cooperation is heavily dominated by the bilateral approach, excluding consultative meetings of heads of states and preparation meetings ahead of them.

The dataset offers a starting point for further exploring the changing nature of Central Asian regional engagements. Its findings suggest several avenues for future analysis. First, there is a need to explore how and why bilateral interactions are increasing among Central Asia’s high-level government representatives, whereas multilateral engagements in the region still involve an international presence (e.g. frameworks such as C5+1, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, etc.). This is especially necessary in light of the converging rhetoric by Central Asian officials – usually expressed at the now annual consultative meetings of the region’s leaders – about resolving pressing regional issues through mutual cooperation and coordination.

Second, there should be further investigation on how these official engagements are being reflected practically on the ground through intraregional trade and investment dynamics, people-to-people interactions, and so on.

Third, the question of how the main extraregional actors – Russia, China, and Turkey – view these developments and whether their actions are restraining or encouraging effects on Central Asian cohesion warrants an in-depth analysis of its own.

This article is derived from a new report “Central Asian Regional Interactions in a Changing Geopolitical Context” published by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs as part of the “Kazakhstan Futures Program” with financial support from the Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan.

Guest Author

Aizada Nuriddenova

Aizada Nuriddenova is an assistant professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Suleyman Demirel University in Kazakhstan. Currently she is a visiting scholar at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University. She holds a Ph.D. in International Relations, specializing in Chinese foreign policy, from the School of International and Public Affairs at Jilin University in China. Her research interests are centered on Chinese foreign policy and regionalism in Central Asia.

Guest Author

Zhanibek Arynov

Zhanibek Arynov is an assistant professor at Nazarbayev University’s Graduate School of Public Policy. He first joined the school as a postdoctoral scholar in July 2019. Dr. Arynov obtained a Ph.D. degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, UK. His research interests include Central Asian geopolitics, Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, EU-Central Asia relations, and international identity, image, and perception studies.