Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula was unlawfully annexed by referendum arranged by pro-Russian separatists backed by Russia. President Putin denies the annexation was politically motivated and driven by Soviet-reunification desires, but rather driven by the need to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea.
The swift annexation of Crimea has many former Soviet states worrying they might be next. Outside of Ukraine, multiple pro-Russian breakaway republics such as Transdnestr in Moldova, the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Georgian Republic welcome Russian rule to achieve and secure their independence. Kazakhstan is a prime candidate for annexation of its Northern region, where there is a high concentration of ethnic Russians residing.
The situation in Crimea provides for a new international affairs model, the Crimea Model, which serves as a blueprint for Russian political and imperial ambitions in the Former Soviet Union. The Crimea Model is based on the recent events in Crimea, where a larger and more powerful state violates the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of a smaller nation as a result of political motivations, but disguises its actions as being motivated by humanitarian or “protectionist” reasons. As a result, the targeted territory within a country or a full country itself was annexed or given a more autonomous self-determination status favoring Russia. There are multiple mandatory conditions of the Crimea Model: deep historical and social linkages, a triggering political event, a willing population to submit to the annexing country (Russia), and the perception the population’s well-being will be improved. There must also be a large ethnic Russian population (relative to) concentrated in one geographic area, Russian-speaking ethnic Russians who are aggressive and nationalistic, perceptions of discrimination among ethnic Russians, a weak government that cannot govern, and poor social conditions. The population that wishes to be controlled and governed by Russia is most likely suffering from a culture and identity crisis, as the population is torn between historic and current social identities.
The Russian policy of protecting Russians abroad is not new. In 1993, then President Boris Yeltsin, proposed that ethnic Russians be granted special status where “national minorities” would be guaranteed full citizenship rights within the new Former Soviet Republics (Erlanger 1993, par. 10). This policy, the Karaganov Doctrine—named after Yeltsin’s advisor Sergei Karaganov—allowed Russia to justify intervention in the former Soviet Republics based on poor treatment of ethnic Russians. This was a proposal precipitated by claims of discrimination and the proposal was heavily rejected for concerns about nationalism, expansionism and territorial integrity, chauvinism, and xenophobia (Erlanger 1993, par. 4). Worthy of note, Kazakh President Nazarbayev was quoted at the time as saying that the Kazakhstan Constitution does not allow for violations of Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity. During the 1990s, Russia was unable to implement the Karaganov Doctrine due to an unpredictable political and economic situation, but with increased economic growth, a more assertive foreign policy and a cautious West, Russia now can implement this policy and claim exclusive interest in the region again.
The situation in Crimea resulted from a combination of factors separate from the EuroMaidan protests and the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych which allowed Putin to evoke the Karaganov Doctrine. In Crimea, there is a large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population; Russian military presence in Sevastopol; increased tensions between the Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and ethnic Russians; and poor territorial governance and social problems which made Ukraine vulnerable. Crimea is the only part of Ukraine that has political autonomy, which was granted by the Ukrainian Constitution. Crimea has its own Constitution, Parliament, and its own Prime Minister who is approved by the President of Ukraine. According to a 2001 census, 58% of the two million population of Crimea are ethnic Russian, and 24% are Ukrainians. A December 2008 public poll conducted by Razumkov Center, a Kiev think tank, asked, “With which cultural tradition do you associate yourself?”: 55.5% of those polled identified themselves as Russian and 8.3% as Ukrainian (Razumkov Center 2008, chart). In a 2009 study conducted by the same group, 32% of Crimeans did not consider Ukraine to be their home country, 48% would like to change their citizenship mostly to Russian, and 63% would like for Crimea to join Russia (Shapovalova and Jarabik 2009, 3). This could be the result of the Ukrainian government failing to incorporate Crimea “fully into Ukraine’s political and social context” (Shapovalova and Jarabik 2009, 4).
Kazakh-Russian relations were not harmonious during the period of 1980-1990 (Kaiser and Chinn 1995, 257). The 1980s were marred by ethnic conflicts and nationalism, discriminatory laws, unequal representation in governing bodies, and Kazakh-based favoritism reversing Russification by “policies and processes [that] have the objective of redefining multinational Kazakhstan into a [singular cultural] Kazakh State” (Kaiser and Chinn 1995, 262, 257, 258). The Kazakh nationalist policy was focused on securing Kazakhstan’s independence, the return of Kazakh lands to the Kazakh people, and the establishment of Kazakh religious and language rights (Smagulova 2006, 307). At this time, Russians were still the majority in Kazakhstan, but were also the “political, cultural, and social elite” (Kaiser and Chinn 1995, 306).
Post-Soviet Kazakh-Russian relations were also heavily influenced by the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States as there was great concern over economic ties and “this period saw concerted efforts to establish a new model for bilateral economic and political co-operation” (Vinokurov 2010, 2). Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev was interested in keeping the effects of the Soviet collapse contained and renewing relations with Russia and the Former Soviet Republics to preserve a stable internal political situation, to protect Kazakh interests, and to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Kazakhstan considered itself the “Eurasia bridge” which defined Kazakh relations with Russia and the region, arguably from 1991 until today (Vinokurov 2010, 2). These ideals have been the cornerstone of President Nazarbayev’s regional and his “multi-vector” foreign policy.
Between 2009 and 2014, Russia and Kazakhstan developed a closer economic relationship due to an increased focus on energy policy and energy relations. One common theme throughout Kazakh-Russian relations is increased economic integration, with Kazakhstan taking a proactive approach by proposing new initiatives. After 2000, Nazarbayev began a shift towards Russia, most likely due to changes in Russian leadership (when Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister), which was described as more “pragmatic, capable of achieving tangible results, and determined to restore Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space” (Vinokurov 2010, 6). The bilateral relationship branched off into other areas of integration, including political and security-based relationships, which have continued to enhance the bilateral relationship.
Kazakhstan and the Crimea Model
The current situation in Kazakhstan does not meet all of the criteria for the Crimea Model. However, Putin’s recent rhetoric and the heightened fear of a possible land grab put Kazakhstan at risk. The main condition of the Crimea Model that places Kazakhstan at risk is Kazakhstan’s large ethnic Russian population. Kazakhstan has the largest ethnic Russian population in the Former Soviet Union, 25% of a 17.6 million population. The 1954 ‘Virgin Lands Campaign’ program relocated two million Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian persons to Kazakhstan, which caused Kazakhstan’s non-Kazakh population to skyrocket (Peyrouse 2008, 2).
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the trend reversed. Russians emigrated out of Kazakhstan because of a declining standard of living, policies of Kazakhization, and a bleak future for Russian youth, poor educational opportunities, and loss of identity with the new Kazakhstan. In 1997, only 20% of Russians in Kazakhstan identified with the new post-Soviet Kazakhstan (Peyrouse 2008, 22). In a 1998 poll, “13.2% of Slavs [stated] that there [were] conscious efforts to support one ethnic group and exclude the other” meaning that Kazakhs were favored (Smagulova 2006, 304).
Kazakhstan lost half a million people during the 1970s (the Virgin Lands Campaign ended) and in the 1980s, “Kazakhstan lost an additional 784,000 people (between 60,000 and 85,000 each year)” and experienced a negative migratory outflow: for every 1,000 that settled, 1,256 left (Peyrouse 2008, 2). Between 1989 and 1999, the Russian population decreased from 6 million to 4.5 million “with an average departure per year of 150,000 individuals” (Peyrouse 2008, 6). In the 1990s, emigrating Russians came from the southern and western areas and these regions lost approximately 35% of their population: Astana lost 24%, Northern Kazakhstan lost 20%, and the Karaganda region lost 19% of its population (Peyrouse 2008, 4). By 2000, “migration from Kazakhstan alone constituted more than 28% of the internal migration in former Soviet territory” (Peyrouse 2008, 2). Currently, Russians have considerable populations in the North Kazakhstan Province (48.5% in 2006), Pavlodar Region (38.26% in 2007), Akmola Region (36.5% Russians in 2009), Kostanay Region (28.6% in 2009), and central Karagandy Region (39.17% in 2010).
Even though Kazakhstan and Russia share a 300 year long history, they do not share deep strategic, military, and cultural historical linkages. The Kazakh-Russian relationship has been based on economics, natural resources, integration, and cooperation, whereas the Russia-Crimea relationship is rooted in war. In Crimea, the Black Sea Fleet is stationed at Sevastopol and gives the Russians naval access to Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the ability to counter the NATO and American presence in the region. Kazakhstan holds more economic value than military value. Russia and Kazakhstan do share Baikonur Cosmodrome which is used to launch Russia’s Proton-M rockets. Russia and Kazakhstan shared multiple memberships in regional organizations including the CIS, the Customs Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the economic-oriented Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the newly formed Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) to come into force in January 2015. The CSTO and the SCO are to act as a political-military counterweight to the European Union and NATO. The CSTO and SCO organizations have held military exercises to combat terrorism, extremism, separatism better known as the three evils among its member-states.
Russia’s desire to maintain a positive relationship with Kazakhstan comes from its wish to be an energy superpower. Russia has repeatedly taken advantage of Kazakhstan to maintain influence over Kazakh energy assets since there is growing competition from China and European entities. The “Kazakh oil is now transported mainly through Russian territory via old Soviet pipelines…as well as via the new [CPC] system [formed in 1992] (Tengiz-Novorossisk)” (Kazantsev 2008, 1085). The pipelines are old, decrepit, could cause environmental problems if they burst, and are costly to repair (Kuniholm 2000, 553). The instability of Russian energy politics and its “energy arrogance” has driven Kazakhstan to seek other energy partners, including “long-term partnerships with major international oil companies…which will enable [Kazakhstan] to exploit [their] natural resources effectively” (Kazantsev 2008, 1086, 1087). Russia has focused on blocking Western access to gas and oil to reduce competition and “in Central Asia, Russia has carried out the task of neutralizing alternatives to pro-Russian projects of integration in the post-Soviet space” (Kazantsev 2008, 1087).
Russian separatist tendencies existed in the past but dissolved due to Kazakhstan’s progressive policies of tolerance and inclusiveness. The Kazakh government has made the effort to fully integrate Russians in political and social life. The Russian language is still dominant in Kazakhstan, and is recognized as an official language, but not a national or state language. Kazakhstan annually celebrates Slavic Orthodox Christmas. Russians also enjoy political and linguistic rights as granted by the Kazakh Constitution. There are even symbols of Russian and Kazakh cooperation: a plaque equating Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian author) and Chokan Valikhanov (a leading Kazakh historian and intellectual) stands in Petropavlovsk, a bi-cultural symbol in Kazakhstan, and a monument honoring the poets Alexander Pushkin and Abai Kunanbaev stands in the city (Kucera 2014, par. 7).
In the past, the process of Kazakhization alienated many Russians which increase Russian resentment. Many groups were interested in annexing Northern Kazakhstan, including Russian nationalists and the Cossacks, and beginning in 1992, the “organizations were denied registration or had their registration revoked for engaging in anti-state or pro-separatist demonstrations” (Kaiser and Chin 1995, 268). Nationalists also formed the “Organization for the Autonomy of Eastern Kazakhstan” (Kaiser and Chin 1995, 267). Viktor Kazimirchuk, the leader of the separatist group “Rus,” was convicted by the Kazakhstan Government in 2000; the group wanted Russia to incorporate the border town Oskemen into Russian territory (Pannier and Karabek 2014, par. 5). His efforts were silently supported from Moscow. Kazimirchuk was released in 2006 and in 2007, Kazimirchuk stated that there was discrimination against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in East Kazakhstan Oblast mirroring rhetoric that led to the annexation of Crimea (Pannier and Karabek 2014, par. 26, par. 28). However, there have been no indications among ordinary Russian citizens that they would like to see Northern Kazakhstan annexed. Seventy percent of ethnic Russians in Petropavlovsk acknowledge that the land does belong to Kazakhs (Kucera 2014, par. 4). No ethnic minority has made serious claims to the Kazakh homeland because they have their own, which tends to be either their ancestral homeland or for ethnic Russians, the Soviet Union itself (Smagulova 2006, 306). Russians in Kazakhstan had political rights and would explain the lack of collective political action or protests by Russian minorities in Kazakhstan.
Adding to Kazakhstan’s worries, Russian nationalist and the leader of the LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has claimed that Kazakhstan needs to be examined like Ukraine in terms of nationalism. Zhirinovsky supported the annexation of Crimea and seems to entertain the thought of annexing Kazakhstan. In February 2014, Zhirinovsky called for the creation of a “Central Asian Federal Region” with the capital as “Verny” (the former Russian name for Almaty); he made similar remarks in 2005.
The security situation in Kazakhstan remains stable despite the rise of Islamic extremism in Central Asia in recent decades. In response, Central Asia governments have become more repressive which has only aggravated the situation. There are multiple terrorist and extremist groups in Central Asia, such as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (a pan-Sunni Islamic group), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Soldiers of the Caliphate (Kazakhstan), and China’s East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Uyghur-based). There are also several Uyghur separatist groups in Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan Regional Uyghur Organizations, Kazakh Uyghur Unity (Ittipak) Association, and the Uyghurstan Freedom Association (Cheung 2004, 999). There is also the threat from Russia’s North Caucasus, the return of radical jihadi fighters from the Middle East conflicts, and external sources of radicalization.
The unexpected death of President Nazarbayev could trigger unrest as Kazakhstan does not have a Presidential secession plan. Nazarbayev, who is currently 73, has no intention of leaving the presidency. According to Kazakh government officials, he is in good health, despite reports of hospitalization and fewer TV appearances. A succession crisis is unlikely, but if “Nazarbayev begins to lose his ability to manage intra-elite competition in the country,” which is built on “a broad-based economic [base], with significant capacity, financial resources, and political ambitions,” one might occur (Roberts 2012, 2). The dramatic political change could endanger the Russia-Kazakhstan relationship as the new leader might cut Russia out of Kazakhstan’s affairs and trigger a more aggressive nationalist movement, which may result in a drastic change in ethnic equality in the Kazakhs’ favor provoking a Crimea-like response from Russia.
Another concern is growing Kazakh-based nationalism is backlash against Russian-Kazakh integration represented by anti-Russian integration protests in Kazakhstan. Participants in the April 2014 Anti-Eurasia Forum meeting led by ethnic Kazakhs recognized that Kazakhstan will suffer more since it is the weakest among the three member-states (Anceschi and Sorbello 2014, par. 8).. The Anti-Eurasia Forum called the EaEU the “axis of dictators,” and claimed that “Eurasianism is a new form of colonization by Russia” (Anceschi and Sorbello 2014, par. 9).
After the Crimea annexation, the Kazakh government “announced that it intended to introduce laws punishing ‘illegal and unconstitutional calls for changes to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan by up to 10 years in prison’ ” (Kucera 2014, par. 22). Similar to Russian legislation, Kazakhstan has also promised to provide citizenship to Kazakh oralmans (Kazakh for “returnee”) outside of Kazakhstan. In March 2014, there was an order that required oralmans to settle in “Akmola, Atyrau, West-Kazakhstan, Kostanay, Pavlodar, North-Kazakhstan, and East-Kazakhstan provinces”; all but Atyrau and Akmola border Russia and the required areas have high ethnic Russian populations (Pannier and Karabek 2014, par. 19-20). There Kazakhstan government has tried to resettle ethnic Kazakhs to restore the ethnic balance in its northern region and to make ethnic Kazakhs a majority.
Russia has attempted to repeat history by again introducing legislation in March 2014 that would grant Russian citizenship to anyone who speaks fluent Russia, “and had once lived, or who had relatives who lived, on the territory of the Soviet Union” (Trilling 2014, par. 1). The legislation would require the new Russian citizens to waive their citizenship of their current country of residence, but would not force immigration (Trilling 2014, par. 4). This would create a situation where a concentrated number of citizens of one country would live inside the geographic area of another country, potentially creating an enclave of Russians in Kazakhstan or triggering an intra-state conflict. It is unclear if the legislation would provide ethnic Russians abroad with national minority status. If ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan were granted special status that would guarantee them more rights than Kazakh citizens in Kazakhstan and this would provoke unrest. This legislation failed and such a move shows that Russia is serious about protecting ethnic Russians abroad and about expansionism.
Putin’s rhetoric in late August about Kazakhstan’s statehood does increase Kazakhstan’s chances of being annexed. President Putin made strong and chilling comments about Kazakhstan’s status of a state. Putin’s comments at the Seliger Youth Forum— answering a question about Kazakh nationalism in southern Kazakhstan— sends the message to his loyal political partner and friend, President Nazarbayev, that Kazakhstan was not a state until it was annexed into the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan needs to remain under the Russian sphere of influence, and Kazakhstan’s cannot survive without Nazarbayev. Essentially, Putin was essentially labeling Kazakhstan’s independence as an experiment in statehood and that Kazakhstan will remain a state as long as it remains loyal to Russia.
In response to Putin’s remarks, President Nazarbayev said they will withdraw from the EaEU if Kazakhstan’s independence is threatened. When the agreement for the EaEU was signed, Nazarbayev firmly stated that the organization will not threaten Kazakhstan’s independence. From Putin’s remarks, it can be extrapolated that Nazarbayev embodies Kazakhstan’s statehood, that Kazakhstan will not exist once Nazarbayev leaves, and that Kazakhstan and its people will need to be taken care of (by Putin). Hopefully, these remarks will force the Kazakhstan government to either hold elections or develop a succession plan for Nazarbayev even if it means undercutting Nazarbayev’s power. Withdrawing from the EaEU might provoke a Crimea-like response from Russia.
Compared to Crimea, the annexation of Northern Kazakhstan (and subsequent governance) would be easier for Russia as Russia has direct access to the Kazakh-Russia border and the ethnic Russian population is concentrated in the north. The hypothetical annexation of northern Kazakhstan would be more beneficial and economical than the annexation of Crimea. To keep access to Crimea, a land-bridge across the Kerch Strait has been proposed but would cost an estimated $4.3 billion (150 million rubles).
If Kazakhstan chose not to cooperate with Russia, it would be held hostage by Russia’s foreign policy. After Crimea was annexed, Kazakhstan was left with no other option than to cooperate with Russian plans for integration and agreement with Russia and Putin’s policies is a way for Kazakhstan to maintain its territorial integrity. Putin’s comments about Kazakhstan’s independence may force Kazakhstan to sacrifice some of its relationships with Western institutions and organizations such as NATO and the OSCE. If Kazakhstan were to express desires to become a full NATO member or choose to make all of their energy agreements with China or the EU, this would most likely provoke Russian action. Nazarbayev’s remarks about Kazakhstan leaving the EaEU might trigger a diplomatic row and shift Kazakhstan away from Russia. Russia has political and economic leverage in the region and over Kazakhstan as Putin has exploited Nazarbayev’s desires for regional integration.
If Kazakhstan were to be annexed or experience a pro-Russian uprising facilitated by ethnic Russians backed by Russia, Kazakhstan would be the biggest loser. If the West is not willing to go to war for the Ukraine, it surely will not go to war for Kazakhstan.
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Preventing Violent Extremism through Education in Central Asia
The UNESCO Almaty Cluster Office in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and UNESCO Headquarters, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), held a Sub-regional workshop on the prevention of violent extremism through education on 13-15 November in Almaty.
UNESCO’s approach to preventing violent extremism through education is related to its work on Global Citizenship Education (GСED). Based on its long-standing commitment to peace and human rights education, the GCED strives to foster respect for all, create a sense of belonging to humanity and help students become responsible and active citizens. Thus, the GCED creates conditions for strengthening students’ commitment to renouncing violence and peace and creating conditions for protection from hatred, discrimination and violent extremism.
The workshop was organized within the framework of the partnership of UNESCO and UNODC on “Education in the spirit of global citizenship in support of the rule of law”. It strengthened the capacity of education stakeholders to implement educational measures and approaches to prevent violent extremism in an effective and appropriate manner. More specifically, the workshop provided a common discussion platform for a clearer understanding of the issues of violent extremism in the Central Asian region, as well as discussed new tools and innovative approaches and drew up a plan for further action to prevent violent extremism through education in Central Asia.
During the workshop, the participants also had a chance to visit the Nazarbayev Intellectual School and Almaty State College of Tourism and Hospitality Industry and observe open classes on global citizenship education and values.
The workshop brought together education stakeholders from all over Central Asia, including representatives from the ministries of education and community development, universities and research institutes, as well as youth organizations and civil society. International experts from France, UNODC, UNESCO as well as other UN agencies and international organizations also took part in the event.
Developing the IT sector will make Central Asia more united and independent
This September marked the second anniversary of the death of Islam Karimov, the former President of Uzbekistan, and the de-facto accession to power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev (who was later officially elected to the presidency in December 2016).
In record-breaking time President Mirziyoyev solved border disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which had previously been considered unsolvable, significantly strengthened relations with Kazakhstan, conducted sweeping economic reforms, and opened Uzbekistan to foreign investments.
The activity of the new reformist president led to positive changes not only in Uzbekistan itself, but in the region as a whole. The change of power in Uzbekistan – the most highly populated Central Asian country, located right in the middle of the region – marked the beginning of the Central Asian Spring, which, in contrast to the Arab Spring, has been characterized by gradual reforms and, above all, economic liberalization.
In March 2018, for the first time since the beginning of the 2000’s, a summit of the Central Asian countries’ leaders took place in Astana, Kazakhstan. It was attended by presidents of every country in the region (except Turkmenistan which was represented by the Chair of the country’s parliament). This summit, along with a notable strengthening of connections between the two most prominent countries of the region – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – laid the ground for talks regarding the creation of a new regional union, the goal of which would be to strengthen the economic independence of the Central Asian region, and later its political independence as well.
The first attempts at economic unification of Central Asian countries date back to the mid-1990’s, and were being undertaken as late as the mid-2000’s. However, each time those attempts were beset with insurmountable obstacles – the position of the late Uzbek president Islam Karimov who basically isolated Uzbekistan from any foreign influence, the border conflicts between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and the personal ambitions of the Central Asian countries’ leaders.
It is rather ironic that Uzbekistan – which for а long time halted the process of regional integration – is today, along with Kazakhstan, its primary moving force. Riding the wave of “the Uzbek thaw,” and highlighted against the backdrop of problems associated with the functioning of the Eurasian economic Union, for the first time in many years the conditions for the creation of a regional union are favorable.
For now, the countries of the region are treading very carefully when it comes to this idea. There have been too many unsuccessful attempts at unification in the past, and interstate contradictions are still too strong, as well as the differences in the countries’ approach to issues. Besides, such unification may not be well liked by the “Big Neighbors” of the region – Russia and China – who may put forth efforts to prevent the emergence of a strong and independent regional player.
The geographic location of Central Asia also provides its opponents with an advantage: each country individually (and the region as a whole) is landlocked, and as a consequence the operation of logistical and energy chains is fully dependent on the goodwill of the “Big Neighbors.” Only fundamental changes to the very structure of the regions’ economy can help overcome this dependence. Such changes are now underway.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are striving to abandon the natural resource-dependent model and develop innovations. An example of that is the “Astana Hub” – a financial and technological center which has the capabilities to speed up the technological upgrading not just of Kazakhstan alone, but the entire Central Asian region.
The simultaneous development of an IT ecosystem of innovations in the countries of Central Asia will create new possibilities for regional collaboration, as well as for collaboration of the Central Asian IT sector with global centers of the IT industry.
Central Asia’s old economic model relied on each of the countries having different and separate economic relations with its “Big Neighbors” and – facilitated by those “Big Neighbors” acting as intermediaries – with countries of the West. The new Central Asian model envisions the five countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan – being integrated into a common economic market and having direct connections with Western markets, bypassing the intermediary function of the “Big Neighbors.” As shown through the success of the European Bank’s ‘Investing in Central Asia’ forum which aimed to highlight opportunities for business expansion into the region, Central Asian countries will become integrated into the world ecosystem both in the information and economic realms.
However, in order to implement this plan both the Western business world and the political decision makers have lots of work ahead of them. As the new “IT tiger,” Central Asia may be interesting to the world industry’s giants only as a united region, and they must view it as such already, by extending a certain credibility to the new economic initiatives originating in that region. This means opening regional offices in the local IT clusters and entrusting them first with outsourcing and then with R&D, serving as evangelists of the new economy in contacts with representatives of the Central Asian countries’ governments, and considering the possibilities of investing into local startups jointly with governments. Western policymakers will need to get ready to provide the most favorable environment to the IT industry for any trade and economic relations with countries of the region.
As energy exports are the foundation of economic well-being for the majority of the region’s countries, it places those countries in the position of competitors who are dependent on their neighboring states, above all Russia and China. Developing advanced technologies, attracting Western investments and Western experience, and creating a Central Asian IT market will serve a dual purpose: in reducing the Central Asian countries’ dependence on their neighbors, and in becoming the catalyst for unification processes in the region.
Turkmenistan, the heart of the Silk Road
Over 140 years have passed since Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geologist, geographer and traveler and the president of the Berlin Geographical Society, coined the term Silk Road. Several more decades had passed before scholars in different countries became seriously interested in this phenomenon of the antique and medieval world and began to study specific routes of caravan trade where Turkmen land had an important place. The Silk Road era, which lasted for more than 15 centuries, has left thousands of monuments and landmarks along the entire route from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Many of them are located on the territory of Turkmenistan.
In the modern era, the legendary route is being restored in a new quality, carrying the idea of revitalizing and strengthening trade, economic, humanitarian, and cultural ties between states and peoples. In his book, “Turkmenistan, the Heart of the Silk Road,” Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, citing facts of national history, ancient tales and legends, as well as events and developments from the country’s modern life, notes that a fundamental role in the evolution and active use of the Silk Road, each of its branches being on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites, belongs to, among others, the Turkmen people.
Thus, as our state carries out major transport projects of the century, a modern history is being written and the idea of restoring the Silk Road – the heart of which is independent and neutral Turkmenistan – is being revisited.
The Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran transnational railway line that has been put into operation can carry up to 10-12 million tons of cargo and makes it possible to connect to transport infrastructure in the east and south, gaining access to dynamically developing markets. Turkmenistan believes it is essential to focus efforts on ensuring that the opportunities for Central Asian and Caspian states arising in connection with these major transit projects be used to the maximum degree possible.
Convenient and safe international corridors using rail, motor, air, and water transport ensure the sustainable development of the entire region, foster neighborly relations between nations, strengthen cooperation, expand the volumes of trade turnover and help address a number of social issues. As a strategic goal defining the contours of a new, large-scale format of cooperation on the continent, they help create wide-ranging and promising geoeconomic configurations. In this context, it is important to note that an international sea port in the city of Turkmenbashi is due to be put into operation in the very near future.
The state invests heavily in modernizing the material and technical base of the transport sector and improving management through modern technology. High priority is given to developing sea and river transport infrastructure. Active work is under way to improve passenger and cargo transportation, develop ports and port facilities, and streamline state oversight over the safety of shipping and navigation.
Central and South Asia is a space for active international cooperation. Ancient trade routes passed across these territories for centuries, bringing Asia and Europe closer together. At present, countries in these regions play an important role in expanding global economic partnership. The implementation of projects in these areas opens up great prospects for the optimization of transport, energy and cultural ties in the Eurasian space. Therefore, as Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov noted, our region is emerging as a major link in the formation of a new trade and economic partnership model on the continent, which, in turn, opens up opportunities for creating a platform for more wide-ranging cooperation. This is a vivid example of deeply innovative thinking in the global geoeconomic configuration and a vision of strategic perspectives for its development.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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