Paths to Regionalism in Central Asia: Internal Struggles Preclude External Change

At the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly formed Central Asian republics were quickly thrust into a world of uncertainty, security issues, economic dilemmas, and more importantly, opportunity.  The lack of transformative policies prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union would exacerbate these issues while limiting immediate growth potential.  The rapid disintegration of trade and manufacturing linkages previously established in the Soviet Union led to recession, with per capita incomes falling to half of its pre-independence levels by the mid-1990s.Geography has condemned Central Asia to influence from both regional and global superpowers, namely that of Iran, Russia, and China.  And while somewhat separate, Turkey remains an important political and religious influence in the Central Asia republics.  Given these circumstances and others, we must determine what, if anything in particular, has stunted the development of a Central Asian region that could become a prominent and impactful actor on the world stage. Remaining susceptible to economic, political, and militaristic influence, as well as being landlocked and in close proximity to ongoing wars against terrorism and extremism, is there any hope at all for a regional institution to take hold and grow?

Building the “Region”

Foremost, a suitable definition for regionalism must be reached. Though despite widespread interest in the subject, we lack a consensus on what its true definition is, in part because many observers do not agree on what constitutes a region.  Common definitions of the concept range from geographic proximity, social and cultural homogeneity, shared political attitudes, political institutions, and lastly, economic interdependence. Other definitions include Joseph Nye’s idea of states linked together by both a geographical relationship and a degree of mutual interdependence, or a more general theory of states or peoples held together by common experience and identity, custom, and practice.  While it is arguable that Central Asia has qualified as a region in each of these categories, it is not that easy to solidify the construct.  More in-depth debates on the subject are torn between what constitutes regionalism and what is instead, regionalization. Regionalism is widely understood as the political process marked by cooperation and policy coordination, while the concept of regionalization is instead, an economic process in which trade and investment within the “region” grow more rapidly than it does so with the rest of the world

A concise definition for the potential prospects of a region, or regional construct, is significant due to the effects it can have on the outcome of the region itself.  Being precise in defining the size and membership of the region in question, can be enormously important for some states and actors as higher levels of cohesion and commonality may prevail in smaller, tightly defined geographical areas whereas loosely defined regions can be manipulated to permit or deny inclusions to states at will.  As critical, is the distinction between regionalism and multilateralism.  The former, I define similar to Joseph Nye’s, as a geographically contiguous collection of states and non-state actors who’s shared past, present a cultural, economic, and political interdependence that must be sustained to achieve a profitable future.  The latter, I will define as a collection of state actors who act in the interest of a common goal that will be mutually beneficial to all involved but is not required for independent state progression.  The key difference being the necessary interdependence of a region vice the opportunistic cooperation between actors in multilateral arrangements.  With origins in the 1940s and the rise of the Cold War, the oldest and most ambitious of post-World War II examples of regional cooperation is the European Union (EU), which will be our benchmark from which to judge regionalism around the world.  Over the years and through economic, political, and security cooperation, the EU has deepened integration and transformed into a successful, worldwide entity.  The EU should represent the goal of Central Asian regionalism, but to date, there has been nothing worthy of the comparison. 

Why Hasn’t it Worked Yet?

There has been a general resurgence of regionalism in the post-Cold War international order and with that, has come a proliferation of regional and subregional groupings that have involved the Central Asia states.  Unfortunately, behind the lofty rhetoric of national leaders and the hollow statements of cooperation between the Central Asian republics, the region has been embroiled with increasing frequency of internal conflicts, trade wars, border disputes, and disagreements of the use of water and energy resources.  One of the most prominent regionalist projects in Central Asia was the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which was designed to manage the collapse of the Soviet Union and foster a unified post-Soviet cooperation among the newly formed republics.  By the end of the 1990s, it was obvious that due to a failure to integrate any Soviet successor states in any meaningful sense, constituted of multiple, helpless structures that created an illusion of commonality, and with political leaders admitting there was much left to be desired, the CIS had failed.  Examining the failure of regionalism attempts like the CIS in Central Asia, we should find that domestic issues have precluded greater external cooperation among Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.  In particular, border conflicts between the republics, political reform, resource security, and sustainable economic institutions must first be dealt with in order to set the conditions for a successful regionalism effort. 

Internal border conflicts, like that of the Fergana Valley, are hindering a larger regional construct and preventing Central Asia from balancing against the world powers of China, Iran, and Russia, as a single entity.  National boundaries have been a primary interest to Central Asia nations since their inception due to cultural unity, natural resources, and infrastructure management.  Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were almost immediately border disputes that erupted all over Central Asia, with countries trying to settle the old debts and old scores. It was then agreed that each country would maintain the borders created by the Soviet Union in the different territories. The problem is that these borders, drawn by the Soviet Union, deemed areas like the Fergana Valley as “unstable” and created few enclaves, which led to problems ranging from resource management, restrictive movement of various ethnic peoples across borders, and instigated issues over food, energy, and water distribution.  These internal disputes had become so serious in some cases, as in the Fergana Valley, it has led states like Uzbekistan to mine their borders

Even with the fact that Central Asia has maintained their sovereignty since the early 1990s and embarked on their own political journeys, there is a consensus that Russia, being the key regional actor, sets the political agenda and is consistently exporting and supporting authoritarian values there.  The leaders of the new republics mirror Russia in the use of patrimonial-authoritarian regimes and a “menu of manipulation” developed during Soviet rule to manage potentially challenging processes for a variety of scenarios, while importing external influence from Russian parties.  Referencing our model of the European Union, we can see that a region that maintains the political institutions of patrimonial-authoritarian rule will make cooperation on the level of the EU difficult to achieve as these regimes are only seen to effectively cooperate in security issues.  The reason for only involving themselves in security cooperation is that it does not require immediate political or economic reform in the state.

Modern democratic institutions are defined by four criteria: executives and legislatures are chosen in free/open elections, virtually all adults have a right to vote, political rights and civil liberties are prevalent, and elected authorities possess “real” authority to govern the population.  In Central Asia’s internal political institutions, manipulation of all four of these criteria is overwhelming.  Presidents would remove obstacles to extend term limits, elections were organized to maintain power with the illusion of competition, the timing of the elections was carefully selected for optimization of regime survival, and the states still emplace significant barriers to stop the elevation and creation of opposition or new political parties.  In terms of developmental issues, the common trend that brings Central Asia together is called “focusing” – namely, the idea of nations focusing on their own internal issues with mutual success depending on their combined potential.  Political reform has been missing from past attempts and remains critical to the future.

Central Asia has been given the gift of an abundance of natural resources; however, they are unfortunately, very unevenly distributed.  While it may be logical to assume that resource abundant nations have a given economic advantage over those of less fortune, there is widespread debate about this truth, and empirical evidence that would suggest the opposite.  One possible explanation for this “natural resource curse” argues that a large majority of commodity exporters focus on a rather narrow range of primary products, and so a lack of diversification exposes them to price fluctuations which could then lead to large swings in national incomes.  Over the past 20 years, all of the countries in the region except Uzbekistan have seen an increase in the concentration of their exports, with fewer products accounting for a larger share.  “Moreover,” as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points out, “the vulnerability of Central Asian countries extends to shocks affecting trade partners, as their exports are concentrated in a limited number of markets.  Landlocked geography and the ‘distance penalty’ mean that a few neighbors almost exclusively make up the export markets for Central Asian economies.”  With the limited ability to diversify resources and the high cost of trading across regional borders, Central Asia has become a free-for-all in resource utilization, which given the resource nexus of the region, has exacerbated issues leading to a failure of regional cooperation and political division. 

Despite the façade of economic recovery post-recession, the output in most of the Central Asian republics depends on a limited number of export commodities and external financing to support economic growth and has not provided sufficient employment opportunities in the formal economy.  External financing can be a source of stimulation for economic growth in the region, but the heavy external debt burden faced by several of the states poses a significant risk for long-term economic growth, especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.  The International Monetary Fund or IMF, posits that for Central Asia, looking forward and removing tariff and non-tariff barriers as well as inefficient systems and uncertainty around changes to tariff schedules are steps in the right direction.  Further integration in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and World Trade Organization (WTO) would be the most beneficial internal actions that Central Asia could take.  Regional adherence to EEU policies, trade customs, trade regulations, and removal of inefficient border policies would help to create a “growth friendly” fiscal adjustment as well as capture the full benefits of global and Central Asian trade.  Historically, the high cost of doing business across borders has limited regional cooperation or really, motivation, to attempt more in-depth economic arrangements.  This is due to the fact that not all Central Asia nations have accepted common economic norms like those of the WTO when it comes to trade; creating a need for these republics to enhance their attractiveness for trade transit options

A Central Asian region has not developed because internal border strife has precluded larger levels of cooperation.  Political turmoil and enduring influence from the Soviet-style patrimonial-authoritarian regimes are creating dysfunctional institutions that are incapable of solving domestic issues and leave Central Asian republics open to the direction of the most influential neighbor.  Natural resource allocations and climate change are impacting resource security and creating a need for sustainable development and crisis management across borders, which has thus far,not come to pass.  And lastly, economic insecurity leaves individual republics competing with one another for momentary gain, while missing the future prospects of a regional institution created by mutual support and integration.

Future Outlook for Central Asian Regionalism

International integration – the theory in which supranational institutions replace national ones and gradually shift upward from individual sovereignty to regionalism or global structures – is helpful in explaining the emergence of the EU and as a model to emulate.  In practice, this integration had rarely gone beyond a “partial and uneasy sharing of power” between states, as most have been unwilling to give up their exclusive claim to sovereignty and have severely limited the power of the supranational institution.  Despite having cultural, linguistic, religious, and ethnic differences, as well as hundreds of years locked in intermittent war, the EU has become the most successful example of the process of integration through functionalism, neofunctionalism, and a security community

What is seen in the case of the EU’s development is short-term progressive institutions and constructs that would eventually lead to a greater identity.  It began with supranational organizations that would perform the basic functions required between states such as reducing barriers to trade, delivering mail, or the coordination of resources and goods across borders.  This created a need for closer political ties between the states.  The European Parliament was developed in order to facilitate this closer political dynamic, the sense of a community among Europe, and a security structure.  We now see the expansion of the EU ranging from a common market, a parliament, a council of ministers, common agricultural policies, the European Commission, a European Court of Justice, and even the development of a regional currency – the Euro.  The key in the continued success of the European Union is the evolved development of a shared integration format and a robust structure of institutions that encompass and act on behalf of the larger region.

Can Central Asia accomplish this?  The region would have much to gain from the formulation of a regional identity like the EU.  Four often theorized reasons for the benefits of international institutions are: constraining the great powers, providing information, and reducing transaction costs, facilitating reciprocity, and promoting reform in domestic politics. Unfortunately, border conflicts, resource disputes and mismanagement, political authoritarian regimes, and economic security are currently inhibiting the region from embracing any of these four benefits.  This results in the need for a realistic outlook on Central Asia’s regional future with both short-term and long-term expectations in respect to the new globalized environment these states will develop in – an acknowledged difference from the European Union’s circumstances.

Short-term, being the next 5-10 years, expect to see more of the same: domestic turmoil overflowing to interregional issues that exacerbate inadequate political and economic structures.  A continuation of the corruption and patrimonialism that sees only the elite benefit from exploitation of the state’s given authority.  The uncertainty that lies in the actions of neighboring actors as well as the conviction that all states are primarily concerned with survival, will limit Central Asia to mostly insincere political promises and a “self, before others” mentality that will delay the creation of these functional supranational organizations that benefited the initial onset of the European Union construct.  Long-term (>20 years) is where the effects of globalization begin to impact the prospects for regionalism.  Looking at a political map of the world, it would seem that Central Asia is in the center of it all.  The Chinese have directly linked their “One Belt, One Road” initiative to the legacy of the ancient “Silk Road”, and presented it as a project based on equality, mutual benefit, open-mindedness, sharing of culture, and sharing of tradition with one another.  This plays directly to the advantage of a regional Central Asian institution. As the passage between China and Europe, Central Asian republics will need to formulate transnational organizations that would mirror those of the European Union in policies of low costs and ease of access functionality to reduce barriers, making the use of Central Asia as a land bridge between major world players attractive. Whereas the European Union formulated on geopolitical means, the Central Asian region may very well be formed in the wake of a new Eurasian geoeconomic strategy.  To create the sustainable structures that will enable regionalism, there will need to be drastic political regime and ideal reform in Central Asia that is showing no signs of imminent change. 

In conclusion, globalization provides the best catalyst for Central Asia to develop a regional institution that would enable it to become a major entity on the world stage.  However, the domestic issues are hindering this effort in the short-term, while long-term goals are lofty and require major reform in the republics.  The increasing interaction between Asia and Europe, to include the Belt & Road Initiative, has given Central Asia a shared reason to limit the effects of interregional strife and provide a unified and accessible image to the global market, and a reason for the geopolitical world to invest itself in the region.  This transformation will take time and cannot be a forced overnight change as the “west” would like.  There is hope for the region, and with sound strategy and economic investment in the republics, dependent on reform, Central Asia can be the next iteration of regionalism, or quite possibly the instigator of a “Eurasian Union” capable of parity with the global powers of today.

Evan M. Slusser
Evan M. Slusser
Born 10 Sep. 1989 (31 years old) in Virginia, USA. Currently serving as an active-duty captain in the United States Marine Corps as an F-35B pilot. Graduated from Virginia Tech in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in International Relations, concentrating in Global Politics and Policy. Currently, a part-time graduate student at the University of Arizona in the International Security Studies master’s degree program, with a focus on American Foreign Policy.