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The Turkish Konrul: How Ankara Uses the Turkic Council to Re-Engage in Central Asia

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The countries of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are divided between the remaining influence of Russia, the heir of the Soviet Union, which plays a considerable cultural and military role (e.g., within the Collective Security Treaty Organization) in the region, and the growing economic influence of China. Nevertheless, this apparent bipolar balance is incomplete, as the weight of a third country, Turkey, needs to be taken into consideration when we speak about the future of Central Asia.

Although Ankara is not in close geographical proximity to the region or has no nuclear arsenal, and therefore cannot be considered a superpower like Moscow and Beijing, it has managed to maintain its influence in Central Asia for several centuries—thanks to religion (Islam) and the Turkish language, whose significant impact is still felt in the region. Therefore, whereas China is now the first economic partner in the area, while Moscow is in charge of regional security, it is Turkey that has the most considerable soft power, an asset Erdogan is trying to reinforce through the Cooperation Council of the Turkic-Speaking States (the Turkic Council) to increase its global influence.

While it offers an alternative to the vision of a Central Asia under the bipolar influence of Moscow and Beijing, the Turkic Council is no less imperfect, as this article aims to show, but it has potential for development that might open up Central Asia and bring it closer to the Middle East, while allowing Turkey to reconnect with the glorious history of the Ottoman Empire.

In the end, it is through the Turkic Council that Ankara could become a global power again and, like the Konrul (a Turkish version of the Western phoenix), assert itself as a great power on the international scene, without having to resort to obtaining any nuclear arsenal.

The Turkic Council in the spotlight

The Turkic Council is an international organization founded on October 3, 2009 in Nakhchivan in Azerbaijan, comprising some of the Turkic countries—states which are Turkic-speaking, of Turkic origins, or both—consisting of Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, so to say most of Central Asia.

It is noteworthy that the idea for the Council did not come from Turkey, which at the time was mainly focused on EU integration, but emerged from Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2006, the same political leader who proposed the idea of a Eurasian Union, which became a reality in 2015.

The premise was simple enough at the time. Countries, like Kazakhstan, needed to find a way to be connected to the rest of the world. While the Eurasian Union could increase the economic and military relations with Russia, the Turkic Council would represent the cultural and religious interests of the Central Asian countries.

As many of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s projects, the Eurasian Union and the Turkic Council have moved on. The Eurasian Union has turned into a solely economic co-operation, and the Turkic Council is struggling with integrating states such as Turkmenistan, which is currently not a member of the Council because of its neutral status.

Nevertheless, the Council is among the fastest growing international organizations, and on 30 April 2018 it was announced that Uzbekistan would join. The country attended the summit of the organization before officially applying for membership on 12 September 2019.

Interest is growing and since the end of 2018, Hungary has had observer status and could potentially apply for full membership. Furthermore, in 2020, the Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister, Emine Ceppar, stated that Ukraine wanted to be an observer like Hungary. Meanwhile, on 3 May 2021, Afghanistan officially applied for observer status. Overall, the potential is impressive as Turkish influence in the world remains substantial and could interest some countries with Turkic minorities, such as Gagauzia in Moldova, and possibly states, such as Germany, due to the Turkish diaspora (3-7 million people of Turkish origin currently live in Germany).

Differences between the participating states are evident, and while the Central Asian states are interested in membership to avoid dependence on Russia and China, some countries, such as Azerbaijan, are doing so to strengthen the relationship with Turkey and gain more support in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In its turn, Hungary is prospecting alternatives to the European Union.

The projects are clustered into six cooperation areas: economy, culture, education, transport, customs and diaspora. Examples of projects include the establishment of the Turkish University Union and the drafting of a common history textbook. The Turkic Council is also working on ways to stimulate economic development and functions as an umbrella organization for cooperation mechanisms such as:

– Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA) in Baku;

– International Organisation of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY) in Ankara;

– International Turkic Academy in Nur-Sultan;

– Turkic Cultural Heritage Fund;

– Center of Nomadic Civilisations in Bishkek;

– Turkic Business Council in Istanbul.

Unlike many other international organizations, the Council presents itself with labels of ‘family’ and ‘brotherhood,’ emphasizing the difference with the Western world. As such, the ties between members are rooted in blood and Islam, certainly a more emotional component than in the case of the EU or the Eurasian Economic Union.

FinTech and crypto-currencies: A missed opportunity

In 2021, there are no plans to establish a digital currency or to adopt a common crypto-currency for all Council members. This approach may come as a surprise, as each member country has its own currency with significant fluctuation rates, which hinders the implementation of common projects and exchanges, in fine leading to the adoption of the U.S. dollar for large-scale projects.

The adoption of a new or existing crypto-currency (e.g., Stellar), whether centralized or decentralized, by all the states of the Turkic Council would strengthen economic cooperation between the members. Turkey’s recent attitude on this issue in the spring of 2021 could nonetheless delay the adoption of this technology.

A Turkish or Central Asian institution?

Looking at all elements, one can argue that Ankara is the main country interested in the Council because it remains the largest military, economic and demographic power there. Moreover, it reinforces Turkish influence, as joining the European Union is not a target to Ankara anymore.

Nonetheless, from the Central Asian states’ perspective, the Council seems to be more of a Kazakh project because it avoids the containment of Central Asia and provides an alternative to the two surrounding giants, Moscow and Beijing. As such, Central Asian states strengthening their ties with Turkey aims to ensure respect for Muslim values and develop new partnerships to export gas abroad, with Turkey being a large market. The Turkic Council thus seems to represent the variety of interests in the region, with each country having an interest in joining it.

A modern view of Islam?

Another interesting element is that the Turkic Council promotes a different view of Islam, which can be seen as a ‘soft’ Islam. The member states of the Turkic Council are less fundamentalist than the countries in the Middle East and there is no ban on alcohol consumption, while many families are monogamous. This is crucial as it could have an impact on the practice of Islam amongst prospective new member states, such as Afghanistan.

While Western organizations often enter into confrontation with the Muslim world (e.g., Iran-United States relations), the Turkic Council might present a better way to engage with other Muslim countries, as it is a softer version of Islam that nevertheless shares the same religious beliefs.

Opportunities and challenges of the Turkic Council

Although it has ambitions, the Council remains a complementary alliance and cannot substitute for security organizations (NATO for Turkey and the CSTO for the Central Asian states). Moreover, while it strengthens economic partnerships, China remains the main actor in Central Asia, and it is not possible for the Council to become an alternative to establishing commercial ties with Beijing.

The same is true for Azerbaijan, and while Baku has received support from the Muslim world in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the main decision-maker on the outcome of this conflict remains the Kremlin, as Russia is a nuclear superpower.

Another limitation of cooperation is that Beijing may want to strengthen its soft power in Central Asia in the coming years. So far, China has accepted to remain a mere economic power (with an attempt to strengthen its military power in the Wakhan corridor). Nevertheless, Beijing is expected to take a more active soft power approach by increasing its investment in promoting Confucianism and the Chinese language around the world, and more so in its neighborhood.

The Turkic Council has carried out many valuable projects, particularly in the field of education, and while its potential remains substantial, the Council’s members must ensure that it will work in line with Chinese interests in Central Asia and the Middle East to avoid a confrontation.

Ultimately, the Turkic Council is a valuable tool for building up Turkish religious approach and soft power in Central Asia, but the economy and the implementation of cutting-edge technologies are likely to remain in Chinese hands, while Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union are complementary and might contribute to the emergence of a tripolar order in the region.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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Kazakhstan under President Tokayev – transformation in all spheres

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Around two years ago, a change of leadership took place in Kazakhstan, when Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over as Head of State following presidential elections. Since then, numerous reforms have been implemented in the country. Prior to these elections, Nursultan Nazarbayev was the president for almost three decades until 2019 and built a foundation that enabled Kazakhstan to become the biggest economy and top investment destination in the region. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan also managed to build good relations with all its neighbours, as well as with Europe and the United States.

There has been a shift in focus after 2019. President Tokayev is concentrating not just on economic reforms and foreign relations, but also on political changes in the country. Prior to change in leadership, the country primarily focused on economic development and investment attraction. Indeed, Kazakhstan still has the ambition to become one of the top 30 most developed countries in the world.  Yet according to Kazakhstan’s current president, political changes are necessary to achieve economic development. One may wonder why these reforms matter outside of Kazakhstan. Yet the country is the top trading partner in Central Asia for the European Union and plays a key role in facilitating trade between China and the rest of the world through the Belt and Road project. Kazakhstan is also a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union and is an active member of the international community, supporting the United States, Russia and other global powers in the resolution of conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. Ultimately, the political and economic course of Kazakhstan impacts not only the country itself, but also the wider region and beyond.

One of Tokayev’s most significant changes is bringing the population closer to politics, and establishing what he calls “a listening state” – a government that listens to the feedback and criticisms of the population. To enhance dialogue between the government and the people, a National Council of Public Trust was established by Tokayev in 2019. Its aim is to develop specific proposals for reforms and legislation, taking into account the suggestions of civil society and the wider public. Making the national and local government more accountable improves its effectiveness and enables it to better fight long-lasting problems, such as corruption. In this regard, the country’s legal system has been transformed by transitioning it to a service model of work, which calls for a more active and responsible role for law enforcement personnel.

Public administration also required substantial reform as it is plagued by serious bureaucracy. As such, Tokayev instructed the government to reduce the number of civil servants by 25% while also hiring younger cadres. The President, who himself frequently uses social media, also made it a priority to digitise government services to increase efficiency.

In addition to political reforms, Tokayev has prioritised diversifying the economy to avoid excessive dependence on natural resources. For this reason, despite the lure of focusing on oil, gas, uranium and other raw materials that Kazakhstan exports, Tokayev has instructed the government to maximise the potential of agriculture, especially due to the fact that Kazakhstan neighbours China and other rapidly developing Asian countries, which require vast amount of seeds, grains and livestock.

Social reforms have also been realised. Tokayev recently stressed that “economic reforms are justified and supported only when they increase the income of a country’s citizens and ensure higher standards of living”. In practice this means protecting the most vulnerable, as well as individuals and companies that depend on loans to start a business. As such, Tokayev is aiming to expand the amount of bank loans, and direct them to companies that increase value by means of innovation, while reducing the number of inefficient enterprises run by the state. To support those that suffered the most from the economic consequences of the pandemic, the president offered his support to cancel penalties for bank loans.

Another interesting social measure that is likely to have long-term effect is Tokayev’s attempt to gradually revert the idea that higher education should be the ultimate goal of every student. Instead, Tokayev aims to reduce the number of universities to promote vocational centres and colleges that teach specific technical skills. The belief is that this is necessary in order to adapt to the needs of the market, which requires a variety of specialists.

Overall, while it is too early to assess the long-term impact of Tokayev’s presidency and his reform programme, it is clear that he is trying to fight old demons domestically, by shifting Kazakhstan away from old Soviet thinking and system of governance. The interplay between the domestic and external challenges aggravated by the test of COVID-19 and its consequences, will demonstrate whether Tokayev’s reforms are strong enough to help the country cope with the new era.

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Russia and Central Asia: Between Pragmatism and Geopolitics

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The recent armed border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as the extremely uncertain prospects for the central government in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US and its allies, have forced us to re-examine the question of the extent of Russia’s responsibility for what is happening in Central Asia. Most of the countries in the region are formal allies of Russia, as members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or, like Uzbekistan, on the basis of a bilateral agreement. The chances that other major powers will be able to provide their capabilities to ensure the security of Central Asia are negligible. At the same time, Moscow’s economic interest in this region is not significant, and therefore we can only talk in terms of pure geopolitics.

The defining condition for Russian policy towards the Central Asia region now is the absence of an immediate threat to national security in the form of a hostile alliance of states or one strong power. Russia does not come into contact with regional institutions, the collective interest of which could conflict with its interests and dictate the behaviour of its participants. The largest military power in the neighbourhood is China, with which Russia has friendly relations approaching those of an alliance. Central Asia itself does not represent an integral problem for Russia, like Europe or the South Caucasus; the concerns associated with it are quite occasional, although sometimes they can become urgent.

External challenges excluded, in the long term, the most serious issue in relations may be associated with the process of the formation of nation states in Russia and the countries of Central Asia, and the resulting grounds for alienation. The answer to this challenge can be in a more harmonic process of inevitable generational change, in order to preserve the integrity of the common space, regardless of the influence of the common historical experience. In other words, now it is necessary to strive to ensure that the countries’ common heritage serves as the foundation for a unifying tradition of co-development. Russia should not be misled by the fact that its culture, including pop culture, and its language are now predominant among the countries of Central Asia. At the same time, the countries of Central Asia should not be mistaken in their reading of Russian foreign policy — respect here is very easy to confuse with composure, which could have tragic consequences.

The factors that determine the nature of interaction between Russia and the Central Asian states include their shared geopolitical position. The border between Russia and Central Asia is a steppe that does not have natural obstacles. Its openness and its unsuitability for marking clear dividing lines is naturally transferred to the spheres of political, economic and cultural interaction across state borders. This leads to the fact that in the area from Southern Siberia to the foothills of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains, a serious form of isolation becomes difficult for Russia to implement.

From the Russian perspective, Central Asia does not begin immediately, it gradually manifests itself in the individual features in the landscape, the appearance of cities, and the national and religious composition of the population long before the traveller crosses the state border. The formal national border between Russia and the Central Asian states is a man-made line, the existence of which is ensured by the good will of the states, and does not rest on such natural boundaries as mountain ranges, large rivers or seas. In fact, Russia and Central Asia is a common space, which determines and will determine the nature and content of relations between states. Amid such geographic conditions, traditional forms of interaction between powers acquire a specificity that distinguishes them from relations between countries which are clearly separated by natural barriers.

It can be assumed that this is precisely why the issue of “dissociation” from Central Asia remains so painful in the Russian narrative — due to the perceived impossibility of doing this in reality. The region’s significant demographic potential looked frightening for Russia within the framework of the USSR. It became one of the reasons why in 1991, Moscow easily went about guaranteeing the secession of the Central Asian republics, effectively getting rid of them in its quest to renew the Russian state, its economy and society. Rapprochement and integration with this region has never been seen in Russia as a priority of national foreign policy, in contrast to relations with Europe or the Slavic states of the former USSR — Belarus and Ukraine.

We must admit that, in a sense, Russia has always wanted to isolate itself from Central Asia as much as it sought to become a part of Europe, and both tasks appeared equally unsolvable. Therefore, the main attention of Russia in relations with regional states in the coming years can be focused on promoting their internal stability, preventing the large-scale archaisation of societies and, as a result, destabilisation with subsequent transformation into many local centres of religious extremism.

In the 30 years since the collapse of the USSR, the states of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have gone their own way and, in each case, pursued original path of independent development. Due to the fact that they initially did not have the prospect of mechanistic inclusion in an alternative jurisdiction, as happened with the Baltic countries and could happen with other republics of the Western part of the so-called post-Soviet space, this historical experience turned out to be unique for each of the Central Asian states, although there are some features that unite them.

There are no prerequisites for the formation of an institutionalised association in the region that is an alternative to Russian interests, and now none of the integration groups, except the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which already includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, can consider these countries as their participants. At the same time, greater interaction between countries at that level within the region will bring Russia more benefits than concerns, since it will not be able to become a factor that forms an organised hostility towards Russian interests and values in these countries.

Russia and the Central Asian states jointly touch the southern belt of Eurasia, which includes such states as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Their own scale and demographics make absorption and full integration with Russia and Central Asia impossible. At the same time, there are historically strong and fundamental ties between this region and such Central Asian countries as Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Afghanistan itself is a clear dividing line between East and West, North and South, underpinned by its mountainous topography and complex ethnic composition. An important common task for Russia and the Central Asian states may be to maintain relative peace in this country after the changes that will occur in 2021, and its inclusion in international economic relations, including the main continental transport routes.

Iran, as one of the civilisational states of the modern world, will always remain a challenge for Russia and Central Asia. The scale of Iran and its cultural foundations form the country’s foreign policy, theoretically accessible for temporary force control from the outside, but not suitable for integration into wider communities. Iran’s intentions will always be vague to its neighbours. Turkey has an understandable desire to increase its interaction with the kindred peoples of Central Asia, but itself is experiencing colossal political and cultural pressure from the West, and does not have sufficient power to act as an alternative to the Russian pole of power in international politics.

India, in turn, is too big to develop within a community of states. China could theoretically offer Russia and Central Asia ideas and economic opportunities for joint development, but it has reasonable concerns about Central Asia’s openness to the Islamic world and the need to more actively interact in the region with a powerful ally such as Russia. The United States and other Western countries look at the region only in the context of their economic and diplomatic relations with the largest Eurasian powers — China, India and Russia. We can hardly expect that such an approach can serve as an external basis for the Central Asian countries to achieve their main development goals.

Europe ceased to exist as a factor in the development of the region after the disappearance of the British colonial empire in the mid-20th century, and will no longer be able to designate its presence here as a force influencing the security and development of states. This, however, cannot be a factor excluding the positive role of European, American or East Asian investments in increasing the socio-economic resilience of the Central Asian countries. However, this is not a merit of interstate relations, but a natural effect of the fact that the world keeps a relatively high degree of economic openness, and business is looking for ways to keep the most attractive investments for itself.

Thus, the Russian policy towards Central Asia has a fairly solid foundation and is much less affected by the negative factors that are now inherent in the international system. This, of course, creates a temptation for Moscow to consider the countries of the region lower in priority order than those directions of real threats (Europe and the Middle East) or pronounced economic opportunities (East Asia). If, after 2021, Central Asia faces an immediate threat from the south, Russia will need to increase its military cooperation with the governments of this region. However, Russia is no longer likely to strive to take full responsibility on its own — a condition for this would be the total return of Central Asia to the imperial order controlled by Moscow, and there are no conditions for this. Therefore, in the future, Russia will rely on the independent capabilities of regional states and interaction with China, which is no less interested in its internal stability than Moscow.

From our partner RIAC

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

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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.

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