The Russia-Ukraine war has underscored the significance of regional integration among the Central Asian states. A cohesive Central Asia could serve as a counterweight to the assertive policies of Russia and the growing influence of China, which regards the region as its sphere of influence. The future of the region hinges on the roles and relations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan has undergone a remarkable transformation in its foreign policy, shifting from isolationism and authoritarianism to openness and constructive engagement in Central Asia integration. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has demonstrated a relative indifference towards integration initiatives. Yet, the unity of Central Asia is vital important for the national security of Kazakhstan.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian nations made numerous attempts to establish a cohesive and integrated framework within the region. However, these endeavors proved to be unsuccessful, yielding no tangible outcomes. The failure of Central Asian integration can be attributed to the allure of external actors, most notably Russia, whose involvement has resulted in regional fragmentation. Russia has always opposed the emergence of a centralized and integrated Central Asia. Whenever the Central Asian countries attempted to form an association, Russia either tried to join it or proposed an alternative organization to undermine it. For instance, The Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC) was established in 1993 with the participation of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, and expanded to include Tajikistan in 1998. In 2002, the CAEC transformed into the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), which admitted Russia as an extra-regional member in 2004, altering the balance of power in the organization. During that period, the member states of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) concurrently held membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), which was under the leadership of Moscow. Subsequently, in 2005, the integration efforts among the Central Asian countries, independent from Russia, were terminated under the pretext of duplicated tasks between the two organizations. This development not only paved the way for future challenges but also contributed to disunity within the region. Furthermore, Russia’s strategic maneuvering presented Kazakhstan with irresistible economic and political incentives that overshadowed the potential advantages of intra-regional collaboration. Consequently, Kazakhstan opted to align itself more closely with Russia rather than its neighboring states within Central Asia. As a result of this decision, the other countries in Central Asia gave up their own plans for regional cooperation.
The implementation of this particular policy by Russia has yielded significant outcomes. It is evident that all nations within Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, have become increasingly dependent on Russia. The most critical aspect of this dependence is the import of food products. After Western countries imposed sanctions against Russia, import has dropped slightly: certain goods will now have to be imported from elsewhere. But there are categories of supplies that simply cannot be replaced. On the other hand, Kazakhstan is highly reliant on Russia for its export sector, with 80 per cent of its oil exports passing through the Russian pipeline network. Furthermore, according to experts from Caravan, a Kazakhstani news agency, Russia is the main transit country for the cargo that reaches Kazakhstan. They estimate that more than 70 percent of all cargo that goes to Kazakhstan passes through the territory of Russia. Another 20 percent comes from China. In addition, reliance Kazakhstan’s tenge on Russian ruble is very high. In the first two weeks of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s tenge lost 20 percent of its value as the ruble fell against the dollar. In 2022, inflation increased mainly in Kazakhstan. In February 2023, it reached 21.3%.
Indeed, the war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on the perception of Russia in neighboring countries, including Kazakhstan. As Kazakhstan shares a long border with Russia, the deteriorating perception of Russia has raised concerns among the political elite. Additionally, the expanding influence of China in the region poses a serious challenge to the security of Central Asia.
In light of these challenges, Kazakhstan should prioritize the integration of Central Asia in its foreign policy. By forming a united front, Central Asian countries can act as a coherent actor in international relations. The following outlines the upcoming trends in the integration process.
Firstly, the establishment of a robust and autonomous institution, free from the influence of Russia and China, is of utmost importance. This institution should serve as a platform for fostering consistent communication and facilitating cooperation between interstate, intergovernmental, NGOs and SMEs. The current state of mutual collaboration on security issues among Central Asian countries is remarkably limited, resulting in divergent positions on regional security matters, or even an absence of any definitive position. For instance, the countries’ perspectives on the Ukrainian conflict displayed slight variances. Additionally, during the May 2023 summit between China and Central Asian nations held in Xian, China explicitly expressed its desire to improve law enforcement, security and defense capability construction and act as a guarantor against potential threats in the region, yet no official response was conveyed by any of the Central Asian countries. Consequently, it is imperative for Central Asian nations to develop a unified strategy in challenging external pressures posed by Russia, China, and other potential adversaries while asserting their individual sovereignties. By adopting a mutually collective approach, Central Asia can effectively balance and mitigate the risks originating from external sources.
Secondly, intra-regional trade plays a pivotal role in the integration process. Central Asia may not present significant economic attractiveness for Kazakhstan at the moment comparing to EUEA, but in the long term, the region may offer valuable opportunities for Kazakhstan’s development. The development of a common customs tariff among countries can enable them to engage more actively in trade activities. Mutual trade between Central Asian countries has shown positive changes in recent years. Between 2018 and 2022, intra-regional trade grew by 73.4%, rising from $5.8 billion to $10 billion. Kazakhstan is still the leading country in Central Asia in terms of trade, accounting for 80% of the region’s total volume of mutual trade.
Thirdly, the relations between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are crucial for the region’s long-term growth prospects as they shape the regional climate. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have complementary economies. Kazakhstan, with its well-developed industrial sectors, can provide technological expertise and investment opportunities for Uzbekistan, which has a strong agricultural base. On the other hand, Kazakhstan has the opportunity to serve as the primary export market for growing Uzbekistan’s manufacturing products, thereby fostering mutual complementarity in terms of labor supply and demand. By sharing knowledge, resources, and technology, they can promote economic diversification and reduce reliance on a single sector, ensuring sustainable growth for the region. Moreover, the cooperation between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan sets a precedent for other countries in the region. Their ability to work together and find common ground serves as an example for neighboring nations, encouraging them to engage in cooperative efforts as well. Further, this collaboration holds the potential to address regional challenges like water and energy security jointly, establish shared foreign policy positions, particularly towards China and Russia.
Finally, the integration process is significantly influenced by the advancement of transportation and communication systems. Without addressing these problems and establishing mutual access between Central Asian states, efforts for collaboration will prove ineffective. Hence, the countries in the Central Asian region must focus on modernizing their existing transportation infrastructure, including roads and railways. Moreover, they should also prioritize the establishment of new transportation branches such as roadside services, container systems for transportation, and air and rail transport. Additionally, it is essential to develop common points of access to the sea for the Central Asian countries, along with the creation of electronic access infrastructure to facilitate the movement of people and goods.
In summary, the war between Ukraine and Russia has highlighted the need for a shift in the stance of Central Asian countries, particularly Kazakhstan. The deteriorating perception of Russia and the expanding influence of China have raised concerns about the region’s security. Therefore, prioritizing the unity and interests of Central Asia itself is crucial in order to have a stronger presence in international relations and resist assimilation by external powers.