Central Asia took its first steps toward regional integration soon after independence in the region in 1991. Yet, for several reasons, this integration failed. Even so, with the change in leadership in Uzbekistan in 2016, attempts to improve regional cooperation have been revived, this time through the mechanism of annual consultative meetings of Central Asian leaders. The fourth such meeting took place in Kyrgyzstan at the end of July 2022.
In 1993, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan created the Central Asian Union (CAU) to foster deeper economic ties and cooperation as well as to preserve and upgrade the mechanisms that had regulated economic relations, most importantly water usage, in the Soviet period. Tajikistan was not invited to join due to its ongoing civil war at the time. Turkmenistan showed no interest, having adopted neutrality as the guiding principle of its foreign policy, including relations with its Central Asian neighbors.
For several reasons, integration within the CAU framework failed. First, the Central Asian states, which had recently gained independence, were not ready to give it up any autonomy in favor of a supranational structure and mechanisms. Second, former Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov decided to continue with Soviet-era economic policies rather than introduce market-oriented economic reforms similar to those implemented in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Without the adoption of a common economic policy, prospects for integration became moot. Third, a rivalry between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan emerged over who would ultimately head the regional organization, which further cooled Karimov’s attitude toward the idea.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who succeeded Karimov as president of Uzbekistan in 2016, has departed from some of his predecessor’s policies, moving to normalize Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors. That has opened the door to renewed efforts of bringing the Central Asian states closer together. This time, the countries have decided to take a more pragmatic approach. Instead of starting at the end of the integration process (i.e., creating regional institutions), they have now chosen the format of consultative meetings to find ways and mechanisms to promote closer cooperation between their countries and develop common approaches to regional security. The first such meeting was held in 2018. Renewed interest in developing regional economic ties has already, in the words of Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, led to his country’s increase in trade with the other regional states by 42 percent from 2017 to 2022 (Caravan.kz, July 21, 22).
The 2022 meeting yielded two breakthrough documents: the Treaty on Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation to Promote Development in Central Asia in the 21st Century and the Roadmap for Regional Cooperation Until 2024. The Central Asian leaders agreed to develop a similar road map on regional security, create a regional center for environmental protection, establish a regional television station and develop a common media market, among other policies (Newscentralasia.net, July 22).
The road map’s main focus is on the development of regional transportation and logistics. This particular policy was, surprisingly, initiated by Turkmenistani President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, whose country, until now, has stayed away from regional economic projects. This initiative reflects the urgent need for alternative transportation routes to Russia and Belarus following the start of the war against Ukraine and the imposing of Western sanctions on both countries. Central Asia’s predicament is exacerbated by all the countries being landlocked or, in the case of Uzbekistan, being a double-landlocked state.
Agreeing on common economic approaches and cooperation proved to be easier than committing to “friendship” and “good neighborliness,” as stipulated by the treaty signed at the summit. Turkmenistan, due its policy of neutrality, did not sign the treaty. Tajikistan’s refusal to sign may be explained by its long-playing territorial conflict with Kyrgyzstan, which recently flared up again. This conflict intensified in September 2022, leading to the deaths of over 100 people from both sides (Fergana.agency, September 19). Other territorial disputes, such as the delimitation of the Kyrgyzstani-Uzbekistani border, also have the potential to ignite in armed conflict (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 18).
However, positive trends are growing in regional dynamics. The ability of countries to reach agreements on shared issues that affect the entire region is a positive sign of maturity and the increased ability of the Central Asian states to compartmentalize relations between one another without holding certain policies hostage to disagreements on other issues (Uzmetronom.agency, August 20).
Nevertheless, many roadblocks on the way to regional cooperation remain as evidenced by the fact that the five presidents signed only five documents during their meeting, though they were expected to sign many more (Kloop.kg, July 23). Nonetheless, following their meeting, we have seen concrete steps to implement the agreements reached and to deepen ties among the countries, which was unimaginable only years ago. Additionally, Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marks a renewed emphasis for improved regional cooperation. Thus, Bishkek and Tashkent signed an agreement on training Kyrgyzstan’s officer corps in Uzbekistan’s military academies (Uzmetronom.agency, July 23). Additionally, recently, the five ministers of health signed the Regional Roadmap on Healthcare and Well-Being. This plan is designed to develop mechanisms for regional responses to crises, including pandemics and climate change (Newscentralasia.net, September 14). Such agreements are a clear sign that the region is moving beyond declarative statements on the need for deepened regional cooperation and integration toward taking concrete steps to make that a reality.