In his annual message to the nation, delivered on February 18, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev made yet another well-calculated move to polish his personal image as an ardent supporter of Central Asian integration. “I propose creating a Union of Central Asian states,” he announced. Indulging in an extensive retelling of history, Nazarbayev said that the ancient Silk Route symbolized not only the link between West and East, but also the unity of the Central Asian peoples.
Nazarbayev said that the states of the region face a choice: either remain a supplier of raw materials for the rest of the world “in anticipation of the advent of the next empire” or move towards an integrated Central Asian region. The Kazakh leader called upon Central Asian nations “to be worthy of our common great ancestors who would always see us together. It is time for us to open a new, indispensable way for the next generation of nations enjoying equal rights” (Ekspress-K, February 19).
While Nazarbayev’s integration zeal was predictably applauded at home, foreign audiences, including the Central Asian neighbors targeted by the message, largely remained lukewarm to the idea. Officials in the Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan, who were quoted by the Ferghana.ru website as having downplayed the integration initiative as “another call for show, unfounded and far from reality.” According to the same source, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Nazarbayev’s integration call as an attempt to “deflect the attention of the people from regional problems or boost his image as an active supporter of Central Asian cooperation” (Ferghana.ru, February 22).
This unfriendly comment triggered a wave of diplomatic indignation in Kazakhstan. In an interview with the government newspaper Kazakhstanskaya pravda, Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev hastened to announce that the Central Asian union proposed by Nazarbayev should not be construed as an insidious scheme to create a single state dominated by one nation. As he explained further, Nazarbayev had in mind the “development of integration and coordination of policies on economic reforms through creating a free-trade zone, a customs union, a common market of resources, goods, capital, and labor, and a currency union.”
Tokayev went on to enumerate a laundry list of further arguments in favor of the Central Asian union, such as human trafficking, illegal migration, proliferation of conventional weapons, and shortage of water resources in the region. Tokayev, clearly trying to dispel any mistrust toward Kazakhstan’s integration proposal, added that the proposed Central Asian union would be modeled on the European Union in order to guarantee the equal rights of its members (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, February 23).
In commenting on the Central Asian union concept, Tokayev was more explicit than Nazarbayev, who had broadly outlined his integration design and vaguely linked the need to create a union of Central Asian states to the threat of globalization and growing military and economic rivalry between superpowers for the resources of the region. Nazarbayev did not directly say that the would-be union should integrate Turkic-speaking states, but he referred to the Agreement on Eternal Friendship between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan and also noted “common cultural and historical roots, language, and religion” as a solid foundation for the integration.
Obviously, Nazarbayev did not expect his message to produce a hostile response in Uzbekistan. Shortly after the reports on Ferghana.ru, he had a telephone conversation with his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, who reassured him that Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry did not have anything to do with the information spread “by some news agencies.” Proclaiming Uzbekistan’s willingness to cooperate with its neighbor, Karimov expressed his country’s readiness to help Kazakhstan to avert flooding in the Syrdarya river basin by diverting discharge water from the overfilled Shardara reservoir in south Kazakhstan to the Arnasay lowlands in Uzbekistan (Interfax Kazakhstan, February 23).
Uzbekistan’s newly appointed Foreign Minister, Elyor Ganiev, had to quell the diplomatic row when he arrived in Astana to attend a session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization on February 25. Ganiev reiterated Karimov’s view that the information disseminated in the media does not reflect the position of official Tashkent, which sees President Nazarbayev’s initiative on creating a union of Central Asian states as a genuine intention to deepen the integration in the region (Vesti.uz, February 28).
Some experts in Kazakhstan note that the idea of Central Asian regional integration, as proposed by Nazarbayev, essentially boils down to a revival of the pan-Turkism put forward nearly a century ago by Mustafa Shokay, a controversial Kazakh intellectual, who lived in exile in France and died in Germany during World War II. But whatever the conceptual roots of the integration idea, everyone in Central Asia could derive benefits from such a union.
Yet such hopes are tinged with strong doubts. Kazakhstan has seen many integration agreements, pledges of friendship, and alliances in the past, but none of them ever fully materialized (Zhas Qazaq, February 25).