The sudden thaw between Tashkent and Moscow after the Andijan bloodbath and the withdrawal of the U.S. air base from Uzbekistan left Astana guessing about the true intentions of the enigmatic Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
But since the Russian-orchestrated integration of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization into the Eurasian Economic Community at an October meeting in St. Petersburg (see EDM, October 11, 13) the typical paranoia about any alliance between Uzbekistan and outside forces being a threat to Astana is waning. Instead, as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev first outlined in his February 18 address to the nation, it is time to pursue a more pragmatic Central Asian Union.
Never has Astana been so close to realizing its desire to turn Tashkent, its regional rival, into an ally with the help of Moscow. The recent simultaneous ratification of the Russian-Kazakh border delimitation agreement by the Kazakh parliament and the Russian State Duma plays a major role in this scenario.
Astana had to pay a price for the speedy ratification of the border agreement signed in Moscow last January by Nazarbayev and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Under the agreement Kazakhstan had to give up the Ogneupornoye settlement in Kostanay region and half of the Imashev gas fields on the border with Russia’s Astrakhan region, which is heavily populated by ethnic Kazakhs. Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev later told reporters that both sides held 50 rounds of talks on disputed border areas within the course of a single year. Ultimately the agreement was to exchange the Ogneupornoye settlement, which is inhabited predominantly by holders of Russian passports, in exchange for a territory of equal size (Panorama, November 18).
Although Uzbekistan is showing some flexibility in the face of its threatened international isolation after spoiling the short-lived honeymoon with the United States and European Union, Russia still plays an essential role that helps Astana mend its relations with its neighbors. In practical terms, however, Astana and Moscow have not invented any better mechanism for reaching some sort of integration in the Eurasian space than joint energy projects.
The agreement reached in November between Kazakhstan’s Intergaz Central Asia, a subsidiary of the state-controlled KazTransGaz, and Russia’s Gazprom is designed to restore the old Soviet-era gas supply system in Central Asia using the ramified network of the Tsentralnaya Azia-Tsentr; Bukhara-Ural; and Orenburg-Novopskov pipelines. If implemented successfully, Kazakhstan should benefit from the project as a transit country for shipments of Russian West Siberian, Turkmen, and Uzbek gas supplies to outer markets. The project would also have a positive political impact on relations between Central Asian countries and restore regular gas supply deliveries from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan. Optimistic estimates forecast an increase in annual shipments of Central Asian gas to European markets from the current 42 billion cubic meters to 55 billion cubic meters within next five years. Russia hopes to get access to cheaper energy resources in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and to drag Uzbekistan into a transport corridor from China through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey to the Balkans (Izvestiya Kazakhstan, December 12).
All signs indicate that Tashkent is keen to resume its ties with Moscow, and Astana is seizing the opportunity to create an energy alliance with its neighbors. This unambiguous gesture was made at the recent international conference on the Central Asian energy market attended by oil and gas companies from Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, China, and Southeast Asia. The conference looked more like a political affair than a routine economic meeting. Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Karimov, elaborated at length on Uzbekistan’s energy potential, mentioned the newfound friendship between Russia and China, and stressed the need for a unified market of energy resources from Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states. The proposal was cautiously welcomed by the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Igor Prokopyev, who pointed out the different hydrocarbon production levels in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which raise questions about the economic feasibility of a common market of energy resources. An expert from the Institute of International Economic and Political Research, Vladimir Voloshin, mentioned the risks behind the shaky political positions of regimes in Central Asia and added that Russia would, nevertheless, make investments in the Uzbek oil and gas industry (Delovaya nedelya, December 9).
Evidently, this ambitious scheme should help extend the Kremlin’s political and economic influence far beyond Central Asia. Russians also advocate the idea of creating a common market for oil and gas resources within the Eurasian Economic Community. Most of these dreams are easier said than done. The economic development gap between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is too big, and Uzbekistan still has only a rudimentary market economy. Similar inequalities between Russia and Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and chaos-ravaged Kyrgyzstan give no reason to believe that a Eurasian integration plan will emerge in the near future.
Undoubtedly, Kazakhstan and Russia have their own ambitions in this integration drive, one seeking an unrivalled leadership role in Central Asia, the other attempting to regain its weakening position in the region in a brazen challenge from China and the United States. So far, there is a chasm between wishful thinking and the real possibility of forging a union of Central Asian states. The prospects for a Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community look equally bleak.