The Second Central Asian Leaders’ Consultative Summit—involving the five Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—was supposed to take place during the Navruz holiday (March), in the Uzbekistani capital of Tashkent; but it ended up being postponed several times due ostensibly to the conflicting schedules of the regional leaders (see EDM, May 21). Later during his July 2019 visit to Washington, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov gave assurances that the said summit would definitely be held sometime in autumn (YouTube, July 19).
But even as autumn was coming to an end, Uzbekistani officials evaded providing any specific date for the planned heads-of-state gathering. The prolonged silence was then unexpectedly broken by Kazakhstan’s First President and the Leader of the Nation (Elbasy) Nursultan Nazarbaev, who informed on November 12 that the five-party summit would take place on November 27, in Tashkent (TASS, November 12). The long-awaited summit eventually instead took place on November 29, immediately following the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) annual summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on November 28 (President.kg, November 28). The CSTO members consist of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.
It remains unclear whether Kazakhstan’s first president had any direct role in the Central Asian Leader’s Summit finally being held. It is possible that Nazarbaev’s public announcement, which notably included an erroneous date for the summit, had been the result of insufficient coordination with the host country (Uzbekistan). Alternatively, his statement may have been purposefully designed to give a decisive push—using his status as the most authoritative Central Asian leader—to his other regional counterparts to finally agree on a specific date for the summit.
Either way, Uzbekistani officials did not offer any indication that they felt angry or sidelined by Nazarbayev’s remarks. Nor was this the first time that foreign counterparts had made such an important announcement regarding Uzbekistan’s own future plans. Earlier this year, the chairperson of the Russian Federal Council (Senate) Valentina Matvienko, for instance, announced that Tashkent had decided to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Union; later, Uzbekistan officials had to deny that the final decision had already been made (see EDM, October 14).
The uncertainty surrounding the regional summit until the last moment only added special importance to this high-level meeting. Moreover, for the first time in years, all five Central Asian heads of state, including Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (who missed the first such meeting in March 2018, in Kazakhstan), attended last month’s summit (see EDM, May 21). Berdymukhamedov’s positive pronouncements about the usefulness of such meetings during the leaders’ summit indicate he may be committed to attend other intra-regional gatherings of this type in the future (YouTube, November 30).
According to most widely accepted assessments of the recent Central Asian summit, it was short on concrete results, let alone any breakthroughs in resolving the region’s various challenges. The Central Asian leaders limited themselves to making broad, well-worn statements about the need to remove barriers to regional trade, enhance the connectivity of the land-locked region to world markets, boost the spirit of unity among the Central Asian peoples, join efforts in promoting the region as an attractive tourist destination, as well as enhance regional cooperation in energy, protection of the environment and other “win-win” proposals (YouTube, November 30).
Nevertheless, some believe that the general atmosphere of good will that reigned during the summit and the willingness of the regional leaders to discuss common problems without voicing any grievances and demands to each other was perhaps the main achievement of the event (Carnegie.ru, December 4). Others complained that they were expecting something more than leaders showering each other with compliments and making grand statements (Facebook.com/navbahor.imamova, November 29).
Just like during the First Central Asian Leaders’ Summit, last year, the presidents again underlined that they have no plans to create a new intra-regional organization and reiterated that their unofficial summits are not aimed against any other country’s interests (YouTube, November 30). Some analysts suggest these statements were specifically aimed at Russia, which would not accept any efforts by the Central Asian leaders to lessen Moscow’s influence in Central Asia (Carnegie.ru, December 4).
Arguably, Russia’s geopolitical clout in the region, in general, and in each Central Asian country, in particular, is presently stronger than at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The processes related to the transitions of power in all Central Asian countries—whether as a result of the sudden death of the ruling autocratic leader (like in Uzbekistan) or the managed transfer of power to a chosen successor (like in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan)—have presented the Kremlin with unique opportunities to entrench its domination over the region for years to come (YouTube, December 7).
In most of these cases, Russia’s support for one side in the domestic political struggles for power have already played out or could still play a decisive role in determining their future outcomes (YouTube, December 7). All of the incumbent Central Asian leaders desire to remain in the Kremlin’s good graces. As such, the regional presidents are hardly likely to challenge Russia’s current level of influence over their countries by creating a regional integrationist organization that might offer an alternative to Moscow’s own geopolitical projects encompassing the former Soviet space—namely, the Eurasian Economic Union or the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Indeed, the main force behind these newly established Central Asian leaders’ summits—Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev—could himself be contemplating taking his own country into the Eurasian Union in the next few years, if not earlier (see EDM, July 25).
Therefore, the Central Asian consultative summits will, in all likelihood, remain a mere “informal dialogue platform” for the regional leaders. This diplomatic framework might help to enhance political dialogue and understanding among the five Central Asian states, and it could boost intra-regional trade. But it will probably not develop into anything more ambitious—at least until the inter-generational transitions of power are complete in each of the regional countries. Until then, the regional leaders will remain broadly deferential to the Kremlin’s concerns and interests.
Contrary to the hopes expressed by some regional scholars or enthusiasts (Yoshlarovozi.uz, October 7; The Diplomat, December 5), for now the Central Asian Leaders’ Consultative Summit format is highly unlikely to develop into anything more institutionalized. One should not expect to see the establishment of a Central Asian regional organization similar to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Nordic Council, Visegrad Group or Mercosur anytime soon.