© CABAR - Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting
Please make active links to the source, when using materials from this website

cabar.asia: Crisis of regional cooperation in Central Asia: who is to blame and what to do? View from Uzbekistan

Farkhod Tolipov, a political analyst from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in an article written for CABAR, discusses the subjective and objective factors of the crisis of regional cooperation in Central Asia, the role of Tashkent and Astana in this process and the need to return to the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) as an intra-regional platform.

farkhod tolipovIntroduction

The crisis of regional cooperation in Central Asia today is widely discussed in both political and expert communities. Since the collapse of the former Soviet state, the research and the political thought of the region has evolved in a complex post-Soviet context.

It seems that in this evolution process, there is a popular trend of consolidating the stereotype that this is not a region as such and that the integration processes in the relationship between the five countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are supposedly a myth, and it is time to get rid of it.

This macro-stereotype was “consistently” reinforced by micro-stereotypes, ranging from regular statements about the alleged rivalry between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for leadership in the region and to an indication that the five states in the region have created five different political and economic systems that are not compatible with each other.

This postmodern criticism against regionalism and the associated method of constructivism in the analysis of relations between the Central Asian countries have launched a whole discourse about the events in this region in such a way that the study of Central Asia has significantly diverted from the factual existence into the realm of narratives. This school of thought was neither able to predict the crisis of regionalism in Central Asia, to convincingly explain why this is happening, nor to offer a solution to the problems.

To remedy the research tools and give a better quality to our research on Central Asia, I think, it would be appropriate to revise some of the dogmas and to embark on the search for solutions (we can say “innovative solutions”) of the problems, in the stating of which we have succeeded.

Role of Tashkent and Astana

Undoubtedly, the fate of regional cooperation and integration is critically dependent on two key states in the region – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. These countries are the largest, most advanced economically and militarily and the most stable in terms of the governance in Central Asia. Kazakh and Uzbek people are two very closely related nations. In the long history, the Kazakh tribes that broke away from the Uzbek tribes called themselves “Kazakh-Uzbek”. Their historical fate and future are inseparable from each other, as well as, in fact, the history and fate of all Central Asian nations.

However, the hidden struggle for leadership in the region is mainly attributed to these two states of Central Asia and to their leaders. Various political and expert circles write and speak so much about this notorious rivalry that those countries themselves almost believe in it. The signs of rivalry, outwardly seeming obvious, in reality have not been materialized into any political assets and one-sided advantages of any country in the region. Moreover, those who speak about the rivalry do not bring any examples of demonstration of this rivalry, thus spreading a new myth about the region.
The leadership of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan did not take place in an institutional sense, because these two countries sought to the notorious leadership for the sake of their own national, not regional interests. Pseudo-leadership of Kazakhstan has been distorted by its, so to speak, eclectic multi-vector foreign policy and its desire to look like a leader not only in Central Asia but also in Eurasia, Europe and Asia. Pseudo-leadership of Uzbekistan has stalled because of its selfish isolationism in the region and ideologically biased belief in the self-evidence of its leadership. As a result, sacrificing the regional integration in 2005, Astana and Tashkent, in fact, sacrificed their regional leadership.

Both ambitious states had apparently designed their foreign policies to achieve international benefits, however, they were slowly losing regional advantages. Surprisingly, they did not notice that by weakening regional ties, they simultaneously weakened their international prestige. Tashkent and Astana have obviously underestimated their historical, geopolitical, cultural and economic interdependence. Kazakhstan dissolves the idea of ​​Central Asia in a wider concept of Eurasia, while Uzbekistan has a policy of “laisser-fair” in the region. This situation had its impact even on the state of regional security, in the sense that there was a decrease in the level of coordination of policies in the region on regional security issues, especially between its two key states. For example, Kazakhstan’s membership (along with Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s) in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from this organization – is just one of several examples of different visions and different solutions of regional security issues. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have different visions even in the issue of the construction of hydropower facilities in the region, despite the closeness of their interests in this area. For example, Kazakhstan has expressed a desire to invest in such projects and act as an intermediary between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in their dispute on Rogun.

Thus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are two failed leaders in Central Asia. Many see the reasons for this in the problem of self-identification of peoples and nations: the mutual distancing of these countries, slowing down the integration process in the region, is a result of their different self-identification – Eurasian self-identity has prevailed in Kazakhstan, and nation-centric identity prevailed in Uzbekistan.

However, less attention is paid to the fact that the leadership and the elites of the Central Asian countries are the status quo actors, and the people are anti-status quo actors. In other words, there are actors in each of these countries, who are interested in the current state of affairs that, among other things, is taking place in the context of the geopolitical transformation of the entire region.

The following hypotheses can be put forward for a more in-depth analysis of this question:

– A country with an only emerging identity (if the question of identity matters) cannot serve as a regional leader;
– Too much personalized and undemocratic state is unlikely to earn the image of a leader;
– It’s hard to be a leader among weak and small states, heavily exposed to geopolitical factors (although Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are also exposed to geopolitical factors).

A true leader should not demonstrate its appeal simply as a prosperous country; a true leader must act accordingly at the strategic and normative level, which the leaders of Astana and Tashkent are not doing.[1]
Subjective and objective factors of the crisis of regional cooperation in Central Asia
National-regional dualism
Many analysts, explaining the reasons for the disintegration of the Central Asian countries, put forward a number of arguments of rather ascertaining nature than explanatory. They speak about the supposedly separating factors, such as the location of some countries in the upper reaches of the transboundary rivers of Amudarya and Syrdarya, and of other countries – in the lower reaches; the nomadic and settled cultures; Turkic-speaking and Persian-speaking nations and so on. The Analytical Group «Almaty-Club», a member of which the author of these lines is, has collected these “separating” factors into a single list of so-called dualisms and analyzed them in terms of the integration paradigm. The dualisms are as follows:

·         “Geographical” dualism;
·         “Upstream and downstream” dualism;
·         “Settled-nomadic” dualism;
·         “Turkish-Iranian” dualism;
·         Dualism of “Soviet-post-Soviet”;
·         Dualism of “Tashkent-Astana”;
·         Dualism of “democracy-autocracy”.

The Analytical Group has concluded that “this dualistic picture of the historical, socio-cultural, geographical and ethnic life of the peoples of Central Asia causes the dualistic concept of description and explanation of events and developments in this region. In other words, national and regional realities, integration and disintegration processes, holistic and fragmented representations should be considered not in a linear plane, but in a complex dialectical unity”[2]

Political reality and political will

Speaking about the crisis of regional cooperation in Central Asia, it should be noted that the main reason for this crisis were not so much the objective characteristics of the mentioned above dualities, but more the subjective processes of decision-making, concluded in the elitist framework of the national interests doctrines. Elitist state building and its corresponding ideological and doctrinal support have eventually led to the crisis of the regional dialogue. In other words, the leadership and the elites of the countries in the region do not seek for active joint solutions to regional problems, giving priority to the interests of their political regimes; at the same time, the interests of the peoples and the objective factors of regionalism were least expressed in this process.

Some people believe that the leaders of the Central Asian states have lost trust in each other and therefore do not wish to solve problems, turning them into so-called deferred or frozen conflicts. But there is another side of this issue: these leaders, in an appreciable degree, are also isolated from their peoples, they also have little trust in their own peoples, not noticing thereby that the huge potential for settlement of disputes is hidden among the peoples, and the peoples have the centuries-old experience of joint and peaceful co-existence in a single areal.

It is proper to remind that the countries in the region have actually passed quite a long way in the direction of unification, since the proclamation of the Central Asian Commonwealth (CAC) in 1991, through the Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC) to the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO). It seemed that this process followed the scheme of European integration in terms of the institutionalization of regional cooperation. But later, the successfully launched integration had stalled, as mentioned above, due to the fact that the process was not supported by the people’s will and turned into what British scientist Roy Allison called “virtual regionalism”.[3]

In 2004, Russia, a non-Central Asian country, has become a member of CACO, deforming thereby a purely regional structure of Central Asian union. One year after the entry of Uzbekistan into the EurAsEC organization in 2005, it was decided to merge the latter with CACO retaining the name of the EurAsEC. What was it – a conscious decision dictated by national interests or the result of external pressures and intrigues or a gross strategic error? In this connection, there is an existential and essentially dualistic question for Central Asians: can they develop on their own, or only under the “umbrella” of the great powers?

What to do?


This issue is less frequently discussed among Central Asian analysts and even less frequently addressed. Without claiming to give a complete answer to it, I will try to suggest some approaches to overcome the crisis in regional cooperation in Central Asia. For this purpose, it is necessary to return to the last dualistic question posed in the previous paragraph.

Several years ago, a Russian analyst Alexander Knyazev stated that the era of the creation of viable nation-states had finished. The fate of the countries that were formally created in recent decades is to clearly determine, based on their reasonable interest, whom to join.[4] In the political science literature, it is called ‘bandwagoning’. However, I wonder how one can determine the most “reasonable” national interests. If ‘bandwagoning’ is the lot of “non-viable” Central Asian states, according to Knyazev, it means the loss of independence and getting into the orbit of a particular world power. It would be logical to assume that such a scenario would be more likely in the early years of independent existence of these states, when they were still very fragile, inexperienced in the international arena and highly vulnerable to external pressure. However, after nearly a quarter century, they became independent, and the situation is obviously developing according to a more complex scenario. The dependence syndrome and ‘bandwagoning’ are seen more as growth pains than a conscious choice of Central Asian states.

Indeed, the maneuvering of these states in the international system, observed today, such as a temporary “inclination” toward the United States, Russia or China, says not so much in favor of the fact that they are not viable, but vice versa. By and large, small and weak states have always acted like this in relation to world powers in the history of international relations. Remember Japan, which, in fact, become a satellite of the United States after World War II, but today it is a world power. West Germany became a satellite of the United States after the war, and the German Democratic Republic joined the USSR, and today, it is a unified and prosperous country.

The statement of weakness, inexperience or exposure to outside influences cannot be the final argument in favor of the concept of ‘bandwagoning’, which stands in the same row of inconclusive arguments, such as the aforementioned dualism used to justify the impossibility of regional cooperation and integration in Central Asia. As noted above, today it is more important for us to move from statements of existing problems to finding their solutions.


Will the question of “whom to join” be so relevant for Asian countries, if they fully realize the integration model? It is axiomatic that the integration or, more correctly, the integrated policy of the states is always a way to simultaneously increase their power and promote their individual and common interests. It is also a way to jointly confirm their vitality and viability on the international scene.

At the dawn of independence, President Islam Karimov put forward the concept of “Turkestan – our common home” and expressed his attitude to the prospect of integration in Central Asia as follows: “This integration has always been people’s in essence …  We note that the integration of the peoples of Central Asia is not a dream or a project for the future, it is a reality that only needs the organizational and political forms”.[5] Thus, Uzbekistan’s position, as well as Kazakhstan’s and other countries’ in the region, was clearly integrationist. Subsequently, the team spirit has been lost, which has weakened them all together and each separately.

In this context, I remember quite a symptomatic statement of the President of Uzbekistan at the SCO summit in Ufa, on July 10, 2015, where he pointed out that the issues such as the introduction of India and Pakistan, nuclear powers, to the organization, are solved without the due participation of Central Asian states. It may be added that a number of other decisions in the framework of the SCO in the past have also been made without due regard for the interests of the region. All this suggests the natural idea that the representation of a collective position and the collective will of the Central Asian countries in the SCO and other international organizations will undoubtedly contribute to a greater integration of their interests.

About mediator

Not coincidentally, perhaps, the lack of regional cooperation has created a dogma that they need a mediator to solve the mutual territorial, water, energy, ethnic and other disputes. Do they really need a mediator, and who might be a mediator? In my view, only the country that has no strategic interest in the region of conflict and tension, and not capable (no interested) to manipulate the subject of dispute can be such a mediator. There is no such country.

Another option of mediation is the participation of an international organization in the solution of a regional problem. However, the participation of the World Bank in the research of the issue of the construction of the Rogun hydropower plant, where Tajikistan and Uzbekistan hold radically opposing positions, showed the futility of even that form of mediation. Neither Tajikistan, nor Uzbekistan are willing to change their positions, regardless of the assessment of the Rogun project by international organizations.

Background of Regional Cooperation

Among the myths and false stereotypes about the utopian nature of regional integration in Central Asia, there is a widespread argument of the lack of economic prerequisites for regional cooperation, lack of complementarity between the economies of the countries in question. This argument is not convincing, at least, for three reasons:

–          Firstly, these claims remain unsubstantiated, unsupported by any relevant economic calculations, analysis of empirical data or theoretical postulates;

–          Secondly, if the economies of the Central Asian countries are not complementary, and therefore the integration between them is not possible, their integration into larger structures such the Eurasian Union is impossible, too, for the same reason, because they will remain there in the same relationship to each other;

–          Thirdly, in the integration process, the economic factor does not have to be always decisive, especially when there are other important preconditions for rapprochement and unification of countries, as is the case in Central Asia. The latter, as we know, are the historically constituted common oecumene, common ethnic origin, proximity of cultures and languages, common problems of post-Soviet state and national development, common challenges to regional security, the need for foreign policy collectivism vis-a-vis the neighboring great powers, including as part of regional and international organizations.

Finally, recognizing the multidimensional interdependence of the countries of Central Asia, and getting rid of dogmas, myths and pessimism, it is important to look for innovative solutions to existing and emerging issues of regional development.


I would symbolically formulate the slogan expressing the urgent political task of the day – “Back to the Future!”. In December 1991, the future of Central Asia has taken the contours of the integration of five new independent states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The idea of ​​integrating has been gradually materialized in a variety of integration institutions and practical cooperation of these states. But, paradoxically, having done quite a long way towards integration, they suddenly found themselves back in the past, where they started their new journey. Rejecting the CACO, they froze the solution of regional problems, which resulted again in accumulation of these problems, undoing all the achievements of past years.

Therefore, it is necessary to re-evaluate everything, like starting from scratch. More precisely, it is necessary to start not from the very beginning, but to go back a little – where these states turned in the wrong direction – and resume the regional political process. For this, it is necessary:

1) to restore the CACO;
2) to renew the intra-Central Asian summits;
3) to include the missing link in this process – the civil society.

One of the principles of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy doctrine states that the countries of Central Asia should solve regional problems themselves, without the mediation of the great powers.

I believe that this is the correct position, as these countries have a whole arsenal of means of settling international disputes arise and of joint solutions to existing problems. We need only the political will for this.

Farkhod Tolipov, political scientist

The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of cabar.asia

[1]Tolipov, F. “Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan: Two Failed Leaders of Central Asia”, inHimalayan and Central Asian Studies, Vol.16, No.3-4, July-December 2012, pp.172-182.

[2] Five States and /or one region? National-regional dualism in Central Asia. – Almaty: Friedrich Ebert Foundation. – 2015.
[3] Allison, R. “Virtual Regionalism and Protective Integration in Central Asia”, in Anita Sengupta and Suchandana Catterjee, eds., Eurasian Perspectives. In Search of Alternatives (Kolkata: MAKAIAS, 2010).
[4] “The wind of crisis blows away globalism”. Interview with A. Knyazev of 28.10.2008, http://respublika-kz.info/news/politics/869/
[5] I. Karimov. – Uzbekistan on the threshold of the 21st century: threats to security, the conditions and guarantees of progress. – Tashkent: “Uzbekistan”, 1997, P.310.