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Edil Osmonbetov: The Power of Central Asian States in Their Unity

Edil Osmonbetov, a Kyrgyz political scientist and international relations expert, shared his views on the upcoming Tashkent summit of the heads of Central Asian states.

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Earlier on March 18, 2018, Kazakhstan’s capital hosted the first consultative meeting of the heads of Central Asian states in a new format. A similar initiative was originally put forward by Nursultan Nazarbayev back in 2005. In 2017, the new head of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev voiced the idea once more at the Security Conference in Samarkand. The upcoming consultative meeting in Tashkent, initially scheduled for March of this year, was postponed to November 29.

What is distinct about the consultative meeting of the heads of the region?

Edil Osmonbetov, photo: kabar.kg

The meeting of the heads of Central Asian states is an essential negotiation platform where leaders can discuss all issues and put forward a single common agenda. It is worth noting that the Central Asian presidents for the first time in 28 years met in this format and composition.

Central Asian countries have a distinct geopolitical position: Uzbekistan borders with all the states in the region, and since the country has made a contact with its neighbors, all Central Asia has entered a natural geopolitical motion. It only shows further prospects that can contribute to global change.

Uzbekistan has one geopolitical “flaw”. It does not have access to the world’s second economy unlike Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has to China. Hence the country’s interest to link with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is possible through contact with neighboring states. The railway to China through Kyrgyzstan as an example.

Is the President of Turkmenistan expected to attend the summit this year?

In 2018, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was expected to but never attended. We expect his attendance on this year’s summit, but we will know it certainly closer to the date.

The absence of the head of Turkmenistan during the first summit was most likely related to concerns of the neutrality he upholds. The Turkmen president proffers similar initiatives as other leaders of Central Asian states. The country’s president himself probably wants to maintain certain neutrality and independence, and therefore lowers the level of interaction with other presidents. Turkmenistan is a separate geopolitical history, as the country is in Central Asia, but gravitates to the Caucasus and Azerbaijan through the Caspian Sea. Despite this peculiarity, Turkmenistan seeks cooperation with Central Asian states.

Were there any changes following the first meeting?

Absolutely. The first consultative meeting facilitated cross-border negotiations between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It also opened the cross-border paths, whereby developing tourist routes, trade, and tourism. The turnover between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan increased to 500 million US dollars and 1 billion US dollars with Kazakhstan.

What are some common problems for the member states?

Firstly, we are in the different geopolitical projects.

Secondly, we have different economic models. All the Central Asian countries are trying to fully use their geopolitical and geo-economic opportunities for the development of their economies.

To simplify the task of each country in the region to the utmost, it is crucial to establish trade routes, transit, opportunities to start a business anywhere in the region with facilitation of bureaucratic procedures, the free movement of resources, goods, and capital.

Thirdly, we have weak economic, cultural and informational ties within the region. We lack cultural exchange, and we are poorly informed about the processes inside the region.

Moreover, we need the whole region to put forward a common agenda. As a Union in Europe, for instance. So far, two factors slow down the problem resolution: demarcation of the borders, division of the region into various projects (some in the EAEU, others are trying to pursue their policies), as well as the location in different geopolitical and political cycles. Kyrgyzstan, for instance, is ahead of its neighbors in terms of political innovation. It is also worth noting certain rivalry between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for the right to leadership in the region.

Leaders of the region during the first meeting in Astana in 2018. Photo: president.kz

What are some issues to be covered at the upcoming summit?

The second working consultative meeting will discuss current issues in each region. The summit will consolidate the success of the last year’s meeting, i.e. it will acquire a more significant framework. We suppose negotiations on diversification of Central Asian routes; on transit; on the economy; on the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. The security issues will be raised, since now external players act as guarantors and security donors in the region.

Trade and economic issues should be discussed. Good interaction between the countries will facilitate the close economic relationship, contributing to an increase in the state budgets and the improvement of the business environment in Central Asia.

Discussions are also planned for large geopolitical projects that are being implemented jointly with other global countries such as China (“One Belt – One Road”), Russia, the European Union, the USA, and the recently activated C5 + 1 format (five countries and the USA). All these global projects span each country in the region.

One of the main regional issues is the existing threats of drug trafficking, extremism, and terrorism. It is also worth voicing the Afghanistan matter at the summit, which is directly related to extremism and terrorism. There is an external threat, and it affects every country in Central Asia. Leaders will also have something to discuss about returnees from the countries where hostilities took place.

If the presidents of the five countries can reach the necessary trust, then the existing issues would be resolved peacefully in a civilized framework.

Building confidence is also required to ensure the situation on the Kyrgyz – Tajik border is resolved in a civilized manner and that other issues that arise during the events go through a peace agreement.

Will the Tashkent meeting affect border disputes in the region?

Likely, frequent conflicts on the Kyrgyz – Tajik border, tensions on the Kyrgyz – Kazakh border regarding trucks will be widely discussed at the overall negotiations. The upcoming meeting itself will retain some patterns in its usual framework, and more sensitive issues will be discussed in closed session.

The EAEU, with member Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, also plays a role here; the geopolitical fate of Tajikistan is still unknown in this regard. Many political experts suggest the possible entry of Uzbekistan into the EAEU by the end of 2020. The settlement of the issue would change many cooperative ways not only within the region but also in partnership with other countries. There are no big contradictions in the region; relations between the leaders, in general, are stable.

Trust between the countries is the most vital at the working consultative meeting.

What is the importance of such meetings for the Central Asian states?

The power is in unity. If you unite the region, considering the 70 millionth population, oil, water, and other treasures, then the countries together can become an entire self-sufficient geopolitical region.

If the Central Asian states manage to create a common forum where countries can provide each other with water, oil, gas, and food, this will be a stable, prosperous region without the support of external forces.

It should be stressed that this meeting is the first germ of a completely different mindset, which has a unifying character. By joining forces and speaking as one region, leaders will be able to speak at international venues with common interests. Only groups of countries survive in globalization.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor. 

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