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Filippo Costa Buranelli: The Central Asian States are Pursuing Their Own Way of Cooperation

«Central Asian states do not need another organization to cooperate, but rather they need something more flexible, like an informal club between them to regulate and open discussion» – notes Filippo Costa Buranelli, researcher and assistant professor in international relations at University of St.Andrews, in his interview for CABAR.asia.

Material prepared by Aemilia Ydyrysova, AUCA alumni of ICP department. 

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Since the collapse of Soviet Union, Central Asian states have been claiming about the brotherhood based on historical and cultural commonalities, however, the leaders were not seeking for closer cooperation. What are the chances of closer economic, political and social cooperation for Central Asian states?

Filippo Costa Buranelli
Firstly, part of Western international relations academia and of academia in general in Central Asia has contributed to create mistaken idea that these states did not cooperate and are not cooperating.

In 1990s, after the collapse of Soviet Union, there were some examples of pragmatic cooperation, such as international fund for the Aral sea, the creation of Central Asian Union which helped the states to familiarize with foreign policy and with the new ideas of regionalism. The resolution of Tajik civil war where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and, even Turkmenistan provided Ashkhabad as a diplomatic venue for the resolution of the conflict, showed that Central Asian states manage to cooperate when it came to stability and security of the region.

Of course the level of cooperation is inferior comparing to other regions. The states made very strong emphasis on sovereignty and independence of foreign policy. On the other hand, they had the understanding that countries are neighbors with shared memories of soviet and pre-soviet times. There are undeniable historical commonalities and mixed populations, which states realize too when it comes to tensions and the lack of substantial cooperation.

When these states became independent in 1991, there was perhaps unfamiliarity of national interests and national priorities and the most natural thing to do was to create Central Asian union immediately; something very ambitious, like Central Asian regionalism. These early experiments of cooperation faded away and collapsed because Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and increasingly Tajikistan, were developing autonomous state interest, and autonomous foreign policies and economic policies that prioritized external actors than regional actors.

Nonetheless, many people from Central Asian countries believe that the process of formulation of national interest is being completed. Therefore, Central Asian states today are more ready to cooperate and are more aware of the interests than ever before. The prospects for cooperation are good, however, it is not the case to speak of integration in Central Asia, because the sovereignty is still too much important value for the states. Plus, it is not surprise that Central Asian countries elites have their own economic interests in preserving the sovereignty of their own states without mixing it with others.

At the moment, Central Asia could consider something more informal and flexible, for example, like the Visegrad group, between Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, or the Nordic council that includes Scandinavian countries even if they are members of EU. It’s something Central Asian states are studying with much interest. To be honest, Central Asian states already cooperating multilaterally in a lot of institutions like the CIS, SCO, Central Asian 5+1 format, the Belt Road, Central Asian and Japan cooperation, partnership with European Union.

At the meeting of the Heads of Central Asian states in Astana in 2018. Source: president.kz
Central Asian states do not need another organization to cooperate, but rather they need something more flexible, like an informal club between them to regulate and open discussion about cooperation on pragmatic grounds like security, border management,water resources,cultural cooperation without external interference from the big powers.

Is there any social and mental conflict in Central Asian states and societies between Islam, ethnicity and Soviet heritage? What can become the key element for nation-building for Central Asian states?

In my opinion, there is no inherent conflict between national identity, religion and Soviet heritage. At the moment these three factors are more or less peacefully coexisting in the region without big tensions or contradictions. At the same time, not all elements have equal weight in the development process of the societies.

It is noticeable that religion is an important factor than 16 years ago. Especially among the most marginalized sectors of societies. There are increasing religious symbols and values in Kyrgyzstan recently than a few years ago. At the same time nationalism in the region is overall a higher and more important form of the identification. States all declared their secularity, while religion is something that attains to the cultural societies, but is not integrated part of state internal and external policy.

Sometimes religion is used to emphasize some ties with other states in the world. Central Asian countries are members of the organizations of Islamic countries. But still nationalism is primary form of organization for every Central Asian state. For example, national languages are developing more and more, especially among the young generations. Also national symbols are more present in the republics. In addition, it’s an important fact that branch of Islam prophesied in Central Asia favors the co-present of religion and state structures. Central Asian states are facing very crucial generational change. More young people are now coming to the fore, taking ownership of social processes in Central Asia and they are motivated more by national sentiment than religious one.

In recent years the Central Asian region has gained more attention of international scholars. Is it primarily because of neighbouring regional hegemonic states like Russia and China and their role in world geopolitics? Or nevertheless Central Asian politics has become interesting itself?

It is difficult to deny that the US, Russia, China and European Union have now more interest in the region and this increases the attention to the region. There is a big plurality of actors that are engaging with the region such as India, Iran, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea. But at the same time Central Asian states and societies should not be portrayed as depending only on great powers.
The Central Asian states are showing nowadays many interesting trends in changes, transformations and development that are important for international relations, political studies, sociology and other social sciences.

What interest is in Central Asian politics? What value could have and has Central Asian region in world politics now?

Central Asian states are important in terms of studying transit economy and as developing states increase of global connectivity; think of Belt road initiative, Eurasian economic region, of opening gap of the territory of Uzbekistan in last two years with respect to opening the region to sea ports in India, Pakistan and to transit roads to Middle East and Europe.

Another area that Central Asia is very much contributing to is security of government, societies, borders. In the last year the Central Asian states, in particular Uzbekistan, have taken considerable leadership and ownership with respect to the resolution of Afghan conflict. Tashkent is now being an organizer of conferences series in which is also the Taliban had been invited, that is the management of the Afghan conflict is not left to great powers only.

During the official visit of Ashraf Ghani, the President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, to Tashkent in December 2017. Source: president.uz
Central Asia is very important for sociological and political science perspective to show scholars, analyst and politicians elements of transition from the Soviet past to the conditions in which they are today. Central Asia is in a unique position demonstrating how these strengths operate and analyst should be very attentive to study these processes.

Moreover, the value of the Central Asia can be seen also when we study the impact of generational change in politics. The political atmosphere at the moment in Kazakhstan is very vibrant in the light of resignation of Nursultan Nazarbaev and the change of the capital name. Now, the young generation is more contributing to the creation of the debate about the politics in the region, if not the proper political life. Also, there is very western-centric narrative that development should be applied in the same way to all the countries in the world.

The Central Asian States are Pursuing Their Own Way of Cooperation
They are entering world economy. They are adjusting their societies and policies in dictated way by international community, but is sensible to local factors at the same time. It will be seen in few years whether this will work in the future or not. But it is important to study how the states are managing their own transition to independence and the full citizens of international community without being completely dictated by international organizations and great powers.

It’s been said that in the Central Asia studies has attracted attention of scholars again in recent years. And there are many reasons for that. Is there any specific approach developed for Central Asian studies?

It’s difficult for me as a scholar from Europe to avoid being Eurocentric or to impose Western models to the region. However, there is no specific approach for Central Asian studies. The beauty of academia when it comes to Central Asia is variety and diversification of perspectives and its multiplicity of points of view. There are many interesting disciplines about Central Asia at the moment in, such as international relations, political science, sociology, economics, and also quite recently environmental studies because of the climate change impact. Central Asia studies should be on the one hand coherent, that is take a look at the specific set of issues, using rigorous methodology and theoretical framework. But at the same time diversified as indeed is Central Asia. Therefore, there should not be only one right approach, but rather different voices that complement each other.

Is Central Asian academic field developing and has it reached international standards of academic scholarship?  

Indeed, there are many young brilliant regional analysts, scholars. Among them are professors, students and  members of the academic community in the region. Central Asian academic field is at the moment thriving, growing and consolidating. They are traveling more, learning languages,and the most crucial factor is that local academics are increasingly taking ownership of the knowledge of their own region and exchanging ideas with foreign colleagues.

This is crucial because there is always risk that Central Asian academics go abroad to study and then come back with western concepts, European theories and western foreign approaches to the region. Whereas, now there is and should be a mixed approaches combining foreign theories, models, but also local knowledge of the unique context. Nonetheless, there is still something that can be done to make situation even better for new generation of scholars of the region.

Firstly, more local funding is needed. The governments in the region should be more aware of the importance of having a new leading generation of scholars and, therefore, scholarship, grants, opportunities to create conferences and workshops should not be funded only by foreign NGOs or international organizations. They are doing excellent job, but they might perpetuate this relationship between Central Asia and foreign academia; whereas, this should be complemented by local sources of funding and cooperation.

Secondly, it would be ideal to have more initiatives from local scholars without having the government dictating them. For example, Uzbekistan has recently launched this idea of a council of regional experts, which is something very positive because Central Asia didn’t have this before. But this regional experts are all linked to centers for strategic studies that are linked to the government. The region need not only format of academic community, that is official in character but also semi-official, that is informal to facilitate more meetings between experts without intervention of government.

Then the third important point is more theory. Some Central Asian scholars and analysts are still studying the region from realist and from geopolitical perspective. There is immutable and unchangeable idea that Central Asia has to do with great powers and geopolitics, which is fine, but at the same time this is not the only approach. There are a lot of different schools of thoughts and theories that can illuminate several aspects of regional politics. For example, to focus on norms, social values and rules of coexistence and cooperation. Somebody can focus on gender or norms pertaining to transparency than geopolitics, or environmental identity. There are different ways and theoretical approaches than somebody can use to study the region and regional scholars can familiarize with them.

And final crucial point to mention is more exchanges between students in the region, so the students could spend one semester or year in another Central Asian country to encourage the knowledge of the neighborhood. It’s not just about their own state or the great powers interested in their own state, but is also about neighboring countries. In conclusion, the success of the above mentioned points will depend on freedom degree that government are willing to devote. It’s not a secret to say that in Central Asia governments play a very strong role, sometimes use very rigid rules and parameters to regulate some aspects of social life and academia is one of them. Everything depends on how the government will perceive the value, the utility and the goodness of academic cooperation and the importance of sustaining economically, financially, culturally the development of the young researches in the region.

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

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