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New Stage of Central Asian Cooperation: Why is Top-down Approach Dangerous?

“Another failure of regional cooperation and its turning into formal meetings of the heads of states will lead to a complete loss of Central Asian identity and position in the world arena as an independent geopolitical subject,” expert Yury Sarukhanyan wrote in his article specifically for CABAR.asia.

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In one of his recent speeches, director of Institute for Strategic and Inter-regional Studies of Uzbekistan Vladimir Norov said about the need to develop a common strategic concept of cooperation in a mid- and long-term[1]. In fact, the on-going tendency towards the renewal of cooperation between Central Asian states has created favourable conditions for a sustainable regional dialogue platform. However, the new momentum (the most favourable situation) should not cause any excessive enthusiasm. As is known, in the late 90s, the leaders of Central Asian states already launched cooperation mechanisms and even tried to implement the integration project. These attempts failed mainly because all initiatives came from higher authorities, and the factor of interpersonal relations prevailed in the process of interaction. Similar development trends are inherent to the new stage, which can provoke the creation of unsustainable and vulnerable system.

Why is the promotion of contacts between the national leaders insufficient for effective system of regional cooperation in the long-term? How to ensure the sustainability of emerging cooperation and to minimise the risk of failure of the whole structure in case of shift in power in any of the countries?

We will try to understand how the top-down approach hindered the integration process in the region in the end of 1990s – early 2000s, how the similar process is reflected in the modern stage and what instruments can be used to ensure the effective cooperation in the long-term?

Top-down approach[2] as a cause of failed integration in CA in the 1990s

The 1990s were a favourable environment for Central Asian states to launch integration processes. The countries that became sovereign after the collapse of the USSR had a few advantages. The national economies were developed as part of the common Soviet system and were interdependent. Moreover, Russia and China paid little attention to the geopolitical situation in the region. The United States didn’t even try to intervene into the regional affairs.

The integration in the region has known to continue for 11 years (1994-2005). During this period, republics launched three mechanisms [3]:

However, the functioning of these structures can be deemed a failure in the implementation of main declared tasks: creation of free trade zone, customs, monetary and payment union.

One of the main factors that prevented the states in the region from achieving positive result is the nature of integration process. The point is that the integration process was implemented via regular meetings of the heads of states, where they discussed ultimate goals rather than issues and substance of the process. Moreover, the ambitious declarations by the leaders saying that the states did shape the single market, customs union and single currency were not implemented in practice. Thus, there was a gap between the political discourse and integration practice.

Let’s turn to the experiences of European countries for comparison. We can see that the launch of the European integration was also elite in nature. However, there are two fundamental differences, which ensured the success of the European integration. First, the founders of EU have set the launch of narrow cooperation (creation of the common market of coal and steel) as their primary goal, not the development of the supranational union. Thus, the interaction at the initial stage was limited to two specific areas and had clearly-defined goals and objectives. Such strategy helped to develop a solid foundation for interactions and a sustainable mechanism of development. The so-called spillover effect[4] caused the need to establish new structures of interaction at all levels due to the integration momentum. Second, the level of public involvement into the process of European integration increased with its intensification and contributed to the bottom-up initiatives. An example is a Bologna process that was a result of students’ demand for a double degree.

Another reason for integration issues was an extreme dependence of bilateral relations between the regional states on the interpersonal relations of their presidents. For example, the degraded relations between Karimov and Rakhmon caused not only tensions in the relations between the two countries, but also neutralised cooperation almost in all spheres, including education and culture. It also should be noted that integration was ignored by Turkmenistan because the then-president Niyazov focused on strengthening of his own cult of personality, and based on the status of neutral state declared by Turkmenistan in 1995 distanced itself from regional processes.

Speaking about the European experience, we can see that the factor of interpersonal relations does not have any significant impact on the development of the integration project. Regular disputes on specific issues don’t lead to the stagnation of the whole integration process. Moreover, the shift in power in EU states doesn’t cast doubt on the membership of any country in the Union. For instance, Eurosceptics that have recently came to power in Italy in one of their first statements have emphasised their commitment to the negotiation of controversial issues with their partners without threatening to withdraw from the European Union[5]. The same is true for populists leading Hungary, Poland or Greece.

The integration project in Central Asia has demonstrated the inefficiency of the top-down approach in the creation of the regional cooperation system. The states in the region have appeared to be unable to develop a sustainable system of interactions and to form the foundation for active partnership both at the top and bottom levels. As a result, Central Asia has gradually entered the age of fragmentation, which challenged the identity of the Central Asian region.

New stage of cooperation: new ideas –old approaches

The change of leadership in Uzbekistan has created conditions for the new momentum in regional cooperation. Tashkent has attempted to revise its regional policies. Thus, it has resumed long-stagnated relations with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, intensified contacts with Kazakstan and Turkmenistan. Moreover, it has voiced the initiative to create a new platform for regional cooperation[6]. The first consultative meeting of the heads of CA states in Astana held in March 2018 can be seen as the main intermediate outcome of the new stage of regional cooperation.

Speaking about intermediate outcomes, we cannot leave unnoticed the obvious progress in the relations between the states of the region. First, it concerns the number of meetings in bilateral and multilateral formats. In the last year, mutual visits of the leaders of Central Asian states have become intensive, the dialogue process tends to normalise. In the table below, we can see the number of state visits made by presidents of Central Asian states to each other [7].

The following table shows the number of working visits made by the heads of Central Asian republics to neighbouring countries during various events (bilateral working meeting, international summit or conference in the territory of the state, etc.).

These statistical data take into account the meetings held in the territory of Central Asia only, and do not consider bilateral meetings held in third countries. However, it should be noted that in the last year presidents of regional states have tended to hold bilateral meetings during their participation in international summits. Here we can refer to a famous interaction between Rakhmon, Mirziyoyev and Nazarbayev in Riyadh, meeting of Mirziyoyev and Rakhmon during the recent event in Astana, etc.

Certain progress can also be seen in the border issues. The most success has been achieved in the Uzbek-Kyrgyz and Uzbek-Tajik borders. Water use issues that used to be a formidable controversy between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan tend to reach a compromise. The growing turnover of commodities between the regional countries is a significant factor, too. For example, according to official data of the Uzbek foreign trade ministry, in the first six months of 2018 the sales turnover between Uzbekistan and Central Asian states have increased almost by 46 per cent[8]. Finally, the countries have started to discuss some interesting regional initiatives, including the establishment of the Association of regional leaders of Central Asia, the launch of cooperation in the field of construction of infrastructure of joint trade and transport corridors and cooperation between cross-border regions, etc.

In the meantime, there’s a serious challenge to the potential renewed cooperation and creation of long-term dialogue platform. It is related to the fact that the new stage is again based on interpersonal relations. Moreover, the leadership and officials of regional states don’t try to hide this fact. Thus, ex-president Atambayev during one of the first meetings with president Mirziyoyev said that the latter had helped him to organise a meeting with his elder brother, who stayed in Uzbekistan after the collapse of the USSR. However, he emphasised that whenever he recalled his brother, he recalled the one who helped them meet each other[9]. And during the joint statement after the visit to Bishkek in September 2017, Mirziyoyev emphasised[10] that in the past little depended on them when it came to problem-solving between the states. In turn, Uzbek prime minister Abdulla Aripov said that that normalization of relations between Tashkent and Bishkek was made possible “mostly due to continuous contacts between presidents Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Almazbek Atambayev.” This tendency can be observed during multilateral meetings, too. In particular, the Astana meeting was noted for constant references to interpersonal relations and the role of a certain leader in the development of new cooperation in the region.

On the one hand, the fact that the initiative on normalisation of relations between the states comes from the leaders should not be surprising and is the most rational approach, to a greater extent. The peculiarity of the government system in the region is that it almost excludes any bottom-up initiatives. Therefore, it’s only the political will of national leaders that can renew the normal dialogue process between the Central Asian republics that has long been absent and stop the degradation of bilateral relations.

Moreover, the need to apply the top-down approach at the initial stage should not become a persistent option of cooperation and its basis. This tendency can lead to rather negative consequences. First, the current burst of regional cooperation is, to some extent, an artificial process. Using the Uzbek-Tajik relations as an example, we should note that a situation when long-stagnated relations become very active only after the declarations made by the national leaders of their intentions to develop cooperation cannot be called normal. This is evidenced by the failed launch of Tashkent-Dushanbe flight, which became operative after a few consecutive failures. Thus, relations between the states must develop/be renewed on the basis of real economic and political interests instead of top-down decrees.

Second, discussions of regional cooperation are again declarative in nature. The fact that leaders have chosen this more pragmatic path and refused from overambitious declarations of regional integration, development of common market and supranational institutes is a positive factor. However, the states should shift as soon as possible from ordinary assurances of mutual friendship and intensification of interaction to the implementation of specific cooperation projects that can become the foundation of a long-term regional cooperation. Moreover, the Astana meeting has left questions about the participation of Turkmenistan in regional processes due to missing Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Answers to many questions can be given at the Tashkent meeting scheduled for March 2019, in particular, its members, agenda and final resolutions.

Source: tengrinews.kz
Third, there is no autonomy of decision-making regarding cooperation among official and the public. Any interactions are again determined by the leadership, while the remaining levels of management are mere performers. Even the instruments of public diplomacy are imposed today from above. A vivid example is the Uzbek actors who have travelled with Mirziyoyev from Dushanbe to Astana. Such tendency can turn any contacts between the civil society, representatives of culture and arts, education, etc. into a formality and significantly limit their impact on cooperation.

In general, the new stage of cooperation in the region is marked with a range of interesting and new ideas. The lack of integration structures on the agenda, normalisation of relations between the states and gradual development of regional way of thinking in political elites in the region are the positive tendencies of development of Central Asia. However, old methods of control can turn into a serious obstacle to the sustainable partnership in the long-term.

How not to miss the momentum again?

The prevailing top-down approach at the new stage of regional cooperation makes the Central Asian states ensure sustainability of results achieved in the last year. Therefore, special attention must be paid to building partnership relations not only between political elites, but also within the civil society. Public diplomacy can become quite an effective instrument. This can be explained by the fact that many years of division have contributed to the rift in relations not only between political elites, but also between citizens. Strengthened relations in the bottom will become a sound foundation for the implementation of agreements.

Currently, a few measures can be identified to create a sound foundation for regional cooperation.

  1. The states need to establish strong relations not only between their leaders, but also at the interagency level. To this end, frequent meetings between foreign ministries of the region seem to be rational. However, their meetings are consultative in nature and are limited to the coordination of positions, status of implementation of agreements, and protocol matters at the meetings of the heads of states. Such matters should be assigned to the representatives of relevant ministries and agencies that are directly responsible for the implementation of agreements reached during bilateral and multilateral meetings.
  2. Special attention should be paid to the development of maximum pragmatic agenda. Regional countries should understand that at the current stage of development the launch of any integration mechanisms will lead to limitation of effective cooperation. First, some countries of the region already take part in integration mechanisms under the guidance of Russia. Second, currently there is no basis for possible integration. In other words, Central Asia still has no equivalent to European coal and steel. Therefore, the states should focus on the renewal of horizontal cooperation, without forming any supranational institutions.
  3. Attention should be paid to the public diplomacy mechanisms, particularly, contacts between representatives of education, culture and arts. Regional countries can start working over synchronisation of the educational system. It’s still too early to speak about the equivalent of the Bologna Process in Central Asia, but the launch of student and teacher exchange programmes and development of joint training programmes in specific specialties are quite feasible measures in the mid-term. Besides, it would be interesting to establish cooperation between representatives of culture in order to carry out joint celebrations and cultural events peculiar to the region. The visit of Nazarbayev to Samarkand for the Navruz celebration this year is definitely a positive event. However, such events should be carried out at the community level. And finally, an important step would be the synchronisation of positions of countries in the region in international organisations responsible for cultural matters. This practice will not only minimise the likelihood of open confrontation during summits, as was in the 90s, but is likely to become the basis of synchronisation of state positions in other international organisations.
  4. Much attention should be paid to the renewal of relations between historians of regional countries. This aspect of cooperation is necessary to re-establish the identity of the Central Asian region. It’s no secret that the borders of regional states are not natural – they were artificially created in the 20s of the twentieth century. Therefore, the whole period of development until the national-territorial division is the common history of the region. Egocentric historical rhetoric of the 90s has led to total loss of regional identity. Every country tended to represent the common history as its own, thus wasting many resources on useless disputes about the background of any personality, any event.  Besides, the countries have lost their own history of the 20th century in pursuit of historical domination. The historians of the region need to separate the common history from the national one during their joint work. In this view, they should consider the declaration of one of the next years as the Year of History of Central Asia in all the five countries of the region.
  5. Establishment of strong contacts and cooperation between border areas of Central Asian states. Such practice has already been launched between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan. In the meantime, the states of the region can explore the experience of the European cross-border cooperation and think about a joint application for the implementation of cross-border cooperation projects. Such practice can help stabilise the situation at the borders, create conditions for joint household, where possible, and system of interdependence for the use of natural resources.  Stabilised situation at the borders between countries will boost not only economic development, but effective security.

The new momentum of development of regional cooperation in Central Asia is characterized by the renewal of relations between the states, the launch of dialogue platforms and re-establishment of contacts between the states in the region. Meanwhile, Central Asian republics should develop the agenda with maximum rationality at this stage in order to prevent the recurrence of mistakes committed in the early 2000s. Another failure of regional cooperation and its turning into formal meetings of the heads of states will lead to a complete loss of Central Asian identity and position in the world arena as an independent geopolitical subject.

Sources cited:

[1] https://kun.uz/ru/news/2018/07/13/norov-stranam-centralnoj-azii-nuzno-razrabotat-obsuu-koncepciu-razvitia

[2] In politics, a system when a decision-making process by the leadership is implemented with a minimum number of actors.  Decisions are passed down only for execution.

[3] CAU – Central Asian Union; CAEC – Central Asian Economic Community; OCAC – Organisation “Central Asian Cooperation”

[4] Effect of acceleration, when the achievement of certain level of relations in one field implies profound cooperation in other fields

[5] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-italy-politics-speech-highlights/highlights-italian-prime-minister-giuseppe-contes-inaugural-speech-idUSKCN1J118M

[6] http://uza.uz/ru/politics/initsiativy-uzbekistana-posluzhat-obshchemu-razvitiyu-10-11-2017

[7] The calculation was done based on official websites of presidents of CA states

[8] https://podrobno.uz/cat/economic/tovarooborot-uzbekistana-so-strana/

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxCSphbgdSA

[10] See from 10th minute https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8LI5HJG8tM

Author: Yury Sarukhanyan, deputy head of Laboratory for European Studies, UMED, participant of school of analytics of CABAR.asia (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)

The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the position of the editorial team of CABAR.asia.


This publication was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Norway Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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