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Rahim Rahimov: Cooperation between Azerbaijan and Central Asia is far from the real potential

“The fact that both Azerbaijan and Central Asian countries are part of China’s One Belt One Road project offers additional opportunities for engaging in joint businesses and commercial activities”, – considers Rahim Rahimov, political analyst from Azerbaijan, in an exclusive interview for CABAR.asia.

CABAR.asia: Some experts and even external actors have been discussing and proposing various models of Central Asian integration for many years. Even the summit of Central Asian heads of state was held n Astana. In your opinion, what is the problem of the integration ideas failure and is there any sense in developing them?

Rahim Rahimov: To answer this question, I would like to start with a quotation from Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 2005 speech: “We have a choice between remaining a supplier of raw materials to global markets and waiting patiently for the emergence of the next imperial master, or to pursue genuine economic integration of the Central Asian region”. The situation has not changed much since that. No progress towards the Central Asian integration, but regress is observed. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have joined the Eurasian Economic Union. Tajikistan is a potential member of it while Turkmenistan pursues a policy of non-alignment. Uzbekistan remains uncertain. Therefore, the huge potential of the region has been fettered by the lack of a meaningful regional integration.

And frankly, the problem is not which model to choose in this case.

A successful integration project must be based on shared values such as democracy, rule of law, free market economy, economic and entrepreneurial liberties etc.

Without that, it is hard to expect an integration project succeed. For example, look at the Arab Gulf nations, for many years they have pursued a policy of integration through the Gulf Cooperation Council, but have effectively failed. Why? Because of lack of the shared values. And the Central Asian integration is not an exception. Yet there has been rivalry for so many years between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over primacy in the region. This kind of malign rivalry also has hindered the perspectives of the Central Asian integration. The recent ascendance of Shavkat Mirziyoyev to power in Uzbekistan sends a positive signal in that regard. However, it is still not sufficient, and moreover, the momentum has been largely lost.

CABAR.asia: How do you assess the cooperation of Azerbaijan with the countries of Central Asia, in which areas it is possible to develop perspective areas of cooperation? Which state in the region has the most stable ties with Azerbaijan?

Rahim Rahimov: Definitely, it is Kazakhstan that has the most stable ties with Azerbaijan both politically and economically. However, trade turnover between the two countries has been well below $150 million, which is quite small amount. One reason for it is that both nations are extensively dependent on energy exports and yet to diversify their export portfolios.

Transport and logistical infrastructures are being developed across the Caspian region. Those infrastructure projects are effective to raise the transit profiles of the countries and generate revenues from transit and related activities. That said, the major challenge for the region is to create added value and new jobs using the opportunities and possibilities offered by the newly developed logistical and transit infrastructures. Joint manufacturing ventures are much needed to be set up to make the most of the transport and logistical infrastructure. That will be key to delivering real economic gains in the region. Otherwise, it will be hard to make a sensible difference by simply relying on transit fees from transportation infrastructures.

The fact that both Azerbaijan and Central Asian countries are part of China’s One Belt One Road project offers additional opportunities for engaging in joint businesses and commercial activities.

CABAR.asia: There was a promising project on the construction of an oil refinery in Kyrgyzstan, which was proposed by the Azerbaijani side, but didn’t realize. Why is cooperation with Azerbaijan in the region as a whole currently weak? What are the obstacles for the development of bilateral projects, in your opinion?

Rahim Rahimov: Azerbaijan has usually refrained from engaging in politicized commercial projects. The oil refinery project was politicized to some extent hence becoming too risky to further proceed with that. It was viewed by Moscow as circumventing Russian energy supplies to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and beyond hence undercutting Moscow’s leverage in the region. Yet possible crude oil supply from Russia or Kazakhstan was problematic.

Indeed, the cooperation between Azerbaijan and Central Asian nations is far from the real potential. One common reason is that the nature of their economies are similar or identical being based on mainly crude material exports and agricultural production. Another reason had been the undeveloped transportation infrastructure while other obstacles to advancement of economic relations have included red-tape and economic protectionism. This can somewhat change due to the recently inaugurated Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line as part of the trans-Caspian East-West Transport Corridor and other related infrastructure projects on both shores of the Caspian Sea including Azerbaijan’s Baku International Sea Trade Port as well as those on the Kazakhstani and Turkmenistan sides. Furthermore, in order to increase the effectiveness of the newly developed transportation infrastructures and ports, the Caspian states are taking steps to remove bureaucratic and other man-made barriers. On top of that, disputes between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan due to the unsettled status of the Caspian Sea has fettered bilateral relations.

CABAR.asia: How can the Turkic ties play a role of rapprochement of positions and interaction strengthening, despite the geographical distance? Are there any prospects for the Turkic Union, especially in light of the new interest shown by Uzbekistan?

Rahim Rahimov: Again I have to reiterate and underline the outright importance of the above-mentioned shared values. Common ethnic and linguistic roots and ties are inspiring but not crucial. Arab countries or Slavic nations have failed despite the common linguistic, ethnic and spiritual backgrounds. Moreover, Turkey is the country that can lead the initiative of the Turkic unity but is currently stuck in the Syrian conflict. Yet considering Russia is home to multi-million Turkic-speaking communities and sensitive autonomous republics such as Tatarstan or Bashkortostan, Turkic nations are reluctant to actively drive a Turkic union agenda with a view to avoiding fallouts from Moscow. Nevertheless, Turkic ties play an important role in cultural, people-to-people contacts and mobility, and business relations. And this will further continue, and of course contribute to rapprochement of positions and enhance interactions.

However, politically, Central Asians tend to view Turkey as a kind of counter-balance to Russia, China and Iran in the region as contrasted to a strong, strategic alliance between Ankara and Baku.

CABAR.asia: In your opinion, what scenarios of power transit could be realized in Central Asia?

Rahim Rahimov: Irrespective of how the power transits would take place, there is a need for the new leaders to bring in changes and reforms urged by the political specifics and societal peculiarities of a particular country. In central Asia specifically, such changes and reforms need to serve to advance wider public participation in both political and economic/business life. When people are deprived of such participation, the likelihood to become prone to radical, extremist ideologies rise. So does popular discontent. This must be seen in the background where, the extremism is one of the persistent problems of Central Asia. Yet there is a need for an understanding that economic liberalization without political one is unlikely to prove effective. Recent developments in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan represent a cautiously optimistic tendency in that direction. And there are high chances that prospective power successions in Central Asia will in some ways resemble the scenarios of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Rahim Rahimov is an independent political analyst focusing on Russia, Caucasus, and post-soviet nations with an interest in foreign policies, economic and political integration projects, and security/conflicts. He has written for the Eurasia Daily Monitor of the Jamestown Foundation, the Russia File of the Kennan Institute, CACI Analyst, etc. He holds an MA in International Relations from Hult International Business School in London, UK and a BA from Baku State University, Azerbaijan. Besides his native Azerbaijani, Rahim speaks English, Russian, Arabic and Turkish.

The interview was prepared by Nargiza Muratalieva, editor of CABAR.asia

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