The geopolitical tectonic plates of the world are shifting and, caught between giants Russia and China—and with the unresolved matter of a destabilised Afghanistan located directly below its soft underbelly—things don’t get any easier for the five Central Asian ‘stans’.
Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, appears to be among top officials of the region who believes that now is a time for more unity and solidarity of purpose across Central Asia, but when he and his four counterparts gathered for a summit last week by Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul Lake, things didn’t quite work out that way.
At the conclusion of the summit, a treaty promoted by Tokayev, committing all five of the region’s countries to "friendship, good neighbourliness, and cooperation" was signed—but only by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Turkmenistan and Tajikistan opted to abstain, citing “incomplete internal procedures.”
Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon opted to not put pen to paper (Credit: Presidency of Kyrgyzstan).
Both states refused to elaborate on the supposed “internal procedures” standing in the way, or give a specific timeframe for overcoming the obstacles. The past week has thus seen competing narratives on exactly why the Turkmens and Tajiks declined to sign up for the friendship deal.
One big motivation for holding the gathering—which will be remembered as something of a curate’s egg, given the lack of unity that eventuated—of regional leaders was attributed by many observers to the need to discuss main strategic partner Russia's diminished influence in the world, and perhaps within Central Asia, following its military intervention in Ukraine.
Changing world order
Like nations everywhere, the stans are striving for a strong post-pandemic emergence amid a changing world order. With the critical new challenges, the solidarity or otherwise of the regional states could determine their future place in the wider Eurasian region.
There are some experts who argue that the absence of Russia from the leaders' summit could be proof of its waning influence in Central Asia, traditionally Moscow’s geopolitical backyard. However, the Kremlin’s continued leverage in the region, especially over poorer countries Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where it has military bases, shouldn't be underestimated. In fact, Russia remains a crucial trade partner and investor in Central Asia, while the region also depends on Russia for transit and pipeline routes.
On the other hand, China’s explicitly growing assertiveness towards economically weak Central Asian states stirs fears over attempts by Beijing to monopolise influence over the entire region. It has come as no surprise, therefore, that in an effort to diversify regional influence, Uzbekistan-Turkey, Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan-Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan-Iran-Azerbaijan and Tajikistan-Iran cooperation formats and dialogues have sprung to prominence in the past year, encompassing essential fields including trade, logistics and energy. They amount to pragmatic steps to ensure there is no over-reliance on either Russia or China. Interestingly, during the summit, Kyrgyzstan's president Sadyr Japarov mentioned that Azerbaijan has expressed a willingness to participate in the next round of Central Asia consultative meetings, to be held in Dushanbe.
The regional states are not short of compelling intra-regional reasons to hold such gatherings of regional leaders. One need only consider the deepening border disputes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the deadly skirmishes seen in Uzbekistan’s autonomous Karakalpakstan region and Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO)—with both instances of major unrest and security crackdowns ignited just weeks prior to the summit—and the massive civil unrest experienced by Kazakhstan in January in the past two years. Then there are the developing cost of living crises afflicting populations across Central Asia, worsening difficulties with severe droughts and associated power outages and substantial unresolved market supply issues.
Back to the wider geopolitical front though, and the observer can take the leaders’ summit in Kyrgyzstan as part of Central Asia’s perennial effort to ensure the influences of Russia and China do not become overbearing.
In terms of retaining independence—or a multi-vector policy largely balanced between Russia, China and the West—in tackling internal affairs (something Kazakhstan was not able to do during its unrest, with Tokayev calling in Russian and other Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO)-nation troops to help stabilise the situation), the treaty that lacks the full set of signatories was partly drawn up to ease potentially explosive regional tensions. Most notably, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces have been embroiled in a worsening cycle of armed clashes along disputed sections of their border.
The summit reaffirmed the commitment all the Central Asian states have to working through a platform of negotiations so that any disagreements are resolved exclusively through diplomatic channels. The treaty also envisions the development of regional cooperation for 2022-2024 among Central Asian states within multilateral formats. Core economic topics such as transit routes, interregional logistics and trade turnover remain top of the agenda when it comes to strengthening interlinkage and inter-relations among the region’s five sovereign nations. Tokayev emphasised during the summit that "we have a historical mission to preserve security, prosperity and the development of our region, which is thankfully very rich in terms of critical resources".
However, Turkmenistan’s and Tajikistan’s approach to the treaty and reluctance to bolster regional cooperation demonstrated that the region’s disputes and rivalries won’t disappear easily or quickly.
In the case of remote and aloof Turkmenistan, the ‘hermit kingdom’ has long distanced itself from regional treaties or cooperation formats. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, it has avoided avoiding joining any major regional or global organisations such as the CIS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Eurasian Economic Union (the EEU that, led by Russia, also groups Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Belarus) or the CSTO.
The refusal of Tajikistan's longstanding president Emomali Rahmon to sign the treaty was almost certainly reflective of his desire to avoid third parties’ involvement in the border dispute with Kyrgyzstan. The difficulty can be traced back to how, when transitioning from Soviet times, the two countries were not able to demarcate around 970 kilometres of their border. Recent talks on the issue did not, as expected, yield any breakthrough.
Despite the disparities in the foreign policy agendas of all the states that attended the summit, the participants were able to unanimously agree that the present re-emergence of a strong radical Islamist threat stemming from Afghanistan amounts to a serious challenge that needs to be dealt with. Fragile security in Afghanistan poses a real hazard to Central Asia, particularly for Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, which, due to insufficient military strength, lean on Russia as their main security guarantor. In this regard, Kyrgyzstan’s president Japarov mentioned that “the current global and regional security cataclysms do not promise any optimism. The Islamist government in Afghanistan is not sustainable yet, and we need to support the neighbouring country to ensure the stability of all regional borders. We’ve already established dialogue with the Afghan government to negotiate the peace process."
While since 2018 annual consultative meetings of Central Asian leaders have become a traditional opportunity for cooperation, the interests of Moscow and Beijing in Central Asian affairs are not about to dissolve. But the five presidents who attended the summit will have left the gathering hoping it made some contribution to their ability to keep Russia and China at arm’s length when it suits their agenda. Of course, in any instance where Afghanistan develops into a substantial terrorist or other dilemma for either the Russians or Chinese, the region’s leaders may find themselves working much more closely with their big power neighbours, like it or not.