Central Asian Leaders Meet in Turkmenistan: Keeping Momentum Alive for Regional Cooperation
The leaders of the five Central Asian countries gathered for talks in Turkmenistan on August 6th. While the coordination of responses towards the growing instability in neighbouring Afghanistan no doubt was at the top of the agenda (the Taliban have challenged Afghan government forces in several large cities after weeks of gaining ground in the countryside, including in provinces next to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), the gathering of the heads of state covered extensive ground.
Concerning Afghanistan, it is evident that continued violence will discourage trade and diminish the feasibility of enhanced intra-regional connectivity between Central and South Asia. At the same time, these transportation corridors offer enormous potential to boost the economic of both regions, reduce poverty, create jobs and thereby bringing stability. In recent years, Afghanistan has acquired renewed importance in the strategic outlook of the Central Asian states. Uzbekistan, for example, has prioritized transportation corridors through Pakistan (the trans-Afghan corridor Termez-Mazar-I-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar) and Iran to reach ports in the Indian Ocean. Both of which, it goes without saying, rely on a stable Afghanistan.
Also high on the agenda was the recovery from the effects of the pandemic, which calls for cohesive and coherent regional efforts and expansion of confidence-building measures. The issues of coordination and mutual assistance in combating the pandemic were touched upon at the summit. It should be noted that while no consultative summit was held last year, (humanitarian) cooperation between the Central Asian republics was in full display from the early stages of pandemic. To give one concrete example, at the invitation of the Uzbek Minister of Agriculture and FAO, all agriculture ministers of the region met in May 2020 to discuss pandemic-related logistical disruptions to food distribution and agricultural trade in the region, with participation of EBRD, ADB, and the World Bank.
At the consultative summit, President Mirziyoyev furthermore highlighted familiar themes which have appeared in his interventions at other high-level occasions such as the Tashkent Connectivity conference in July 2021 and his address at the UN General Assembly last year. Specifically, President Mirziyoyev emphasised the importance of soft connectivity by calling for the removal of barriers to trade to enhance the creation of regional value chains. President Mirziyoyev also proposed to develop a regional program "Green Agenda for Central Asia", which, in a region greatly affected by climate change (melting of glaciers in Tajikistan, desertification, etc), will contribute to the adaptation of climate change and the further introduction of resource-saving technologies. All countries have ambitious climate targets as reflected in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for the successful implementation of the Paris Agreement targets.
Another important question to consider is the future of these consultative summits. For the time being, I believe that the focus should be on further cooperation – not on formal integration. Some voices argue that Central Asia should look to ASEAN or the Nordic Council as examples, but this would be rather premature. Integration entails a certain degree of institutionalisation (with a permanent Secretariat, for example) for which the region is not ready yet. It is certainly expected that more robust thematic and sectoral dialogues and forums to complement the leaders’ summits will be taking place in the months and years to come on themes such as trade and investment, entrepreneurship, water, etc. President Mirziyoyev announced the proposal to hold the Central Asian Youth Forum in Uzbekistan next year.
This year, for example, a Central Asia Women Leaders’ Caucus was held in parallel to the summit. We observe in the region – and in Uzbekistan in particular – an increased role of women in the political, economic and social life. Uzbekistan’s Development Action Strategy for 2017-2021 has opened new opportunities for raising the level of education and economic participation of women, attracting them to entrepreneurial activities, strengthening the role of women in the governance of the state and society. The opportunity to exchange best practices among representatives from the five countries is a welcome development.
As mentioned above, this is the third such consultative summit of Central Asian following earlier gatherings in 2018 in Kazakhstan and 2019 in Uzbekistan. This unique platform continues to stimulate the growth of regional trade and increased investment flows to Central Asia. Furthermore, in the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, and in the context of uneasy relations between the world’s major powers, the five states should prioritize their interaction without the facilitation and/or participation by other regional or outside powers.
Readers should be reminded that while the idea that the Central Asian Republics should have a mechanism to meet together without external powers is not new, regionalism in Central Asia was on the back-burner from the turn of the century up until the mid-2010s and this idea only got re-invigorated after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2017. In the beginning, these consultative summits of leaders were widely seen as ‘symbolic’ given the region’s historic lack of cooperation. But now, after the conclusion of the third summit, we can safely say that symbolism has given way to substance.
Alberto Turkstra, Project Manager, Diplomatic World Institute; Co-Founder, Brussels-Uzbekistan Friendship Group