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How to play the "Great Game" or what did the presidents of Central Asia consult each other about at their consultative meeting?

On March 15, the capital of Kazakhstan – Astana, hosted the long-awaited consultative meeting between the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the Speaker of the Turkmenistan parliament. As noted by the president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, such a meeting had not been held in the region for 10 years. In practice, five-party meetings (with a participation of Turkmenistan) had not occurred for even longer. This has obviously become possible due to the new regional policy proclaimed by the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoev.

Two important stages preceded the making of this meeting: Mirziyoev's speech at the UN General Assembly in September last year and his initiative to hold such a consultative meeting, as proposed in November last year at the international conference "Central Asia: One Past, A Common Future. Cooperation for the sake of sustainable development and mutual prosperity" in Samarkand. Nazarbaev supported this initiative and offered to host such a meeting in Astana in March 2018. And so it happened. At this meeting, the heads of state agreed to hold such meetings on a regular basis with the next one to take place in Tashkent in 2019.

The event has promptly attracted the attention of the foreign and regional media and analytical circles. While commenting on the meeting, a Russian journalist Arkady Dubnov called it a sign of distancing from Russia and noted, in his own words, the most “delicate” feature of the consultative meeting in Astana, namely: "It was arranged without any participation of Russian representatives and in general without a coordination with Moscow". Here, it is necessary to make some clarifications: first, the regional meetings of the leaders of the Central Asian states without the Russian participants and without a coordination with Moscow had been occurring repeatedly (especially in the 1990s) and successfully. They had been taking place up until the entry of the Russian Federation into the Central Asian Cooperation (CACO) in 2005. Secondly, a "distancing from Russia" is an unsubstantiated statement because the Central Asian leaders did not give any reason for such a conclusion, on the contrary, they did stress the opposite.

Another Russian analyst from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Azhdar Kurtov, has almost panicked due to a modest consultative meeting in Astana. While expressing a suspicion that the Central Asian leaders were thinking of repeating the experience of the 1990s and were trying to create a regional union, Kurtov has nevertheless expressed doubts that such a unification is possible and would be successful. Seemingly ignoring the friendly spirit of the heads of state and a general new trend towards improving regional relations that had begun with the new policy of Uzbekistan, the analyst has claimed that the historical phobias are still there but are currently being hushed up.  Here are a few other points from his analysis, which not only do sound unconvincing, but also provocative, in a way:

- it is difficult to assume that in the future there would be a certain intra-regional bloc in Central Asia that would compete with any other analogies on our planet;

-the situation is additionally aggravated by existing borders with turbulent Afghanistan;

-such a union, should it be set up, can fall under the influence of the USA which would surely want to impose their own behaviour on Central Asian heads of state;

- certain structures’ attempts to create anything without Russia and China only create conditions for extra-regional players such as conservative regimes of the Muslim world, USA and probably others, to wish to participate in this process for their own satisfaction.

Let’s briefly look at the above-mentioned points.

First of all, why would an intra-regional bloc necessarily compete with other analogies on the planet in order to be viable? The region has its own inner logic of development regardless of the analogies existing in the world.

Second, is it not the “existing border with turbulent Afghanistan” itself serving as a substantial reason to unite against possible threats and challenges coming from the territory of this turbulent country?

Third, what makes it possible to assume that a united region would necessarily fall under the influence of the USA? According to Kurtov’s reasoning, the region’s countries are not yet under such influence, so why would they fall under the US influence now? Actually, these countries were already uniting during 15 years from 1991 until 2005 but they eventually fell only under the influence of Russia. Yet, due to the irony of fate, even with the Russian membership in CACO the latter could not continue its activities.

Fourth, forcing the participation of Russia or China in Central Asian union with an aim of countering a mythical threat from the US, sounds disrespectful to the five countries of the region which are either seen as the enemies of Russia (China) willing to challenge it together with the US, or seen lacking own will and weak to the point of being in need of a control from outside of the region (by either Russia or US).

In general, the above-mentioned reasoning of Kurtov sounds like an old and over-played vinyl in use for more than a quarter of the century, causing no other feelings but irritation. Certain Russian media and analysts’ excessive geo-politicising of Central Asian state’s self-sufficient uniting attempts damages Russia’s own image, constantly reviving equally old perceptions about the persistence of its imperial ambitions and encroachments.

Strangely, as if they were anticipating the possible unfavorable remarks from Russia, the leaders of the five Central Asian countries had cautiously and modestly called their meeting a “consulting” one. So what did they consult about?

 

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the summit discussed the matters of political, economic and humanitarian cooperation between the countries; joint counteraction to terrorism, extremism, drug and arms trafficking; and the strengthening of security and stability in Central Asia. It was emphasized that Central Asia is not only a single space geographically and geopolitically, but also culturally and as a civilization. Therefore, it is necessary to pay special attention to the issue of development of cooperation between the states, which not only will ensure a sustainable development of the region, but also allow to fully use the industrial, investment and intellectual potential of our countries. The heads of state also discussed a rational use of the water resources and the elimination of the Aral Sea ecological disaster’s consequences. But the main result of the meeting is, certainly, the fact that it took place after a multiannual break.

 

The consultative meeting that was held could surely have been more than merely consultative – it does not all start from scratch within regional relations. The countries of the region already have a solid integration experience, no matter how complex and contradictory. The leaders of the states could announce the resuscitation of the CACO – there is nothing fantastic or unreal about this. In the meantime, consultative meetings cannot remain as such by definition for at least three reasons: 1) consultative meetings cannot last indefinitely and must precede regional cooperation forms that are more strict, clear and institutional; 2) the above-mentioned integration experience has prepared the countries for a higher level of unification, this experience is sufficient enough not to keep them on a modest consultative level of interaction; 3) the success or failure in regional cooperation in the past had largely depended on a certain behaviour pattern of the key state of the region – Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan has finally openned to its neighbors in Central Asia. Moreover, by its actions, it is indeed building an atmosphere of peace, trust, friendship and cooperation in the region. Thus, the modality of the management of regional affairs has changed slightly, but its essence remains the same. This is why it is not necessary for the countries of Central Asia to "reinvent the wheel", figuratively speaking, and initiate an entirely new regional process. The foundation for a full-fledged regionalism in Central Asia has already been prepared in the previous period. Ahead there is no "minefield", but a wide avenue to move forward.

As for the stance or reaction of the extra-regional great powers, it is noteworthy that the American and Russian views on Central Asia indeed differ. On both the official level and in the analytical circles of the United States (and within the EU), the self-value of the Central Asian region is recognized as rather unconditional and its integration and independent (!) development is supported (without the participation of other great powers). The American format "C5 + 1" or the EU Strategy for Central Asia are quite eloquent in this respect. On the Russian side we often hear arguments like the above and never – about the self-worth and support of the Central Asian regional integration process.

Adding of the geopolitical prefixes such as 'pro' or 'anti' to the Central Asian countries’ actions, aimed at recreating regional integration, is an analytical and research technique that has not justified itself over the past 27 years and had been diverting the scientific and public interest away from the intra-regional evolution laws towards the mythical conspiracies threats which the countries of Central Asia are simply not capable of.

The best way to play the new "Great Game" is not to play it and to concentrate on intra-regional affairs. This will benefit both the Central Asian countries themselves and the extra-regional powers which are still considered as geopolitical rivals by many.

21.03.2018