Will there be a regional alliance in Central Asia?

Formally, in the Concept of Foreign Policy Affairs of Uzbekistan which was adopted under Islam Karimov, Central Asia is designated as the priority of foreign policy of Tashkent.

Will there be a regional alliance in Central Asia?Among the most important tasks of Uzbek politics in the region was included the use of the resources of transboundary rivers. The only problem is that Karimov did not realize this issue in practice. Meanwhile, Shavkat Mirziyoyev's first attempts to start a policy of restoring relations with neighbors, including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, are giving some hope, although weak, that the situation can still be corrected.

In September 2016, through the personal request of Uzbek Prime Minister Mirziyoyev (then Acting President), Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov paid an unplanned working visit to Dushanbe and met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. In early October last year, Tajikistan for the first time in many years hosted the Uzbek delegation. The parties discussed possible cooperation in energy, water use, rail and road transport. At the end of the same month, Uzbek entrepreneurs visited the Sughd region of Tajikistan.

Upon Mirziyoyev`s election as president in Tashkent, Kyrgyz leader Almazbek Atambayev visited Uzbekistan in December 2016, the first official visit in eight years. 

In December 2016, after the arrival of Mirziyoyev to the power, Uzbekistanon an official visit forthe first time in eight yearsvisited the President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev.
  
Diplomacy of Personal Relations

Interestingly, for the first official visits, Shavkat Mirziyoev chose those regional countries, with which Uzbekistan has the least tensions. 

Regarding Turkmenistan, the factor of security is also of great importance for Tashkent besides the economic issues, especially against the background of activation of militants on the Afghan-Turkmen border. Moreover, an agreement on the joint defense of the border with a threat from outside was reached between Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Islam Karimov in 2012.

Personal relations between presidents play a crucial role in the interaction between countries. As for Central Asia, this is one of the key factors, since foreign policy is highly personalized here. As observed, for a long time it was difficult to call the relationship between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan close and partnership.

Despite the fact that, a few years before his death, Islam Karimov tried to establish closer contacts with Astana, tried to create an alliance with Kazakhstan on water issues in the light of deterioration of Uzbek relations with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which actively tried to implement construction of new hydroelectric power stations. In other words, Karimov mainly relied on a confrontational model of relations with his neighbors.

That is why the visit of Shavkat Mirziyoyev to Astana is important from several points.

Firstly, will he be able to build personal relations and partnership with Kazakh president? After all, for a long time Nursultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov regarded each other as equilibrium figures who could have different points of view on different issues, but still respected each other`s position.

Second, what will be the greater emphasis? Only on bilateral economic relations? These are now really difficult to call fruitful. Even according to the official data, by the end of 2015, the trade turnover between these two countries amounted to $3 billion, and already in 2016, this figure dropped to $2 billion. And, it is known that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are already discussing the creation of a joint economic zone.

Or the presidents will go on to revive the old idea of Kazakh leader on creating Central Asia regional alliance? Such attempts have been made more than once since 1990s.
 
The crisis of regional self-identification

The failure in the implementation of the majority of these projects was due to the fact that for a long time there was no regional self-identification of the countries. Most Central Asian states did not link their prospects to the development prospects of the entire region.

Even Kazakhstan, frustrated in attempts to form a regional bloc throughout time positioned itself as a Eurasian state, rather than Central Asian.

Integration in Central Asia was hampered both by the different models of economic development chosen by regional countries and by dissimilar political formats, with varying degrees of openness to the world. In addition, as international practice shows, authoritarian regimes are less inclined to cooperate than democratic ones. Mutual territorial claims and tensions over water resources can be included as well.

Ultimately, the fact that the region represents five specific political and socio-economic systems has become one of the risk factors in Central Asia. Not all geopolitical players are interested in the Central Asian countries speeding up the process of cooperation. Many contradictions in the region are good tools for controlling each country separately from outside.
  
Sticks in the wheel

The major geopolitical players that are directly or indirectly present in the economic, ideological or military-political spheres of the region, are Russia, China, the USA, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia. They are all more interested in bilateral relations with each of the Central Asian states than with some consolidated position of the regional countries.

Making it simple, for Moscow, Beijing or Washington, the ancient principle "Divide and conquer!" is more preferable. Certainly, for Russia and China stability in the region is a key factor, but they provide it mainly through the support of loyal political elites. Some of them have been looking for military-political and economic support from outside rather than establishing partnerships with their neighbors for a long time. Therefore, it is not surprising that majority of the Central Asian countries could solve border problems with China upon joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, however, the borders within the region have been a permanent source of tension.

One of the specific problem is the so-called "integrational separatism" since several regional organizations with specific goals and in which Russia and China try to become the leading countries have been formed in post-Soviet space.

It has been clear for a long time that the countries of Central Asia should strengthen regional cooperation in order not to get stuck in the peripheral zone of world economic processes. This depends on the competent regional policy of the Central Asian states themselves to a considerable extent, built without intermediaries.

By the way, the Foreign Policy Concept of Uzbekistan also emphasizes that the problems of Central Asia should be solved by the states of the region themselves, without interference from outside forces.

In fact, we are talking about the survival of the countries of the region as independent economic and political actors. The region should be economically competitive and politically stable in the face of global geopolitical changes since it often creates more chaos than order.

Therefore, cooperation within the Central Asia is not only the disclosure of the economic potential of the whole region but also effective protection against unfriendly economic, political and ideological interventions from old and new world influence centers.
 
 
The Politicon
 
 
21.04.2017
 
 
 

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