Growing Divergences and Regional (Dis)integration in Central Asia (2/2)

27 Avril 2014

Since 1991, the five independent republics of Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan) have known political, socio-economical and strategic developments that are increasingly divergent. In a time where the soviet heritage is fading away, the notion of a central Asian ‘common destiny’ is more relevant than ever.

Photo credit : DR
Photo credit : DR
Despite those previously mentioned common points, the Central Asian countries have not ceased to pull away from each other despite their overlapping. As soon as the independences took place, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan began claiming regional leadership by promoting two antagonistic concepts of the region: Eurasia for Kazakhstan and Turkistan for Uzbekistan. As early as 1995, Turkmenistan announces to the UN its ‘perpetual neutrality’. New players enter the regional game (Pakistan, Gulf States, Turkey, Iran, China, etc.) with more or less success and in a more or less durable manner, which further complicates the order of things.

On the political level, despite the common points previously mentioned, each country is different from the other in terms of its political life. Pointing out the singular trajectory of Kirghizstan with its turbulent political alternations (revolutions of 2005 and 2010) could be seen as common ground. Even in the more authoritarian countries there are differences. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are characterised by a political inertia that knows little equivalence in the world, despite the death of Turkmenbachi Nyazov in 2006. 

If Kirghizstan differs politically from the rest of the region, the Kazakh economical dynamism constitute the other major decoupling that Central Asia is experiencing: the country now represents 75% of the regional GDP, it has doubled its GDP per inhabitant in ten years and is even becoming a hub for immigration. Indeed, when faced with such a dynamic Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kirghizstan almost live on a drip of the money transfers from their expatriates: 47% of PIB for the former, 30% of GDP for the latter. These economical fractures are major and tend to get stronger in Central Asia.

These divergences and fractures are reinforced by the geopolitical competitions, not only between the countries in the region but with the ones around them. To paraphrase Isabella Damiani, who wrote on the region, in Central Asia ‘to each one its geopolitics’. The states all follow their own strategy to guarantee both their security and their economic development. We often talk about Kazakhstan’s ‘multi vectorial’ diplomacy, meaning it’s based on partnerships with ‘everyone’ but it is in fact all the countries of the region that are developing this type of diplomacy (to certain degrees and depending on various orientations) with the exception of Turkmenistan. Russia and China are the major players of the region strategically and economically speaking but one must also count Iran, Turkey, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan and many others. 

The insertion of Central Asia in globalization is real but it is in the wrong to make it happen at the same time as the national construction: ‘the privileged rungs are therefore national and international to the complete detriment of regional (...)’. Moreover if there is an expansion of international trades, each Central Asian country’s share in foreign trading with its neighbours has greatly and consistently diminished since the independence. As early as of 2000, regional trades only represented 3% of foreign trade for Kazakhstan and 16% for Tajikistan in 2009. As we have seen, the cult of sovereignty and of national affirmation juxtaposed to complex frontiers stemming from the USSR have created many enclaves, exclaves and periclaves that have become aggravated instead of diminished by the construction of border zone infrastructures. The populations (particularly in the cross border regions like Ferghana and Khorezm) are divided, locked up and their trading (of any nature) is reduced to the minimum. All of this creates subsets that are almost completely isolated from one another, isolated in terms of their state administration and finally, cut off from the world. 

The cult of sovereignty and nationalism superimposed with complex border regulations issued by the USSR has led to multiple enclaves and other territorial divisions. Photo credit : Julien Thorez.
The cult of sovereignty and nationalism superimposed with complex border regulations issued by the USSR has led to multiple enclaves and other territorial divisions. Photo credit : Julien Thorez.
Mass migrations are disintegrating families and the younger generations are facing a great diversity of situations and live in a world radically different from the one of their parents or grandparents all the while ‘the increase in prices of essential goods and the extreme luxury of the wealthy neighbourhoods of the capitals’ can make one fear that the street might manifest itself somewhere else than in Kirghizstan in the upcoming years. In any case we are witnessing the emergence, at various speeds, of Central Asia and this on every levels. 


Despite this observation of growing disunity and territorial disjunction, the Central Asian states, aware of the interdependencies imposed by the Soviet Union, have begun to get involved in regional cooperation processes. As early as 1992, the five new republics signed a treaty (creation of the intergovernmental commission for the coordination of water resources) in order to preserve the soviet way of managing the water before creating the Central Asian Union (CAU) as a way to facilitate the economical integration (free circulation of goods and services, of capitals, agricultural and industrial cooperation, etc). 

Nevertheless, a lot of these encouraging initiatives have stayed empty shells as the states tend to disengage from the regional sphere. Although regional challenges are numerous (water, energy, drugs, etc) integration projects are more and more exogenous and are rather a part of the international power plays than of the Central Asian interests, even if those also find some benefit there.

The Central Asian Union (CAU, 1994) became in 1998 the Central Asian Economical Community (CAEC) but then the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) in 2002 was altered when Russia joined in 2004: Moscow’s goal was indeed to dissolve it and recreate a larger structure of his own initiative, the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC). In this context, Russia set in motion in July 2011 a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. In addition to putting an end to specifically central Asian regional integration initiatives, the EEC and in particular the Customs Union had pernicious effects, namely the increase in border controls between Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia (particularly with the Kirgiz neighbour). Therefore, it is not an ‘open regionalism’ but instead a project that corresponds to the Russian geopolitical views and interests. 

All of the Central Asian states are also part of the Shangai Cooperation Organization (SCO) established in 2001 which, in addition to safely cooperating with Russia and China, also includes a section dedicated to economic cooperation. This latter has only known significant progress for three reasons: the Russia/China rivalry (commerce, gas and oil transit), the way of functioning of the organization based on the unanimous consensus for the decision as well as the principle of non-interference make it that there can be no progress in this case concerning the issues of water and the borders and China’s bilateral politics who, despite the regional frame, deals with the states on a case by case basis. 

Moreover, the SCO is indeed a tool to influence first the Chinese ( the Russian to a lesser extent) since its founding principles (the fight against the three scourges), if they can cross-check certain preoccupations of the Central Asian states, depend mostly on a repressive management framework of the Uighur issue for China. 

Regional integration therefore seems more and more complicated in Central Asia ( cult of sovereignty, different foreign politics agendas, rivalries between people, geo-economical and geopolitical divergences,etc.) and seems to be strategically instrumented by external actors such as Russia and China. However, a Damocles sword is hanging over the region: the issue of water.  

Whether it is cause or consequence of the negative regional climate and of the lack of trust between the states, the absence of a common and concerted management of water weights heavily on all of Central Asia and its 60 million inhabitants. Without cooperation and global reflection on the unified energetic system that binds the states to one another, they will not only be unable to face the new order of things on their own but an escalation of tensions could become plausible when one considers the sufferings and the growing rivalries among the local populations (in the Ferghana, for example). A growing awareness that the Central Asian people all share a common fate and a translation of this on the political level with a real regional organization for the management of water would be a considerable step towards a regional integration that is still embryonic and under foreign influence. This is all even more necessary considering that the Kirgiz and Tajik glaciers should decline between 30% and 40% before 2025, reducing by 25-35% the region’s water resources.