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Central Asia Leaders Confab but Stop Short of Binding Commitments

Bland soundbites aside, the rare meeting projected a sense of history-making.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev opens a press conference about the "Consultative Working Meeting" with fellow Central Asian heads of state. (Photo by the Kazakhstan Presidential Press Service)

A gathering of Central Asia presidents held in Kazakhstan’s capital this week culminated in a joint declaration brimming with flowery language about new beginnings.

For all the chatter about the potential emergence of a new regional bloc that preceded the event, however, the statement merely reaffirmed boilerplate commitments to mutual cooperation.

There was still a sense of history-making about the proceedings though.

“The consultative working meeting between heads of state proceeded very successfully in a spirit of mutual understanding and positive neighborliness. It has been almost 10 years since we met in a format like this,” said the host, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, at a post-event briefing to the press on March 15.

Perhaps the most portentous if unspoken aspect of the meeting was slightly inaccurately captured by a headline in Moscow-based daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Central Asia Summit Goes Ahead Without Russia.” Kazakhstan, a close and largely faithful ally to Moscow, has been eager to stress this was merely a “consultative meeting” and not a summit.

Central Asian heads of state confer during the March 15, 2018 working meeting.
Central Asian heads of state confer during the March 15, 2018 working meeting. (Photo by Kazakhstan Presidential Press Service/Facebook)

The meeting was timed to take place ahead of Nowruz, the spring festival of renewal that is celebrated across the region on the vernal equinox. The joint declaration dwelled heavily on this point with a mix of purple prose and well-worn diplomatic formulation.

“Over its thousand-year history, the holiday of Nowruz has become a symbol of the revival and renewal of nature and society, spiritual purification and self-improvement,” the statement read. “It is very symbolic that on the eve of this holiday we should express our desire for regional cooperation, mutual support and the joint resolution of pressing issues in order to ensure security, stability and sustainable development.”

Issues on the wide-ranging agenda included trade, economic cooperation, regional transit and transportation infrastructure, water, energy, food, industry and digital technology.

Nazarbayev mostly took the lead, speaking about the need to coordinate transboundary water resources in a manner that served everybody’s interests. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, whose country is busy building a giant hydropower dam stemming a major waterway, reassured his colleagues, promising that Tajikistan “will never leave its neighbors without water.”

The Kazakh leader also raised the intriguing idea of creating a mechanism for providing intra-regional sources of financing, ostensibly as an alternative to current reliance on international financial institutions and, more to the point, China. Security also featured in the five-way talks, which produced a commitment for greater cooperation among security services on anti-terrorism efforts.

While Nazarbayev dominated the talking, it is Uzbekistan — whose sudden opening to the world made the Astana gathering possible in the first place — that has been doing most of the running this past year. Tacitly alluding to his own feverish regional shuttle diplomacy since taking office in late 2016, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said in Astana that a spate of talks over the past 18 months had led to “practical solutions being found for a number of pressing problems.”

“The results speak for themselves,” Mirziyoyev said. “Our trade with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan reached nearly $3 billion last year, an increase of 20 percent [on the year before].”

Uzbekistan’s goal is to push that figure up to $5 billion “in the coming years,” he said.

Such progress has been made possible first and foremost by the restoration of physical connections. The freshest development has seen the restoration of multiple border crossings and easing of travel restrictions between erstwhile foes Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. State media in both countries have been choc-a-bloc with mutual praise since Mirziyoyev visited Tajikistan last week. Similar efforts have smoothed the movement of people, trade and electricity between Uzbekistan and all its neighbors, including Afghanistan.

Central Asian heads of state during summit in Kazakhstan
Central Asian heads of state during this week's summit in Kazakhstan. (Photo by Kazakhstan Presidential Press Service/Instagram)

But before thoughts can turn to grand coalitions, recurrent points of lingering contention require smoothing over. Bickering is often the norm in Central Asia. While much goodwill has been cultivated by Uzbekistan of late, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have continued to engage in low-grade brickbats. An ugly dispute broke out last year when Kazakhstan accused Kyrgyzstan of tolerating a multibillion-dollar smuggling network that it said was undermining the Russia-led trade bloc to which they both belong.

Nazarbayev struck a conciliatory tone after a face-to-face meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

“We discussed common areas of interest, including economic cooperation, mutual trade, and cooperation in infrastructure and logistical development,” he said.

Jeenbekov, who took office in November at the peak of his nation’s disaccord with Kazakhstan, volunteered a similarly bland soundbite about the “importance of further strengthening of relations.”

“We believe that in the future everything will be good,” Jeenbekov said.

Ambitions for the Astana non-summit were kept modest from the outset, as Yerlan Karin, a political analyst and senior member of Kazakhstan’s ruling Nur Otan party, noted in a commentary posted to his Facebook page.

“A summit would have presupposed the coordination of certain final documents and the adoption of specific decisions. And so the entire regional process would have been driven into a certain track from the very beginning,” Karin wrote. “This meeting imposed no obligations on anybody … and created no unrealistic expectations.”

Much has also been made of the fact that only four of the region’s five presidents attended. Turkmenistan’s increasingly erratic leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, chose to snub the meeting and instead traveled to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to plead for investment in his broke country’s energy sector. Berdymukhamedov sent the parliament speaker and his son, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, in his place.

Karin dismissed the importance of the no-show, insisting that those who “know and understand the subtleties of Central Asian politics” would realize Berdymukhamedov’s replacements were more than adequate proxies.

Elephant in the room

Seen in the broader picture, increased regional integration and consolidation will inevitably be read as a late effort to present a united front against the sometimes-overbearing influence of Beijing and Moscow. All Central Asian nations are somehow involved in multinational economic and security blocs dominated by those two partners. All five belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose post-Soviet talking club with little institutional heft. Only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are in the Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union, or EEU. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization incorporates everybody minus Turkmenistan. And both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have eschewed the Moscow-based NATO analogue Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO.

Nazarbayev did not shy from addressing that clumping elephant in the room.

“We all have two big partners — Russia and China. We will always work together with them, all agreements will remain in force, some of our countries are in the EEU, some are in the CSTO, and some are not, but that isn’t important,” Nazarbayev said during his tête-à-tête with Mirziyoyev. “But we have to settle our issues here without involving any third parties.”

Central Asia Leaders Confab but Stop Short of Binding Commitments

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