The kaleidoscope of post-Soviet regional initiatives, which have followed the downfall of the USSR, could have raised a few eyebrows with its overlapping membership and empty declarations. There were and still are various cooperation projects aiming at filling in the gap that emerged after the direct linkages with Big Brother Kremlin were broken.
The region of Central Asia, encompassing Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan could enjoy a pride of place in this regard, as it is an area that has seen a number of such ventures.
Caught between two worlds
The process of integration has also not omitted Moscow’s satellite states, including those located in the heart of Europe. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary launched cooperation, which, with its pros and cons, is gradually approaching its 25th anniversary. The Visegrad Group might serve as an inspiration and a source of know-how for the Central Asian republics, which, so far, have failed to produce a single and permanent platform of integration. This Central European project should by no means be treated as the one and only model to pursue. It rather provides a set of hints, through which patterns of best and worst practice can be established.
Assuming that all the principal prerequisites for cooperation, such as common history, values, and interests, are met both within Central Asia and Central Europe, these two regions share several features, which could justify a transfer of experience between them. There are also fields where applying a region-to-region analogy is difficult to imagine.
Similarly to the V4 countries, Central Asia is caught between the two worlds – the East and the West. Its unique geographical position is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. Located in the center of Eurasia, all of the five republics have no access to a major water route. They either rely on a powerful neighbor or must seek synergies within. The latter has not yet brought significant improvements. Kazakhstan, in particular, underlines its intercontinental character, allowing Astana to build bridges between Europe and Asia. Looking at the V4 partnership, Poland is – to some extent – also thought of as a connector between Western democracies and Russia.
Both regions – Central Europe and Central Asia – have comparable populations ranging around 60 million. The V4 bloc could be classified as a small-state cooperation model, with Warsaw being distinctly in the lead in terms of economy and size.
Regarding Central Asia, there is a much greater division within the grouping itself, which eventually might hinder integration. Although, similar language, religion, culture, and security challenges are a converging factors here, the discrepancies in human capital, area, and GDP are substantial.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s economies account for only a mere fraction of their neighbors’ markets. Ironically, there is also a wide economic gap between the leader – Astana – and the runner-up, Uzbekistan, which has an economy more than twice as small as Kazakhstan’s, and a GDP per capita four times lower.
The structure of the regional economies in Central Asia is also different from the one in the V4 group. The hydrocarbons-rich countries – Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – follow the rule “extract and export.” Bishkek and Dushanbe, as the poorest states and the cheap labor suppliers, are left with no alternative than to partner up with and be dependent on Moscow or China. Lastly, Uzbekistan rests on selling processed products.
If the complementarity of the region’s economies, so essential for cooperation, is not evident, the level of intra-Central Asian trade is equally questionable. In the first decade of the 21st century, the trade between the five Asian republics grew five-fold. However, the bloc’s internal exchange stands for only 5% of the countries’ external turnover. And even though the region has experienced relatively high economic dynamics, in comparison with the continent, the Central Asian commerce figure has actually been dropping year by year.
Engagement and leadership aspects
Leaving economy aside, the V4-Central Asia nexus could also be analyzed through the lens of states’ engagement and leadership aspects. In case of the Visegrad cooperation, Poland is being perceived as a frontman of the group, which pushes the agenda forward. Speaking about Central Asia, there are two countries with an appetite to stand at the helm of regional integration, namely Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Since the 1990s, Astana has been an outspoken advocate of bringing – under its patronage – the region’s republics together, although Tashkent’s vast and not yet fully utilized energy resources along with a rapidly growing 30 million population are solid grounds to challenge Kazakhstan. Not everyone, however, among the blocs’ members, appears identically keen on the prospects of cooperation. Both Turkmenistan and Hungary demonstrate significant isolationist tendencies. Ashgabat consequently rejects joining any of the regional initiatives, claiming it is in line with its policy of neutrality, and Budapest is increasingly stiffening its position toward V4 cooperation, which is clearly visible concerning the conflict in Ukraine.
Unlike the Central European project, the Asian one has never been consolidated from within. The incentives for it have always been created outside. Russia promotes its Eurasian Economic Union, China concentrates on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the United States advertises a variety of Afghanistan initiatives, and the Asian Development Bank is the brains behind the CAREC program. The only two projects – indigenously devised by Kazakhstan, and either non-existent or without a real importance – are the Central Asia Union and the CICA initiative. Whereas, the key elements in V4 cooperation, however diverged the particular interests might occasionally be, are its informal nature, and most of all the genuine willingness to collaborate.
Could the same be said about the Central Asian states’ attitudes? According to the Eurasian Monitor – a public survey examining the former Soviet countries – the region thinks purely in external terms. The most frequently regarded as a friendly state is Kazakhstan. Half of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks expect that Astana would assist their governments in time of need. However, the same opinion is only shared by 22% of Tajiks.
The deeper one investigates, the more dramatic results for regional cooperation are. Nearly 80% of Turkmens did not grant Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan a friendly status, and only one-fifth of Kazakhs believe Uzbekistan to be their ally. There is also absolutely no desire among the Central Asian states’ populations to exchange capital and research. The positive responses exceed 5% only in one Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan case. All this without even delving into border, water, and ethnic disputes, is hardly a prelude to a fruitful regional integration.
The complex phenomenon of integration
Finally, although it might have also been a starting point for a discussion on these two regional undertakings, there is an issue of a driving force, which has initiated a complex phenomenon of integration. The V4, today with a certain trademark, through a transition to democracy and free market economy, has defined a fundamental objective the moment the venture was founded – the accession to the European Union and NATO.
Therefore, what is the ultimate goal of integration for the countries of Central Asia? What constitutes the very essence of integration in the region, excluding externally provided impulses? Without providing an answer to these questions, it will be nearly impossible to compose an effective model of cooperation, as integration for the sake of integration is a vain effort.
Michał Romanowski is a program coordinator at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Warsaw. His foreign and security research interests lie with the post-Soviet space, including Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. He has published, among others, in The Diplomat, New Eastern Europe, Global Post, Asia Times, and GMF’s “Transatlantic Take” series.