Prospects for Regional Integration in Central Asia

The first reaction to the disintegration of the USSR by the end of 1991 was fear of an outburst of ethnic and interstate conflicts in the post-Soviet territory. In Transcaucasia a war had broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan; Moldova had split into two parts–Pridnestrovye and the territory loyal to Kishinyov; Ukraine faced the hazard of the Crimean Peninsula being annexed by Russia; and in the Baltic states a conflict flared up between authorities and Russian-speaking populations concerning the issues of citizenship and the state language.

In those circumstances it was crucial to have a mechanism for dialogue and cooperation. Thus, in early 1992, a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was created comprising almost all of the former Soviet republics, except Georgia and Azerbaijan, which at the beginning sought to distance themselves from Moscow and the Baltic states. From the start the Commonwealth was a rather amorphous formation and was soon regarded by all parties as only a mechanism for peaceful divorce. In that regard, the CIS was certainly a success, but as soon as the danger of escalation of ethnic and interstate conflicts had passed, CIS members began to struggle and align on the basis of interests, particularly regional.

In the wake of disappointment with the CIS and concern that it might turn into a means for restoring the USSR, the Central Asian Union was created in 1994, originally comprised of three states–Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Two other Central Asian countries–Turkmenistan and Tajikistan–did not join for various reasons. The former had declared itself neutral and refused to join any unions, although it had become part of the CIS. As for Tajikistan, to a certain extent the Central Asian Union was actually created in response to developments in that country. In summer 1994, Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akaev admitted that Tajikistan was the source of three perils: Islamic fundamentalism infiltrating the Ferghana Valley; drug trafficking originating in Afghanistan with a transit route through Tajikistan-not without active facilitation from the armed forces of the United Tajik Opposition; and the problem of ten thousand Tajik refugees settled in Kyrgyzstan. For these particular reasons the Union was thought of as having defense and economic functions.1

The creation of the Union caused a certain euphoria about the prospects of regional integration, and a number of regional cooperation institutions and mechanisms were established, such as interstate presidential and prime minister-level committees, and the Central Asian Bank for Cooperation and Development. Also, at that time, relationships among the presidents could be termed friendly.

The European Union and other Western countries keenly supported the idea of the Central Asian Union, promising financial infusions. However, a black cat must have crossed the path of regional integration, as events followed a totally different track from that conceived by the designers of the Central Asian Union. Although Tajikistan later joined the Union, all activity within its framework was confined to periodical summits of the presidents of its member states without any noticeable activity by the integration functionaries between those summits.

At present, the Union could be considered a failure in most of its functions. There are two plausible causes for the failure. The first was the narrow-minded egotism of the governments and national bureaucracies that, as it turned out, were ready to take, not to give, and at moments of crisis sought to resolve their domestic problems at the cost of their neighbors. The second reason was an active opposition to the Union from Russia, which saw in it a threat to the influence and hegemony to which it was aspiring increasingly from year to year.

Russia actively sought supremacy in the existing and newly created institutions of integration. Thus, in May 1992, the Collective Security Treaty was signed, strongly reminiscent of the notorious Warsaw Pac; almost all CIS countries joined, except Turkmenistan and Ukraine. In February 1999, when the treaty was to be renewed by all its parties, Tashkent refused further membership, seeking an alternative in cooperation with NATO.

In response Russia took actions aimed at the political and economic isolation of Uzbekistan from the Central Asian countries. It proposed the idea of an asymmetric integration process and, for its mechanism, initiated the creation of a triplet–Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan, as well as the Customs Union comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan in its turn drifted more and more in the direction of the United States and NATO, and continued on that course until Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia. Compared to his predecessors, he has been an even greater champion of integration between the former Soviet republics under Russia’s leadership. Russia has always regarded Central Asia as a zone of its influence, imposing itself as curator and coordinator in matters concerning foreign policy and defense strategy.

Putin’s new strategy was to pursue the foreign policy of carrots and sticks: on the one hand, disobedient republics were pressured directly and indirectly-up to supporting separatist and opposition forces; on the other hand, care about the well-being and security of these countries was demonstrated. For example, Russia promised military and technical assistance to Uzbekistan to counter radical extremism and terrorism, but proved to be unconcerned when the Uzbek government actually did turn to it for help. Eventually it was China that provided the sharp-shooting rifles needed for the antiterrorist operation against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Russia’s new aggressive foreign policy doctrine manifested itself in the creation of the so-called Shanghai Five that encompassed Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Originally this union was aimed at settling border issues between these countries, but later its objectives focused on regional security. For Russia it was, among other things, the means for neutralizing the Central Asian Union and any other regional formations created without its involvement.

Uzbekistan, having sensed the danger of remaining in total political isolation and being in need of military and technical assistance from Russia and China to face the threat of terrorism coming from Afghanistan, was compelled to join this union-renamed the Shanghai Forum-in July 2001. This organization was expected to be rather influential on the regional level due to the involvement of the two superpowers. There was even talk about including India, Iran, and Mongolia. However, the events of September 2001 have confused the plans of the Forum architects. Russia, itself afraid of being isolated not only from the West but also from its allies in Central Asia, instead of playing the “Asian” card–and to the obvious disappointment of China–went for rapprochement with the NATO countries, hinting at the possibility of joining.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan had become the key geostrategic partner of the United States and their protégé in the region. Other Central Asian countries were ready to follow suit, even Russia’s most loyal ally, Tajikistan. In this situation, Russian leadership tried at least to save face, sending the message that it was only by its consent that the Central Asian countries offered their airfields to host U.S. and NATO air forces. It was this infidelity of its “younger brothers” in the CIS family that provided the impetus for Russia’s rapprochement with NATO. Under the circumstances it had no choice but to align itself with the West and try to insert itself as mediator between it and Central Asia.

As a consequence, any activity within the framework of the Shanghai Forum was frozen for an indefinite time. Appropriately, Russia’s geostrategic position in Central Asia has been de facto substantially undermined. To restore it to the former level would now be possible only under two conditions. The first would be the withdrawal of the United States and NATO from the region, which is unlikely to happen, at least in the next few years, given the inevitable diversification of tasks they will need to tackle there. Although the priority today is antiterrorist, peace-making, and humanitarian campaigns in Afghanistan, in the future the focus is expected to shift toward protecting the interests of the West with regard to Caspian oil and gas reserves.

The second condition required to restore Russia’s position would be the demand for its role as arbiter in disputes among the Central Asian countries themselves, and such disputes are very probable, given the status and prospects of their relationships. Some of the factors contributing to their worsening can be mentioned here.

First, Russia, whose pride has no doubt been hurt by the apostasy of the Central Asian governments, will certainly continue its policy of “dividing and ruling” through the same process of asymmetric integration, letting some be close and keeping others at a distance. It is quite possible that it will produce a foreign policy doctrine that will take into account new realities in the balance of power in global politics and aim at restoring its weight in Central Asia. Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan will again follow in the wake of this policy; Uzbekistan, on the contrary, will seek to preserve its alliance with the United states while trying, to the extent possible, not to spoil its relationship with Russia.

Further, there are a number of unsettled interstate and regional problems, such as the distribution of water and energy resources, the transport infrastructure and cross-country transit, and the problems of borders and visa regimes. As of today, none of these issues has been resolved. Moreover, all parties seem to be deaf to the arguments of their neighbors and unable to maintain a dialogue or join forces to tackle conflicts.

It must be recognized that the situation in the region is such that its countries compete with each other economically for the same limited resources, which are not evenly distributed. Agriculture plays a major role in all of the countries except Kazakhstan; thus, the most important resource is water, which is needed for both irrigation and power generation. The irrigated land area has grown 1.5 times over the past 30 years, while the population has increased more than three times, with a consequent rise in water claims. By a quirk of fate, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, which have rich oil and gas fields, depend on the water from the mountain areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have a shortage of mineral resources, particularly oil and gas. There would seem to be good grounds for exchange and cooperation, but it is not so.

Moreover, all countries of the region are landlocked and remote from the world’s trading hubs. They are all extremely interested in projects aimed at developing cross-country transport links and reducing transit costs, but in practice they compete with each other in raising tariff and tax barriers.

Despite a vital need for cooperation, the countries are waging small-time cold wars against one another over water and energy distribution, transit and borders. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been annoyed and even embittered by certain actions of the Uzbek authorities. Kyrgyzstan is unhappy about the regular interruptions of gas supply from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan about land mines planted by Uzbek frontier guards along the Tajik border and difficult transit through Uzbekistan’s territory. Uzbekistan, in turn, has unsettled border issues with almost all the Central Asian countries, with the exception of Kazakhstan.

Similar vexation is caused by the actions of other regions’ countries too. For instance, Turkmenistan conceived an idea to build a branch canal that would fill the Karashor Depression with water from Amu-Darya River; the result would be a lake 130 m deep with a total area of 3,460 square kilometers; there is also a plan to irrigate an additional 4,060 km2 of desert land.2 Considering the drought of the past two years (2000 and 2001) and the fact that Afghanistan has essentially not yet taken its legitimate share of Amu-Darya water and will soon definitely exercise its right, the unilateral actions of Turkmenistan cannot but cause concern and protest in Uzbekistan.

In response to the interrupted supply of gas from Uzbekistan during winter, Kyrgyzstan discharges an excessive amount of water from the Toktogul reservoir, which results in flooding a significant area of irrigated land in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. While Uzbekistan cuts off the gas because of nonpayment by Kyrgyzstan, the latter justifies its actions by saying that it is compelled to compensate for the gas shortage by increasing power generation on the Toktogul-Naryn hydropower cascade. In return for reducing water discharge in the winter and increasing it in the summer, Kyrgyzstan demands payment for the water and discounted prices for gas.

Discontent is also created by the Kazakhstan government, which has imposed inflated tariffs for transit shipments through its territory. As a result of such tariffs, as well as the introduction of additional duties by provincial authorities and extortion by transport police and criminal groups, shipping goods across Kazakhstan has become not only unprofitable, but also dangerous in terms of personal safety.

The problem of transit was objectively conditioned in 1924 by the Soviets, who planted “time bombs” under the foundation of the future regional security when they created the national-territorial divisions in Central Asia. One such bomb is the enclave problem. Almost every country in the region has in its territory enclaves that belong to its neighbors, and vice versa; for example, there are four Uzbek enclaves and one Tajik enclave in Kyrgyzstan, and there is one Kyrgyz enclave in Uzbekistan.

The map of the region was drawn so that residents of one province wishing to reach another province of the same country had to cross the territory of a neighboring republic. In the Soviet era, when republican borders were not patrolled and had purely administrative significance, there was no transit problem, but with the creation of national states, the enclaves and transit zones became sources of suffering for many common people and a cause of permanent conflicts.

Beginning in 1998, and especially in 2000, the regional governments began to introduce visa regimes for entering their countries. As a consequence, the transit problem became even more poignant, sometimes leading to outward confrontations between populations and the frontier guards and customs officers of the countries whose territory they had to pass through.

Thus, the absence of effective mechanisms for settling water and energy problems and transit issues and the egotism of corporate groups controlling interstate contacts lead to further mutual alienation among these countries, making them easy prey for regional superpowers. In these circumstances, instead of dialogue, regional governments seek to involve powerful patrons in their interstate disputes and conflicts.

While Afghanistan was the source of terrorist threat, regional governments were compelled to unite and cooperate for the sake of repelling potential invasion from the south. But with the dawn of domestic accord on the horizon, now that the Taleban have fled Kabul and Kandahar, old grievances and quarrels will float to the surface; and then not Afghanistan, but the Central Asian countries themselves will likely be the origin of regional instability and conflict.