Regional power shifts in Central Asia
Uzbekistan has a geopolitical potential to be the region’s leader and solve its most pressing problems like water scarcity. Its central location makes it easy to reach out to all the Central Asian states. The future regional dynamics will depend on the relations between Tashkent and Astana, which geopolitically define the shape of Central Asia.
Following the change of leadership in Uzbekistan in late 2016, Tashkent has embarked on rolling out adjustments to its foreign policies. While some important issues such as economic development – with shadow economy estimated to be as large as fifty percent of GDP in Uzbekistan – remain pressing, transition from the Soviet Union in Central Asia was handled in relative stability. Violent nationalism, which surfaced in other parts of the post-Soviet space, was by and large limited to ethnic enclaves such as southern Kyrgyzstan.
One of the key security issues – succession of leadership – did not cause major political upheavals contrary to what experts had expected, but was managed in most countries of the region. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are the only states ruled by leaders who have assumed their position back in the Soviet times. For the last two decades the leadership of Astana in the region remained unquestioned.
Recent presidential election in Kyrgyzstan highlighted, however, that there are significant limits to Kazakhstan’s influence. Despite the fact that it tried to pressure Bishkek to pick an Astana-backed candidate, it failed in the endeavour. This came at a turbulent period for Kazakhstan. Falling oil prices have exposed the energy-rich state to instability, similarly experienced by other resource-based economies. The crisis caused inflation and fuel shortages, forcing the government to quietly bail out four banks in order to stabilise financial system.
At the same time, Tashkent has started developing a much-needed pragmatic and multidirectional foreign policy. The geography of president Shavkat Mirziyoev’s latest visits is telling. Uzbekistan has intensified diplomatic engagement on both regional and international levels. The new Uzbek leader reached out to the neighbours with whom Uzbekistan had rather thorny relations. Unblocking long-stuck diplomatic channels and personally meeting with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan brought much needed fresh air to regional politics. Uzbek president has already met with all of his counterparts from Central Asian states and with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, China and the United States. At the same time, he facilitated a reset in Uzbek-Turkish relations, and paid a historical visit to Turkey – a country long boycotted by the previous leadership.
In October 2017, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars freight and passenger railway – a long-awaited logistical and geopolitical project – was launched. It is the first non-hydrocarbons related project bypassing Russia. Goods from China can now be delivered to Europe via a land route, which is almost twice as fast at the sea route, taking fifteen instead of thirty days. The importance of the project was highlighted by the presence of the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as prime ministers of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at the opening ceremony. While Tashkent is developing its strategic relations with Russia, it also seeks to explore alternative possibilities.
These are all notable changes in Uzbek foreign policy which has now become more proactive and may lift Tashkent to the position of regional leader. This could challenges the status quo which was in place since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Kazakhstan was the unquestioned leader organising diplomatic initiatives, sponsoring international events and investing in economic development.
Uzbekistan has a geopolitical potential to lead the region and solve its most pressing problems like water scarcity. Its central location makes it easy to reach out to all the Central Asian states. The future regional dynamics will depend on what the leadership succession in Kazakhstan will look like. It is the relations between Tashkent and Astana that geopolitically define the shape of Central Asia.
David Erkomaishvili is the Executive Editor of Central European Journal of International and Security Studies and a lecturer of International Relations at Metropolitan University Prague. His main area of expertise includes alignments, alliance theory, spatial analysis of alignments and development of the post-Soviet and wider Eurasian regions with a special focus on the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia.