Escaping Russian war: Central Asia pursues its own agenda
Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has encouraged Central Asian states to strengthen their multi-vector orientation of foreign policies. Looking to take advantage of this new reality, the EU and European states have now increased their engagement within the region and beyond. Despite the efforts, it is clear that the new environment will not be recalibrated and stabilised overnight.
Many observers in the international media expressed great surprise regarding Central Asia’s emphasis on its neutrality following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in February. The region also firmly opposed Moscow’s fierce rhetoric. Despite being labelled as “Russia’s old allies” or, even less diplomatically, “Russia’s former-Soviet backyard”, none of the five countries of Central Asia either recognised the self-proclaimed republics in Eastern Ukraine or praised the subsequent steps Russia has taken so far. However, this standing should not be that surprising. Regardless of the specifics of the respective regimes’ foreign policies, all of them are, at their core, pursuing the same approach as they have been in recent years. The Russian war against Ukraine hastened these existing trends and placed them directly in the spotlight. In the same spotlight now is the window of opportunity for European and EU-led re-engagement with the region.
The Central Asian way: diversification
The primary foreign policy imperative of the “Central Asian Five” is to sustain pragmatic multi-vector relationships with all available partners within their reach. Finding themselves in a landlocked position (in the case of Uzbekistan, even double landlocked), preserving as many economic and political ties as possible is vital for their economic prosperity. Obviously, Russia and China are the leading partners of the region due to a combination of historical relations, political relationships, significant financial investments, and a shared regional agenda. Yet Central Asian countries, according to their capacities and preferences, have developed intensive contacts with other partners, such as Turkey, Iran, India, the Gulf states and the West. This strategy is based on “hedging” – aiming to find as many other partners as possible as a form of insurance seeking, minimising risks and maximising profit, and avoiding selling out to only one large foreign partner.
Furthermore, all the existing regimes play loudly on the nationalist string. In the case of foreign policy, it results in a careful but firm accent put on national sovereignty. The level of integration into global political and economic networks varies country by country, from relatively open Kyrgyzstan to strictly isolationist Turkmenistan, yet none of them have joined an organisation or an international body based on sharing sovereignty. All significant regional associations trumpeted in recent months and years, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Organisation of Turkic States, are somewhat shiny and splendid platforms for bilateral and multilateral negotiations, rather than bureaucratic entities with binding and restricting commitments.
Balanced and hedging foreign policies also correspond with the respective states’ domestic economic and political conditions. Central Asia is comparable to Europe, and differences among the five countries are enormous in terms of population, territorial expanse, economic structure, natural resources and political regimes. Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world by territory with the largest regional economy based on the export of natural resources, has different priorities than Tajikistan, a small mountainous country neighbouring China and Afghanistan that is heavily dependent on labour migration and financial inflows from abroad, including from Russia. Uzbekistan is in the middle of economic reforms and political rebuilding, investing enormous diplomatic effort into building transit infrastructure across the broader region. At the same time, Turkmenistan, as usual, shows little genuine enthusiasm to join any integration project regardless of its basis or mission.
The shock of war and seeking alternatives
In the hours and days following the Russian invasion, the Central Asian countries remained predominantly quiet and cautious. The consequences of the invasion, such as western sanctions on Russia and limitations on transit routes, hit them hard. During the early summer, the new reality became clear: no quick and clean victorious war was taking place. On the contrary, the countries’ deep, complex economic ties with Russia turned out to be a burden too heavy to bear. Furthermore, with the increasingly irrational and aggressive steps taken by Putin, including verbal attacks on Central Asian statehoods and regimes, Russia became a much less attractive partner for Central Asia and, in fact, has become an unpredictable and even dangerous neighbour.
At this point, years of slow political and economic diversification came in handy for the local governments. This is especially true in the cases of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as both countries relied on established partnerships with other countries, including China or Turkey; Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have weaker domestic capacity for vocal opposition and also different internal political priorities defining their relationship with Moscow. They did their best to mitigate the immediate negative impacts. From the economic perspective, diversification helped them to at least partially replace strained transit routes through Russian territory; and from a political standpoint, they could preserve a neutral position and escape both Moscow’s anger and western sanctions. Simultaneously, seeking and using alternatives does not necessarily mean severing existing relationships. Russia will most likely remain a vital regional partner, and the complete self-isolation of Central Asia would mean an economic disaster. Furthermore, the persisting political influence of Russia at many levels of the state, economics and regional social life cannot be ignored.
The European (global) Gateway
The recent political statements and actions taken by EU representatives and member states show their apparent awareness of the priorities and red lines of the Central Asian “neighbours of the neighbours”. At least that was the impression given by the Global Gateway conference between EU and regional states, which took place in November in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Josep Borell and other western guests repeatedly emphasised their determination to launch large-scale cooperation with Central Asia in infrastructure, digital economy and trade, but not at the expense of their other commitments.
This approach is essential for the success of the EU (or, in general, western) mission in Central Asia.
From a purely pragmatic point of view, it recognises the EU’s limited capacity (and willingness) to demonstrate its financial and political presence vis-à-vis other regional actors. Nevertheless, it is sufficient to satisfy Europe’s short and long-term needs: from mitigating the consequences of climate change to re-routing transport corridors from East (China) to West. Speakers at the conference paid particular attention to this so-called “Middle Corridor”, running through Central Asia and the Caspian area, avoiding Russian territory. However, they failed to mention that with Russian transit heavily sanctioned and ties with Iran deteriorating, the Middle Corridor may not present a genuine “alternative” but the only remaining safe overland route.
The vision of a strong complementary presence also provides Central Asians with their most desired offer – another solid vector for their collection, which they can rely on in times of crisis and use for further development in the future. How the EU’s involvement in these areas will be perceived by other prominent players already operating in the region will depend on their diplomatic skills. Still, at least so far, there is a realistic prospect for coexistence.
According to the different national and international positions and priorities of the five Central Asian states, extra-regional partners pay various levels of attention to them and engage in various sectors.
It is not surprising that the current connectivity re-engagement of European states and the EU institutions is targeted primarily at Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. These two states are the region’s largest (by territory and population, respectively) and richest (including mineral and energy resources). Their regimes are relatively stable, and both have declared a willingness to accept foreign investors and have taken practical measures to attract them. Furthermore, their geographical positions place them at the centre of the growing Middle transport corridor.
On the contrary, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have only limited options to accommodate the most pressing European needs. This is either due to limited natural resources or other political burdens, such as the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border conflict or the “neutrality” (read “isolation”) of Turkmenistan. At the same time, these countries may simply have different political agendas. This does not mean the EU or individual European states are not present in these countries. Still, their activities are usually based on individual projects and in specific areas that are less helpful in tackling the urgent challenges for the EU.
Global, regional or bilateral? Opportunities and risks
However, even if the current leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan accept western engagement (from the EU or individual states) with open arms and also pay high-level state visits to Europe, a vast amount of work lies ahead.
The projects that the EU is involved in regarding cargo and the energy industry will require enormous funds. Regardless of their profitability, they will require careful planning and long-term cooperation, far from engagement based on single projects. The position the EU wants to occupy is not yet entirely clear and was not clarified during the conference either. This is especially true regarding the interplay between the region’s national governments and EU institutions, member states and private companies (referred to by Borell as “Team Europe”).
Furthermore, more substantial engagement with the West will not automatically lead to a comparable reduction of ties with other partners, be it China or Russia. Any western actor should be prepared to encounter them inside Central Asia. Issues like interconnectivity with existing systems within the “digital economy”, data protection, and intellectual property management may subsequently require more attention.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are walking a tightrope in maintaining fruitful relations with Russia. After all, they hope to avoid falling foul of global sanctions mechanisms. It is still too early to predict what the economic landscape will look like “after” the war in Ukraine. However, Central Asia may play the role of a buffer zone, where various economic and political interests and limitations meet and overlap. Western actors may find navigating this environment challenging.
In this regard, the EU’s engagement might stick to what was said in Samarkand and recognise and respect the other commitments of the Central Asian partners. This does not mean restricting activities to projects outside economic cooperation (human rights promotion, intercultural exchange, etc.). Overall, this would be a sober assessment of current priorities and limitations on both sides.
Last but not least, such engagement may contribute to a shift away from the rigid concepts of “filling the geopolitical vacuum” or “navigating the multipolar environment”. Approaching the region’s countries based on their own agendas, and not those of their neighbours, will lead to a genuine understanding of the policies and priorities within states and leading sub-state groups. This will also effectively contribute to the more effective formulation and promotion of European priorities. Consequently, it may help to improve the EU’s image in the region, which is currently severely limited and distorted.
Anna Jordanova is a PhD candidate at Charles University and Associate Fellow at the Association for International Affairs in Prague. Her main field of expertise is regional cooperation in Central Asia beyond, including prospective relationship with Europe.
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