By Gülay Mutlu*
In early November, Central Asia played host to an unusual guest to the region, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The purpose of his visit was to conduct bilateral discussions with senior government leaders in each Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. It should be noted that this was the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State to all five Central Asian republics at the same time, and the first visit of Kerry to Central Asia as Secretary of State. Kerry started his visit in Bishkek, and continued to Samarkand, Astana, and Ashgabat before finally concluding his trip in Dushanbe.
Before evaluating the outputs of the visit for the region, it should be stated that each of the Central Asian countries in question boasts a unique profile and experience following the acquisition of independence from the Soviet Union. Therefore, both the expectations and final outputs of Kerry’s visit differ between the five capitals.
Although the five countries have historical, cultural, and ethnic ties, they are indeed very different in terms of their political, economic, and social dynamics. For example, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan do not have oil reserves but do possess huge potential for hydropower generation thanks to their mountainous geography along with high levels of precipitation. Still, they have weaker economies when compared to the others. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan on the other hand have significant oil and gas reserves, and their economies are exceedingly dependent on the export of these resources via Russia. While Kyrgyzstan has been trying to keep its parliamentary democracy afloat since 2010, the others are home to authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes.
Since gaining independence, all five countries have experienced common problems inherited from decades of Soviet rule. The Soviet era and its legacy often constitutes common ground for the Central Asian countries. In this context, political scientists and experts studying Central Asia have often noted that the states of the region present a challenge to traditional theories of the state seeing that these republics, which were once a part of one of the two global superpowers during the Cold War, suddenly gained independence without being able to draw upon any form of experience that would resemble that of Western-style liberal democratic states. In Madeleine Reeves’ words “…they appear simultaneously strong and weak, overbearing and fragmented.” These “strong and weak” states have expected Kerry’s visit to shore up real cooperation between themselves and the U.S. when it comes to problems which act as obstacles to development and stability in the region such as border issues, irrigation and water conflicts, integration into the world economy, and security.
Problems inherited from decades of Soviet rule
Many borders in the region, especially those in and around the Fergana Valley, have not been drawn in accordance with financial or ethnic realities, and therefore occupy a blurred geography that is often the site of increased tensions between the relevant states. In this sense, borders often fluctuate between soft and hard states depending on the severity of political conflict between the republics at hand. This situation often comes to negatively affect the daily lives of those living along and working in between the regional borders.
Water sharing is another issue awaiting consensus among the countries. Here, old and ineffective irrigation channels lead to the loss of a huge amount of utilizable water that is intended for cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are among the top ten cotton producing countries in the world, and as such they require highly effective irrigation channels. Nonetheless, the massive loss of water has led to unfair water sharing practices among the countries of the region. Subject to a type of domino effect, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are upstream from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are unable to take advantage of the inherent potential for hydropower energy production that is presented by the fast-moving rivers located in their mountains. Instead, they have to buy electricity from Uzbekistan.
Authorities from the different Central Asian countries occasionally interfere for such reasons as those outlined above that are at the same time closely related with economic development; and such developments have a disproportionate effect on the energy poor countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In this vein, economic integration has been a hot topic for these five countries ever since they gained independence. All of these states are dependent on the Russian economy, and in turn the impact of falling oil prices and the rise of economic troubles in Russia have seriously affected the economies of the Central Asian republics. For example, Kazakhstan, a relatively strong economy in the region, has even come to struggle with currency devaluation as a result of Russia’s economic woes.
Finally, with the end of the War in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, many fear that the U.S.’s interest in the region will start to fade, which may mean that Afghanistan will come to export instability to its surrounding countries in Central Asia. Such a scenario would also help extremist groups like ISIS to draw recruits from the region more easily. Afghanistan is also deemed a geographic and ethnic extension of Central Asia by some experts thus complicating the overall picture. Central Asia was a hub of the ‘northern distribution network’ (NDN) that was utilized by NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan, and the U.S. also used the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan during the war until it was closed in 2014.
Kerry’s visit: where does it stand?
Within this larger context, Kerry’s visit carried the region into the international spotlight. During his tour of the five countries, the U.S.’s chief foreign affairs advisor delivered several messages, most of which highlighted the importance of the commitment to democracy and human rights, a delicate topic among the leaders of the region.
The most rewarding portion of his visit can be seen as the meeting with the foreign ministers of all five countries as was decided during the session of the UN General Assembly on September 27. This meeting constitutes a new format for dialogue between the U.S. and Central Asia known as the C5+1, and it is expected to allow the U.S. Secretary of State and the foreign ministers of the five countries to gather with the aim of discussing regional and global opportunities and challenges. It presented a great opportunity for the leaders of the region to come together around the idea that the people and problems of Central Asia come first. While the Central Asian republics have tried to solve their regional problems by way of participating in global organizations such as the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), such platforms have so far proved insufficient. Nevertheless, the countries of the region have not shied away from trying their hand at the establishment of new initiatives. For example, Kazakhstan, which can be considered a relatively developed economy in Central Asia, set up the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, while also trying to increase regional cooperation under the auspices of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. All of these initiatives aim to shelter the region from the incessant emergence of acute instability with the support of global actors. The dramatic example of the delicacy with which Central Asian republics were required to respond to the Ukrainian crisis shines a light on the region’s susceptibility to Russian interference. Again, with relation to the economic dynamics of the region, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev has revealed a 100-point plan to develop and diversify the Kazakhstani economy and turns his country into an economic powerhouse and trade hub. Nonetheless, it seems that Astana is nowadays simply attempting to weather the storm of financial instability as it spends most of its time trying to fix the economy after serious devaluation.
After the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan, Central Asia has come to constitute a new frontier for China, while Russia, as usual, seeks to expand its influence over the region. All of this is supplemented by attempts on the part of extremist groups such as ISIS to draw recruits from the region. Central Asian countries expect not to be forced to choose between Russia and China, all while keeping the option of improved relations with the West on the table. They hope that the U.S. and other western countries might be able to pose a balance to Russia and China in terms of trade, culture, and so on. Here, the C5+1 represents a new initiative that could improve dialogue among the U.S. and these five countries. Such an endeavor is important in part because even though the U.S. launched an aid program in the region in the beginning of the 1990s via the Freedom Support Act, the country has so far managed nothing aside from assuming the role of an obscure normative power in the region. Moreover, the U.S.’s New Silk Road Initiative has yet to emerge as something beyond simple rhetoric. Central Asian Countries have a strong desire for partnership and diversification in international relations, but they cannot succeed in this without reconciling their own regional problems and economic hardships. Since gaining independence 25 years ago, the Central Asian republics have relied on one another in resolving regional conflicts. By working together on a platform that allows these countries to successfully address common regional issues, they can in turn become more effective members of the international community.
*Gülay Mutlu is an expert at the Center for Eurasian Studies of the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK). She is also a PhD candidate at the Middle East Technical University (METU). She focuses on Central Asian and Caucasusian studies.
 Madeleinne Reeves, “Border Work”, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2014, p.10.
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