The fashion for Central Asia in international political and expert circles is notably weaker than what it was 10 or 15 years ago. This is due to the logic of international developments and the emergence of permanent sources of instability and tensions in other parts of the world, primarily in the Middle East. Another explanation is that countries in the region have somewhat stabilized their domestic and foreign policies. In this situation, researchers focus on Central Asia only if there are political crises or serious challenges to regional security, such as instability in Afghanistan or threats related to ISIS. To change the context and emerge from the narrowly regional agenda, the countries of the region need to expand their competences on the international stage and look for a political and technological niche of their own. Another option is to provide a venue for talks by engaging in competent international positioning and designing balanced foreign policies. So far we can speak with confidence only of the success of Kazakhstan. That country has managed to establish pragmatic and constructive relations with all leading international and regional players, mediates in conflicts involving even big countries and offers a negotiating venue for efforts to solve major international problems.
The Central Asian countries have developed as self-sustained and independent players on the international scene for the last 25 years. Leading world powers have been demonstrating an interest in the region since 1991. This has been romanticized as a fight for the Heartland, the geographical center of the Eurasian continent, closely associated with the constructs of US and British theorists of geopolitics. According to one of them, Halford John Mackinder, whoever controls the Heartland would eventually control the region and the world as a whole. But the real situation has proven more complex. None of the outside players has managed to gain control over the region, and even the deployment of US military bases there is no guarantee that countries in the region will persevere in a pro-Western orientation in the long term.
Immediately after gaining independence, the Central Asian states welcomed the proactive attitudes of outside players, as they badly needed political recognition, broader political and economic contacts internationally and foreign investments. In the early 1990s, they were just learning to take their first steps on the international stage and formulate their foreign and domestic policies. In many respects, they played a passive rather than an active role internationally.
Central Asia today, as distinct from the late 1990s — early 2000s, is no longer an arena of direct and acute confrontation between the leading world powers. Among other things, this is due to a change in the approaches of the Central Asian countries themselves. In the past, activities by outside players were intrinsically valuable, because it was psychologically important for the regional elites to maintain multi-vector foreign policies and balance between major players. Today, pragmatism and common sense are moving to the fore. Russia and China, which have offered the region two global economic projects, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt, are automatically becoming their priority partners, while the United States and the EU are taking the backseat as foreign policy partners for lack of a global economic and project agenda.
Another specific feature of the region, which, strictly speaking, can hardly be described as united or homogenous, is that the Central Asian states follow different development trajectories. Politically, there is a wide spectrum of models, from the parliamentary-presidential variety in Kyrgyzstan to a rigid authoritarian super-presidential system in Turkmenistan. What unites them is the key role played by the persona of the president (which is characteristic even of the relatively more democratic Kyrgyzstan). Accordingly, all of them are excessively dependent on their respective heads of state for internal stability.
Economically, they also follow different models and long-term development priorities. Twenty-five years later, only a few Central Asian countries have achieved relative success in creating a competitive, diversified and open economy with an effective system to protect private property and investor rights. This is evident from a report, Investment Appeal Map of Central Asian and South Caucasian Countries, drawn up by the Expert Centre for Eurasian Development. According to the report, the regional leaders are Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two countries rich in natural resources, and the two biggest economies with receptive markets and large populations. But their relative success can only partly be explained by their possession of natural resources. The decisive role was played by their leaders, who were ready and had the political will to plan, develop, diversify their economies and create a favorable investment climate. Kazakhstan, for one, is confidently in the lead. The republic has a powerful economic potential, a large market (17 million people plus the EAEU countries’ markets), investor-friendly legislation and a number of programs to develop a non-resource-based economy. It is also willing to create a favorable environment for investors in these sectors of the economy. Kazakhstan is also an important Eurasian transport hub for China’s Economic Silk Road projects.
After its successful power handover, Uzbekistan is high in the rankings, having a large market (over 30 million people), a diversified economy and rich natural resources, not to mention political stability. The new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has outlined large-scale plans to reform the economy and create a favorable environment for investors, which will only increase his country’s investment attractiveness.
The report gave much lower marks to the other Central Asian countries, i.e., Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Though possessing potential and competitive advantages, they have failed to create stable economic models and fill their own niche in international division-of-labor markets. Turkmenistan’s strict political regime and total state control over the economy have prevented it from becoming a Caspian version of the prosperous Gulf monarchies, this despite its huge natural gas resources. Kyrgyzstan is still unable to live up to its investment potential because of political instability and problems with private property protection. Nevertheless, its tourist industry, light industry and educational sector are showing good performance. Tajikistan has managed to implement a number of infrastructure projects in cooperation with major partners, above all China and Iran. But its uncompromising stand on the Rogun hydropower station has scared away foreign investors and spoiled relations with Uzbekistan, a neighbor and a major economic partner, something that has affected the situation in the economy.
As is clear from international press reports and studies by leading analytical centers, Kazakhstan stands out among the Central Asian Five by the criteria of international activities and capacity to emerge beyond the regional agenda. Owing to its balanced foreign policy, the republic is accepted in the world as a “neutral” party enjoying a high level of trust. Kazakhstan has played host to four rounds of intra-Syrian talks designed to impel the opposing Syrian sides to discuss a peace agenda. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s personal authority and mediation have been instrumental in normalizing Russian-Turkish relations. Kazakhstan is also a co-founder of the Eurasian Economic Union, the biggest post-Soviet integration project. For all that, Astana has pragmatic and constructive relations with all its Central Asian neighbors, something that adds to its international political weight. Moreover, cooperation between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which has been invigorated after Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev was elected president in December 2016, promises, given a systemic effort, to make Central Asia a more self-reliant and autonomous region independent of the outside players. The key in this regard is precisely regional cooperation.