Deconstructing Regional Cooperation in Central Asia and The Role of Uzbekistan


Although the five countries that make up Central Asia are thought of as one coherent entity; they differ in their historical development, socioeconomic conditions, political structures, and foreign policy objectives. Four of the Central Asian nations are comprised of Turkic ethnic groups, whereas Tajikistan is the only Persian-speaking nation in the region. These nations developed from a nomadic culture to one dominated by Islam and subsequently consolidated by the Soviet Union.The influence of their nomadic background and Soviet domination may still be seen today. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the formation of five separate Central Asian governments, they pursued varied approaches in order to maintain their political regimes. Although attempts have been made to integrate the Central Asian region, it has remained less integrated because of its unique characteristics and varied goals. 

Central Asia faces a variety of regional cooperation issues, which have hindered progress in economic integration, security, and political stability. Some of the biggest hurdles to Central Asian regional cooperation include territorial disputes, sharing of land and water resources, economic disparities, geographical limitations and differing political goals.

The border delimitation of the Soviet era became severely problematic after these countries became independent. Cross-border dissemination of various ethnic groups has led to ethnic conflicts on multiple occasions. The region also has territorial disputes, which have created tensions between neighboring countries. For example, the dispute over water resources between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has been a major obstacle to regional cooperation and has led to intermittent clashes between the two countries. Similarly, the border dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has turned violent many times claiming the lives of hundreds of people from both sides.

Given the region’s dry environment and need for agriculture and other economic activity, water sharing is a major issue in Central Asia. The region’s two biggest rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, pass through multiple countries and supply water to millions of people.

One of Central Asia’s biggest water security challenges is the unequal distribution of these water sources. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan control the headwaters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, while Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan rely on water that flows downstream. As a result, disputes over water allocation have arisen between upstream and downstream nations. Due to historical conflicts and political divides, Central Asian nations have also failed to cooperate on water management. This has resulted in a lack of trust and a reluctance to share water resource data and information. Due to this problem, the Aral Sea dried, and its subsequent implications have impacted the whole region. Climate change is exacerbating water scarcity in the region by reducing the water available in the rivers.

The Central Asian countries have different economic priorities and interests, which have created barriers to regional cooperation. Some countries, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, have significant oil and gas resources, while others, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, rely more on agriculture and remittances.The landlocked nature of the Central Asian countries and their limited infrastructure and connectivity to external markets have also limited their ability to engage in regional trade and economic cooperation.

The Central Asian region is also subject to external interference from major powers, which has exacerbated existing tensions and undermined regional cooperation. Countries such as China, Russia, and the United States have strategic interests in the region and have used their influence to promote their agendas. Balancing relations with big powers has created competition rather than cooperation among Central Asian republics. Overcoming these challenges required sustained efforts and commitment from the Central Asian countries and support from external partners. Building trust, promoting economic integration, and investing in infrastructure and connectivity are key steps that can help to enhance regional cooperation and stability in Central Asia.

The Role of Uzbekistan

The challenges mentioned above persisted throughout Central Asia for a long time, impeding the region’s overall progress. However, with new challenges approaching and regional and international attention focused on these issues, positive efforts are underway to develop concrete solutions. Uzbekistan’s role has been crucial in this regard. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in 2016 and has taken several initiatives to strengthen regional cooperation and improve ties with its neighbours. The Central Asian region occurred as a foreign policy priority for Uzbekistan. As a result of his efforts, the perspectives of neighbouring nations have changed as well. Tashkent has been cooperating with neighbouring countries on bilateral and international platforms to address these issues. The border disputes between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan-Tajikistan have been almost resolved.Additionally, issues related to water sharing and energy security have been the main points of discussion in meetings of foreign ministers that include all of the countries in the region, as well as Russia and China.

A consultative meeting of the Heads of five Central Asian countries was also launched in 2018, and has held four such meetings since then. The next meeting is scheduled to be held in September 2023 in Dushanbe. These meetings have provided a regular platform for interactions and discussions of regional importance, such as cooperation in trade, transport, health, food security etc.The development of regional integration in Central Asia is accelerating because of Uzbekistan’s efforts and favourable reactions from other countries. And if this dialogue mechanism among all parties prevails, it will produce some remarkable outcomes in the years to come.

With an emphasis on building regional transportation infrastructure, boosting trade and investment, and supporting regional energy projects, Uzbekistan has sought to improve economic cooperation with its Central Asian neighbours. In recent years, intra-regional trade in Central Asia has been gradually increasing. It has also worked to promote regional tourism, language learning, and student exchanges to improve cultural and educational interactions with its neighbours. In addition, Tashkent has advocated for the peaceful settlement of territorial issues in the region, especially the border dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2021.

Challenges and Way Forward

Finally, Uzbekistan’s efforts to enhance regional cooperation and promote stability in Central Asia are commendable; however, the region still faces multiple challenges to integrate fully. Kazakhstan proposed a Treaty on Friendship, Good Neighbourliness, and Cooperation for the Development of Central Asia in the Twenty-First Century following the fourth Consultative Summit of the Heads of Central Asian States on 21 July 2022 in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan signed the treaty. At the same time, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan backed out, indicating that they would join the agreement once internal national procedures were completed and without providing a time period. This has again rumpled hopes for greater cooperation among the five Central Asian countries in the near future.Furthermore, the border issue between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has frequently escalated into bloodshed. Over a hundred people were killed in a clash between these countries in September 2022. Border issues persist despite intervention from Uzbekistan, potentially jeopardising Central Asian regional cooperation.

Recently, the domestic environment in Central Asia has also been upsetting. Protests have taken place in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Although these internal challenges are tied to socioeconomic problems in the countries where they occur, external factors such as the Ukraine crisis, the economic impact of pandemics, and security risks emerging from Afghanistan may worsen these countries’ international dynamics. In this situation, a more cooperative and interconnected Central Asian region will be better prepared to confront these issues. Establishing cross-border trade zones and forming a single economic space in Central Asia are two strategies to stimulate enhanced economic cooperation.Bilateral issues related to border demarcation, water and land sharing should be prioritised for settlement expeditiously to economically and politically integrate Central Asia.

Source: Financial Express