BACKGROUND: Weak and unprepared for sovereignty at the time they gained independence, Central Asian states were both landlocked and surrounded by much larger states, including two major great powers. They lacked many institutions essential for survival in the modern age and even the capacity to defend themselves diplomatically or militarily. It is no wonder that over the first two decades after 1991 they gained a reputation as countries being acted upon, with little or no capacity to respond, let alone to initiate. In many quarters this assumption prevails even today.
However, all five Central Asian states have taken decisive steps to assert themselves in such a way as to prevent major powers East and West from taking them for granted or curbing their sovereignty. They have often done so subtly in order not to evoke countermeasures.
In the first years after independence, countries labored to assert their sovereignty. Kazakhstan did so by attracting foreign oil companies and leveraging the project of removing Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory to raise its international profile. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan asserted sovereignty over radical extremist groups that had emerged on their territory, and Kyrgyzstan sought to portray itself as the “Switzerland of Central Asia.” Most bold on the international scene was Kazakhstan, which succeeded in establishing the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia, a major feat for a recently independent state.
The Central Asian states also worked together to establish a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in Central Asia, and in the late 1990s several of them established the Central Asian Economic Union. Unfortunately, this initiative was subsumed by Russian-led Eurasian integration after Vladimir Putin asked to join the group, only to fold it into his own Eurasian Economic Community project several years later.
Several factors led to a rise in agency in the past several years. First, the economic downturn in 2014-15 prompted several states to begin economic reform which in turn required greater attention to economic cooperation among these landlocked states. Second, the greater pressure from assertive powers like Russia and China heightened the sense among regional states that they faced a greater risk than in the past to their sovereignty. But most important was the transformation of Uzbekistan – the most populous and centrally located state in the region. The rise of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev led directly to the removal of intra-regional impediments to greater interaction and gave rise to a new wave of joint initiatives by Central Asians. Kazakhstan, for its part, welcomed this transformation. Rather than seeing it as the rise of a potential rival for regional leadership, it viewed the rise of Uzbekistan as the emergence of a partner for taking charge of Central Asia’s future.
IMPLICATIONS: Even though China, Russia, and the West are still able to influence the evolution of Central Asia in various ways, the Central Asian states are increasingly capable of defining their individual and joint interests and translating them into concrete programs. While institutionalization of their collaboration has lagged, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and other great power actions have promoted the regional governments to link arms as never before. This process has advanced rapidly, accompanied by more proactive strategies by the five regional governments themselves. While Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have emerged as leaders in this process, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are all engaged with this new direction, as is their neighbor across the Caspian, Azerbaijan.
Most visible has been the rise of Presidential-level cooperation across the region. Prior to 2018, the Central Asian presidents had not met without foreign participation for close to a decade. Since the first presidential summit in Astana that year, they have done so regularly – most notably, meeting in Dushanbe in September 2023 to coordinate positions ahead of their summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in New York later that month. That in turn serves as an example of how Central Asian states are increasingly coordinating positions on the international scene, with regard to the region’s relations with foreign powers.
This regional cooperation is also increasingly filled with substance. At their fourth summit in Kyrgyzstan’s Cholpon-Ata in July 2022, Central Asian presidents advanced a broad range of initiatives covering their mutual relations in more than two dozen spheres ranging from law, trade, sports, investment, visas, and education, to security. Obviously, all states are not equally committed to the speed of institutionalizing cooperation. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are leading the process with Kyrgyzstan an enthusiastic supporter. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, for their own reasons, are slightly more measured in their enthusiasm, but neither is oppose in principle to the broadening agenda of regionalism in Central Asia.
Clearly, the Astana-Tashkent duo is the key driver of the process. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan had signed a Treaty on Strategic Partnership in 2013, but this remained mainly a declaratory statement. In December 2022, the two states upgraded their relations to that of “allied relations.” This act was perhaps mainly symbolic, as no defense treaty yet exists between the two states. But it suggests the intention of Central Asia’s two leading powers to take charge of their common region, and work to strengthen the region’s autonomy from the great powers surrounding it and establish its own voice in world affairs.
Central Asian States have focused much of their energy on regional matters. In fact, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in their published foreign policy strategies make the Central Asian region the first priority in their foreign relations. But they have not neglected outreach beyond their region, and have been active in several distinct ways.
First has been the development of dialogue platforms where Central Asians jointly meet with leaders of foreign powers. The concept of “C5 plus,” a format started with Japan in 2004, is now commonplace. It serves to help Central Asia reach out to non-regional powers in order to lessen the domination of Russia and China of regional affairs. The EU was quick to start its own EU-Central Asia Dialogue in 2007; the U.S. created the C5+1 in 2015; and in more recent years, India and the Gulf Cooperation Council have created their own platforms for interaction with Central Asia. It is notable that the level of these conclaves has risen: The EU raised it to the presidential level in 2022, and similarly the U.S. and India have followed suit, meeting Central Asian leaders not just at the foreign ministerial but presidential level. These platforms have been important in solidifying a view of Central Asia as a distinct region in the eyes of world powers.
Second, Central Asian states have boosted their role in regional and international organizations. Central Asians have ensured they are well-represented in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Regional states have hosted numerous SCO summits and several Central Asians served as Secretary-General of the SCO. Kazakhstan also made a successful bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and is seeking membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development as well.
More recently, Central Asians have sought to involve the United Nations in Central Asian affairs, using the imprimatur of the world body to legitimize regional initiatives. Kazakhstan successfully bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2017-18, and in 2018 Central Asian states banded together at the UN to have the General Assembly recognize Central Asia as a distinct world region. In 2023, they received unanimous support for a declaration calling Central Asia a “zone of peace, trust and cooperation.” While such declarations hardly provide insurance against assertive policies of great powers, they help in the long-term effort to gain support for the independence and sovereignty of Central Asian states.
Central Asian states have also promoted their own diplomatic initiatives on the global scene. Kazakhstan hosted negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program, and made a successful bid to host an international bank for low-enriched uranium. Uzbekistan has played a key role at different occasions to promote negotiations on Afghanistan. In July 2022, Tashkent hosted a conference on economic challenges in Afghanistan with both U.S. and Taliban participation, and in March 2023 Tashkent hosted a meeting of the Special Envoys of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Tashkent thus offers a trusted channel to interact with the rulers of Afghanistan.
CONCLUSIONS: It remains to be seen whether and in what ways major powers will acknowledge the rising agency of Central Asian states. What is already clear, however, is that “divide and conquer” policies will no longer be effective tools for dealing with the states of Central Asia, which will increasingly use their power of agency to ameliorate and shape the approaches of major powers.
The United States and Europe can take stock of this process to expand their partnership with Central Asian states. This includes expanding Western investment in the Trans-Caspian transportation corridor, while working closely with Central Asian states to prevent sanctions evasion. Western powers should also recognize the primacy of security in Central Asian realities, and support processes of reform in the defense and security sector to help Central Asians defend themselves against the encroachments of neighboring great powers.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Svante E. Cornell is Director and S. Frederick Starr Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.