A More Integrated Future - Mapping Central Asian Optimism

Elizabeth Woods and Thomas Baker

International relations Kazakhstan Uzbekistan 28.03.2022

Across the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, millions partake in everyday shared traditions and rituals which make up the social fabric of the region. Plov, the iconic Central Asian delicacy consisting of meat, garlic, and rice is produced in a multitude of different ways, with various regional nuances and flavors. The Russian language, as a lingua franca, enables almost universal communication between the patchwork of ethnicities while the Turkic family of languages also unites millions of people across the region. Islam serves as a source of connection as well throughout these countries, for the many adherents who share a set of common values and beliefs. The residents of Central Asia, however, are not only linked by this set of cultural, linguistic, and religious ties, but by a common set of environmental, geographic, and developmental challenges. 

A complex natural resources outlook, lack of access to seaports, shortages in irrigation, and deficient transport routes provide a shared set of problems for these nations. For example, unevenly dispersed access to natural resources creates a seasonal imbalance in which the water-rich and energy-poor nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are locked in relationships of vital mutual dependence with energy-rich and water-poor Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In addition, the landlocked nations of Central Asia are forced to work together to forge partnerships with their immediate neighbors to facilitate the import and export of vital goods and the flow of Chinese trade into Europe. With two main routes for Chinese goods to reach Europe, through the Eurasian land bridge that passes through the north of the Caspian Sea through Russia, or the alternative route which passes the south of the Caspian via Iran, Moscow and Tehran compete in their offers for transit, providing a collective challenge for the nations of Central Asia to shape their international allegiances and economic future. Examples such as these illustrate the need for meaningful integration and cooperation throughout the region. However, such unification has yet to be fully realized.

Based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia Barometer (CAB) is an independent, non-profit institution for applied social research and analytics of public interest topics. Their most recent research project, “United Central Asia: Obstacles, Opportunities, Prospects”, in partnership with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Institute, sought to explore this question of why such collaboration between the Central Asian nations has yet to be fully achieved. The study, based on phone interviews conducted with 800 non-expert respondents in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan respectively during Autumn 2021, provided a picture of the level of optimism in the region for a more integrated future for Central Asia and illustrated some of the current obstacles perceived to stand in the way of achieving this end. The sampling for this study was random, with a sampling error of 3.5 percent and a confidence margin of 95 percent, reflecting the age and gender structure of the adult population in each country. The study represents a first of its kind initiative. No previous nationwide survey regarding the themes of the report has been undertaken, which makes it particularly significant. 

As research fellows working with CAB, we have analyzed this study’s results and have found that respondents from both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were interested in the prospect of deeper integration and stronger ties between Central Asian nations, considering the prospect to be one of mutual benefit. However, in a practical sense, it appears that many still do not consider a well-connected Central Asia to be a realistic short-term goal. 

Together, we discovered that respondents have a generally limited knowledge of neighboring countries and the wider region, which poses the question - how do these perceptions contribute to the thoughts and ideas of the respondents regarding the issue of realizing further cooperation and integration in Central Asia?

  1. Limited regional awareness

Across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, it seems that ordinary residents generally considered themselves to possess a limited knowledge of the situation and events in the wider Central Asian region:

Over half of Uzbekistani residents interviewed believed themselves to be rather knowledgeable of other countries, while around one-third disclosed an almost total lack of awareness. When we spoke to their Kazakhstani counterparts, most considered themselves to be rather uninformed on the subject, perhaps suggesting a higher level of confidence on the subject and that they may have a more international perspective on current affairs.

Despite demonstrating a limited understanding of the events of the region, the majority of the respondents were able to easily list factors that they perceived to unite the countries of  Central Asia. Popular answers included shared linguistic ties, religion, culture and traditions, lifestyle, and more general, less-tangible connections.

Whilst the answers provided point to a sort of fraternal affinity, they present themselves as rather ambiguous links, rooted in the social fabric of the region, rather than in practical commonalities. Interestingly, 20 percent of Kazakhstanis and 33 percent of Uzbekistanis were unable to provide an answer to the question altogether. Whilst constituting the minority, these figures again highlight a gap in awareness and a notable disconnect. 

The significant answers provided perhaps omit more macro attempts by the countries’ leaders to boost integration - through projects such as the Eurasian Economic Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, or even through trade. Suggestions of sporting or joint-cultural activities were omitted also. Notably, those who had lived through Uzbekistan’s period within the Soviet Union were more likely to offer an answer than those who had not. This perhaps suggests that the large-scale attempts made by the USSR to forge a single “Soviet” identity across the region during this period had a lasting effect on the Union’s Uzbekistani subjects, perpetuating such ideals far beyond the dissolution of the Bloc.

However, despite perception of fraternal connections, when asked about what first comes to mind when thinking of other Central Asian nations, many found themselves unable to respond altogether: 

What do these rather unexpected results point to? Why were such a large percentage of the sample unable to identify a key defining feature or concept relating to their neighboring countries, while they found it much easier to identify what connects the Central Asian nations as a whole? These questions are significant because they point to a rift between the deep, fraternal affinity discussed by the respondents, and a working image of these countries in the minds of the interviewees.

  1. The notions held by ordinary citizens perpetuate perceived obstacles to closer regional integration:

When discussing the current relationships between countries in Central Asia, those in Uzbekistan were quite optimistic about the level of cooperation between their countries and the others within the region, while those in Kazakhstan maintained a slightly restrained outlook.

Residents of both nations were generally quite positive, or at least neutral about their nation’s current efforts to cooperate with neighboring countries, as well as the region’s sense of unity as a whole. However, given the level of unawareness of other Central Asian nations displayed previously, is this level of cooperation accurate in practicality, or simply another example of an undefined, ambiguous affinity? A good example is the number of interviewees who considered Russia to be their nation’s best potential source of help when facing economic or other issues: 

Less than a tenth of those from both countries believe that others within the region should be their nation’s first source of aid in times of need, possibly due to a lack of meaningful regional economic partnerships, for example, that are not spearheaded by Russia. However, the majority of interviewees were enthusiastic about the prospect of the Central Asian countries uniting in a regional, political, and economic union to help one another during such times of need, in addition to furthering the region’s development: 

Of those who considered the development of such a union to be necessary, the majority of respondents spoke of a need for “everyone to help one another and unite” and thought that “association, cooperation, and commonwealth” were important for Central Asia. These answers, while enthusiastic, are rather vague. More focused justifications, such as strengthening the region’s economic situation, were listed much less frequently. Perhaps then, it is this lack of consideration for practical applications of such a union which have led the Central Asian nations to instead rely on projects with Russia at the helm.

Whilst the region has witnessed a number of attempts at regional integration projects, Russia has remained the main instigator and beneficiary, leading some commentators to conclude that the primary role of such organizations is one of a political nature for Moscow. The benefits of the trade and economic bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union, are clear for Russia, with the country  occupying 87 percent of the bloc’s total GDP, and the much smaller member, Armenia, receiving just 1.13 percent of total customs revenue. The figures suggest that Central Asian nations, particularly Uzbekistan, which has historically remained skeptical over Moscow’s endeavors in this direction, could foresee taking a more active role in the future. 

Whilst Kazakhstan and possibly later down the line, Uzbekistan, would likely be best suited for this kind of role as the leader of such a Central Asian union, the number of integration attempts held together by Russia suggests that in the current environment, genuine regional economic integration cannot be achieved without the stewardship of Moscow. This perception of Russia as a constant and vital ingredient, especially given the context of the proactive stance it now takes on the international stage, must be looked at again before Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan can take the mantle of leading regional power.

It appears that a more focused view by Central Asian nations as to what benefits such cooperation could provide for their nations will be necessary as well. Such a project may be difficult to realize not only due to the lack of a focused vision but also due to an inability to identify issues that limit current cooperation between these countries: 

Nearly half of the interviewees from both nations were unable to define any difficulties in the present relationships between the countries of the region. Of those who did respond, answers such as “everything is fine”, “none” or neutral responses were most common.  Although this could be taken as a sign that relationships between Central Asian nations are fruitful and stable, it seems more likely, given the level of unawareness about other Central Asian countries touched upon previously, that these answers (or lack thereof) instead reflect a lack of awareness concerning how relations could be enhanced.

As a whole, these responses seem to illustrate that many ordinary people within Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan consider themselves to have shared identities, practices, and values which unite them with other Central Asian nations. This  sense of unity is reflected in the optimistic outlook that the respondents have on the current state of Central Asian cooperation and integration, and their positive feelings towards the possible integration. Nevertheless, despite this rather idealistic view of the current relationship between the Central Asian nations, the respondents found it difficult to pinpoint specific reasons why they believe that such collaboration between these countries is important, in addition to ways in which unity can be strengthened.

On a more general level, the respondents were unaware of the current state of affairs in other nations and little came to mind for them when they thought of other countries within the region. 

Collaboration is perhaps more present sentimentally than in practicality. It seems then that while many within Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are ready for the opportunity to increase cooperation and integration within the region, there is a lack of knowledge that inhibits the practical implementation of further collaboration and the present strengthening of relationships. A disconnect in shared knowledge likely stems from a failure by those in the Central Asia region to establish, promote and mobilize new, innovative and engaging forms of shared culture.

Looking forward, if endeavors to this end prove more successful, perhaps efforts to foster a more consistent and palpable sense of an integrated future will allow the countries to move away from being a group of nations tenuously connected by ambiguous historical memory and broad notions of brotherhood, towards a genuinely interconnected, collaborative and optimistic region.

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