Central Asian Transition
Central Asia composes of five countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The word “stan” stands for “land” in Persian. Central Asia is an interesting region, because if you learn individually, every country looks like it is developing very fast, but studied as a region, there are many problems. Central Asia borders with Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan, thus, there are many hot issues. For example, Russia considers Central Asia as a part of its historical economic and regional interests. Turkey is attracted by the common Turkic heritage of the region. Iran shares language and cultural ties with the Tajik people. Also, China wants a peaceful backyard. The Central Asia’s Islamic tradition connects it with the Middle East and other Islamic countries. However, there are big differences between the Central Asian countries. For example, Uzbekistan is the most densely populated country and it has grown immensely, 25 years ago the population was 21 million, now it is around 31 million. The GDP per capita in the region is very different ranging from 12 000 EUR in Kazakhstan to 1000 in Tajikistan. The region is geographically landlocked, so it is difficult to accomplish cooperation with other countries. Central Asian countries have different interests. North-Eastern counties are using more liberal economic policy, while Southern countries have remained cautious. Turkmenistan, for instance, has wanted to remain neutral and to become “the Switzerland of Central Asia”.
Most head of states that came to power during transition in Central Asia were previously the First Secretaries of the Communist Party. In Tajikistan, for example, President Emomali Rakhmonov has been in power since 1992 and is seen as the “The leader of the nation”. In Turkmenistan, the current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow took office after the first president passed away. In Uzbekistan, after Islam Karimov, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to office in 2016. However, Kyrgyzstan stands out as different. There have been several changes of power as well as revolutions.
Consequences of the Collapse of the Soviet Union
Central Asia had been the main producer of primary goods in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR the supply chain and economic cooperation was disrupted due to lack of international currencies. After the collapse, Central Asia was attractive for foreign investors as it meant new market and base of resource. Still, the economies did not transform and export of natural resources has remained the main focus. Until 2000 all countries in the region had a negative growth in their GDP, expect for Uzbekistan which benefitted from the risen price of cotton. In 2000 all countries saw a boost in the economy as the oil prices went up. Nonetheless, the economy of Central Asia is connected to Russia and has been negatively affected by the Western sanctions on Russia.
Economic Reforms in the Region
Most Central Asian countries used shock therapy to transform the economy as quickly as possible. Uzbekistan introduced gradual reforms, as its population was too big for adapting to rapid changes. In the beginning of the transformation Uzbekistan used “som cupon” – vouchers – to insure food supplies for local population amid foreigners coming to buy primary goods. Uzbekistan has also used import substituting policy to restrict import. As an interesting way to secure stability in the country, in Turkmenistan, from 1993 power, gas and water were free of charge for local people. The programme was supposed to go on up to 2030, but as the president died it was cut in 2014. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the countries which have no oil or natural gas. Yet, they have potential for hydro energy. Water has been a source of conflict and tensions in Central Asia due to its geopolitical location. During Soviet times, water was wasted and still today, per capita water consumption of Turkmenistan is 13 times greater than that of China.
How is the military balance between the countries divided? Are any of the countries sympathetic towards NATO?
The Central Asian Countries are not involved in the military actions of NATO. Everyone has their own military. Russia has a big influence in military terms.
How doable is Eurasian Economic Union in the context of scepticism?
Uzbekistan left the Union as it saw no benefits stemming from it. Central Asian countries are participating in many programmes, but none of them is working beneficially because every country has its own interest: some want to cooperate, some to remain neutral. There should be a programme for development and trade. In the future, Eurasian programme will probably be replaced by another one (Shanghai Cooperation Organization is expanding).
Who are Uzbekistan’s biggest “friends” or allies?
In my opinion, China is the safest partner for the region. So far it has no political agenda but wants to build economic cooperation and is investing in local infrastructure. Russia, USA and European countries have their political interests and in the past, interaction with them has caused instability in the region.
Do you think visa freedom has relieved the tension between the countries in the region? Is there a possibility of conflict?
I do not think so. It has been declared that all issues are resolved. After Russian sanctions and drop in oil prices, everyone needs a new strategy. All countries are looking for new ways for economic development and cooperation. It would be a good chance to open the economies. During the next 5 years, at least, I do not think we would have a problem. However, some tensions remain between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Konspekteeris Kristin Saar