Time to Try Again: Is a second attempt at a closer Central Asia possible?

Photo_Tolipov-feec8553Dr. Farkhod Tolipov is a prominent Central Asian scholar. He taught at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy and the National University of Uzbekistan. He was a visiting
Fellow at the NATO Defense College, Harvard University and lectured in leading Western academia and international think-tanks including the University of Georgia in Athens, the
George Marshall European Center for Security Studies and the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
Dr. Tolipov’s expertise lies within international relations and regional integration in Central Asia, geopolitics and international security studies. His work includes numerous articles on Central Asian topics in leading scientific journals.
Dr. Tolipov is also the author of “Grand Strategy of Uzbekistan in the Context of Geopolitical and Ideological Transformation of Central Asia”.

Currently, Dr. Tolipov heads a non-governmental Research and Education Institution “Knowledge Caravan” in Tashkent. Open Central Asia went to meet him.

OCA: Why do you think Central Asia could be a successful integration project?

Dr. Farkhad Tolipov: For a number of reasons: first, it was launched in December 1991 as an immediate, relevant and natural response by five Central Asian states to the abolishment of the Soviet Union and creation of the CIS, reflecting therefore a preexisting and frozen regional community. Second, the post-Soviet period has already registered an impressive record of successful integration, which lasted from 1991 till 2005 when it was again frozen artificially. Third, nowadays we observe the revitalisation of the integration idea, now on the public level, the process that displays the great hidden potential of those who can be called the bearers of the integration value.

OCA: Do you think integration should start economically first followed by a spillover into other fields of cooperation? Could there be other fields to start with?

FT: Given the very specific history of the region and contemporary geopolitical realities, integration may not necessarily take a form of sequence of cooperation fields with a spillover from one field into another; it can start with any possible sphere including cultural cooperation. At the same time, I would give more priority to the security sphere.

OCA: What do you think is the main problem about political integration in Central Asia?

FT: There are at least two main problems of political integration, to my mind. They are, first,
the vulnerability of all Central Asian countries to geopolitical trends, and second, the obsession of all Central Asian states’ leaders with nationalism and sovereignty. The first problem creates impediments for integration from outside the region; the second one erodes it from the inside.

OCA: Given the diverse economic levels of Central Asian countries, where could the actual
integration begin?

FT: As I mentioned before, integration can begin in any sphere. But when it comes to the economic realm, I would give priority to joint functional projects on transport, trade, energy and food. In the 1990s when the integration process was proceeding rapidly and successfully, the countries of the region really comprehended the potential in common economic activity and decided to set up joint consortiums in the field of energy, food and transport as well as announcing the creation of a common economic space. Moreover, I do not share the perception about the diverse economic levels of Central Asian countries. The European countries also have diverse economic levels but managed to
integrate into the Union.

OCA: Would you agree with the statement that some make, saying that without a large
scale war there can be no significant basis for integration?

FT: Of course, not! Let me remind you that the successful advancement of the integration process in the 1990s until 2005 was due to its natural and historically predetermined character. Yes, it wasn’t free from tensions and mutual mistrust, but Central Asians managed to establish relevant institutions to resolve/prevent possible conflicts. The integration was interrupted only due to an exacerbation of the geopolitical environment. So, I would say I disagree that without a large scale war there can be no significant basis for integration. I would rather argue that without a large scale integration there
could actually be a basis for a war or a conflict.

OCA: People nowadays do not talk much about Central Asia’s own unique integration, but
there are reports of a Eurasian Economic Union, which includes Russia. Is Central Asian
integration possible without Russian involvement?

СнимокFT: Yes, it is possible. It deserves mentioning that it is just Russia’s involvement/membership in the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) in 2004 which finally led to the complete abolishment of the CACO and its merger with the then Euro-Asian Economic Community (EAEC) under the false pretext that these two organisations duplicated each other. Central Asian integration has always been underway of its own accord and is unique. The artificial acceleration of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) by Russia and Kazakhstan’s, Kyrgyzstan’s and possibly Tajikistan’s membership in the EEU can further deform and strain the natural Central Asian community.

OCA: What is, in your view, the most important security threat for Central Asian countries?

FT: The most important security threat for Central Asian countries is hidden in the scenario of further fragmentation of their region and its falling into the sphere of exclusive dominance of one great power. These countries are obsessed with what they call national interests without defining those interests precisely. The result is that their “interests” lead them to one or another form of extra-regional dependence from a great power and to one or another form of intra-regional “independence” from each other.

СнимокOCA: Where do you think successful integration begins? Is this always a top-down initiative?

FT: Theoretically, it is both a top-down and a bottom-up process. In Central Asia it was
predominantly, so to speak, a state-run process. The remarkable success of the European integration was to a great extent due to the essential civic inputs in the process. In Central Asia the topdown process must be complemented by the civil society’s activism towards integration. I think now when over a quarter century passed since gaining independence, it is time to bring the idea of regional unification to the public, in all five Central Asian countries. To begin with, experts and public activists as well as politicians, might raise this topic in front of the wider audience and start discussions on integration.

OCA: Do personalities play roles in successful integration projects?

FT: Definitely. Let’s again recall European personalities such as Charles de Gaulle, Konrad
Adenauer, Winston Churchill, Jean Monet, and many others at the onset of the European integration, let alone subsequent and contemporary leaders. Central Asia is not an exception in this respect and much depends on personalities. Today many point out to the leaders of states of Central Asia to say that they mistrust each other and are, therefore, the main barriers for integration. This is true, but let’s not forget that it is the same leaders (especially the two veterans – Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbaev) that first proclaimed regional integration in 1991. Today, new leaders and activists are needed to pick up the project and follow on the integration way.

OCA: Could integration be beneficial for some but highly costly to others?

FT: Integration by definition should be beneficial for all participating countries. It is always a
voluntary choice of participating states based on strong assessment of all pros and cons. However, the benefits of integration should not be considered only in the economic realm; it has at the same time a strategic and a normative dimension. While it cannot be always a smooth process free from impediments, the long-term vision of benefits should prevail over short-term costs calculations.

OCA: Would you agree that there is a need in a major external funding for the project? Do
you think there are parties interested in a “Marshall Plan” for Central Asia? Will it not be a very expensive enterprise?

FT: I absolutely agree. Time and again, the European model could be recalled. The European integration started with the Marshall Plan. The similar impetus might be given to the Central Asian integration. At the same time, the “Marshall Plan” for Central Asia can be, let’s say, multilateral: it can be not simply USled or US-initiated, but should be inclusive in terms
of contribution to this mega-project from great powers and international organizations interested in supporting it. The UN, OSCE, NATO, World Bank, EBRD, ADB, United States, European Union, Japan, Turkey, India, China can be parties of this “Marshall Plan”. When it comes to Russia, the current political regime in Moscow is not interested in the unification of Central Asia without Russia and, as we know, it spurs a Eurasian model which will be detrimental to the Central Asian model. The most interesting and important aspect of this question is that the European Union, erstwhile recipient of the Marshall Plan assistance package from the United States, can provide its own Marshall Plan jointly with above mentioned stakeholders to Central Asia.

by Zaynab Dost

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