What happened at the last meeting of Central Asian leaders? – The Diplomat
The fourth consultative meeting of Central Asian Heads of State was held on July 21 in the resort town of Cholpon-Ata, on the shores of Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. The current leaders of the five Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – all attended the meeting. President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev were welcomed by host Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov on July 20, while Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan and Serdar Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan arrived in Cholpon -Ata the morning of July 21.
A lot has happened in the Central Asian states and in the world since the Central Asian leaders met last year in Turkmenistan. In 2022 alone, there were internal political upheavals in Kazakhstan in January 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine from February 2022, elections in Turkmenistan, and the recent instability in Uzbekistan in early July. And yet, the Fourth Consultative Meeting of Central Asian Heads of State took place, demonstrating its consistency and the value that Central Asian leaders place on its perseverance. It is clear that this new informal political format in Central Asia, introduced for the first time in 2018, has already survived major instabilities: the transition of power in Kazakhstan in the spring of 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic starting in early 2020, the political chaos in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020, and the return to power of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021.
Consultative meetings in Central Asia aim to come together to discuss pressing issues in the region and make useful recommendations, while avoiding being involved in legally binding commitments. This new formula for renewed regional cooperation in Central Asia appears to be working quite well compared to previous attempts by Central Asian states to forge formal and rigorous regional integration institutions with mutually binding legal agreements. This latter approach did not lead to productive regional cooperation throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, Central Asian countries found themselves without political trust, less interconnected and culturally distant in the early 2000s. The sad history of the Central Asian Union (1994-2001) and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (2001-2005), which ceased to exist as regional institutions in their own right, convincingly illustrates this point.
Fast forward to 2022, and the Fourth Consultative Meeting brought tremendous results by culminating in a joint declaration, as has been the case in previous meetings, and, most importantly, the signing of the agreement to friendship, good neighborliness and cooperation for the development of Central Asia in the 21st century, proposed by Tokayev at the third consultative meeting. The agreement was signed by the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, while it was agreed that the leaders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan would sign the document after following certain national political procedures.
Another important development was the first meeting of foreign ministers of Central Asian states, held a day before this year’s consultative meeting itself. This is seen as one of the main steps towards consolidating political trust between leaders and officials in the region. The proposal for a meeting of foreign ministers had been voiced since the first consultative meeting held in Nur-Sultan in 2018 and has now come to fruition.
Another document signed by the heads of Central Asian countries is the concept of interaction between Central Asian states in multilateral frameworks, which was proposed by the President of Kazakhstan at the meeting. Tokayev stressed that “with regard to cooperation with strategic partners outside the region, Kazakhstan considers the concept of interaction between Central Asian states in multilateral frameworks to be possible.” He added: “I think we should not limit ourselves to fixed geographical boundaries. High-level representatives from neighboring countries such as Russia and China could attend consultative meetings as guests.
If realized, this new proposal would change the nature of the Consultative Meetings from a purely Central Asian platform to something akin to the Commonwealth of Independent States or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, thereby burying another Central Asian regionalism project, as was the case with the CAU and CACO. On the other hand, the proposal could be seen as a reiteration of the goodwill of Central Asian states. A similar sentiment was expressed in the first joint statement of 2018, which underlined the opening of this platform to any third party to participate. In this sense, Tokayev’s comment once again clarifies that consultative meetings do not imply the creation of an alliance or alignment against a third country in these difficult geopolitical circumstances, which require careful actions and an expression clear intentions.
Likewise, Central Asian leaders have stressed the need to diversify trade routes in the current difficult geopolitical context by stressing the importance of South Asia to provide an alternative route. Furthermore, the leaders highlighted security as a vital dimension that requires mutual cooperation and coordination in the region. Besides these issues, climate change, shrinking glaciers, reclaiming the Aral Sea and maintaining water, food and energy security were mentioned as pressing issues at the regional agenda.
Meanwhile, the joint statement of the fourth meeting included a new principle – the inviolability of state borders – as well as the principle of territorial integrity, which was included in the second joint statement issued in 2019. This means that Central Asian states seek to express their collective position in the face of external incursions.
Furthermore, the joint declaration defines the consultative meetings “as the unique mechanism for maintaining political dialogue, discussing and identifying new prospects for regional interactions at a high level”, thus clarifying the character of this new format and marking its coherent nature. Consultative meetings are now a new norm in Central Asia.