Tuesday, 22 December 2015 00:00

Kazakhstan: An Island of Stability in a Turbulent Region

By Vladimir Socor

ISDP Policy Brief no. 191

December 22, 2015

Click here for PDF version


The year now ending marked a milestone in Kazakhstan’s rapprochement with the European Union. On December 21, 2015 in Astana, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and Kazakhstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yerlan Idrissov, signed the EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. This new-generation Agreement replaces and upgrades an earlier, less ambitious document. Kazakhstan is the first Central Asian country to achieve this status vis-a-vis the European Union. This status puts Kazakhstan ahead of Russia in terms of official relations with the EU; moreover, the Kazakhstan-EU relationship is trouble-free.

The Enhanced Partnership is designed to strengthen political dialogue between the EU and Kazakhstan, advance mutual trade and investments, and reinforce cooperation in such policy areas as energy, environment, agriculture and rural development, finance and banking, rule of law and trans-border law enforcement, higher education and research. The agreement reflects the shared economic interests and prioritizes their further advancement. The European Union collectively holds the first place among Kazakhstan’s foreign trade partners and is also the largest foreign direct investor in Kazakhstan (see below).
Prefacing the enhanced agreement’s signing, the chief of the EU’s mission in Astana, Ambassador Traian Hristea, remarked that “Kazakhstan’s stability and predictability was an all-important prerequisite” to this achievement (Eurasia & World, December 8, 2015). Key to that stability and predictability is Kazakhstan’s executive power centered in the presidential institution. This has provided a durable basis for planning and implementing Kazakhstan’s modernizing reforms. Those efforts can only be assessed properly in relation to Kazakhstan’s historical legacies, current level of societal development, and the low base and late start of modernization processes in this country.


Kazakhstan’s Model of Centralized Reforms
The concepts of evolution, organic development, deference to the constituted authority of the state, and the politics of national consensus define the context of Kazakhstan’s modernization, its scope and its pace. Those features of Kazakhstan’s political culture not only cannot be ignored or circumvented, but can be capitalized on, in the process of modernization. Those features are major assets to stability and orderly development.
Kazakhstan’s reforms (as in other successfully modernizing non-Western countries) are necessarily elite-driven from above, under a recognized national leader. The development of representative political institutions follows an evolutionary process, correlated with the gradual spread of education and civic responsibility among voters and political parties. Kazakhstan’s elective institutions are developing organically with the state itself, rather than as a counterweight to executive power, at this stage. Decentralization of political power, if introduced prematurely, can incapacitate the state and paralyze reform efforts.
The national consensus, as personified by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has developed based on the president’s performance in office, steady economic growth under his tenure, and the confidence he generates in the continuing stability and modernization of Kazakhstan, against an international backdrop of mounting disorders. Ultimately, however, that national consensus is premised on expectations of growing prosperity; thus, the consensus is not unconditional.
In April 2015, Kazakhstan held its fifth presidential election in a quarter-century of independent statehood, reelecting Nazarbayev to another five-year term of office, which is generally assumed to be his final one. The reelection has bolstered Nazarbayev’s mandate to deal with the consequences of global and regional economic instability now affecting Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev went on to announce some policy initiatives with potentially transformative socio-economic impact, discussed below, while retaining the cabinet of ministers in its existing composition to implement those initiatives. This approach reflects the leadership’s pursuit of modern transformation of the country in conditions of political stability.
Observers commonly tend to focus on the political transition to a post-Nazarbayev era. As the president and governing circles see it, however, this final presidential term should also usher in a second stage of Kazakhstan’s structural economic changes and political reforms. Moreover, those carefully paced reforms will have to be combined with emergency anti-crisis programs.
Voters’ expectations are high from the President Nazarbayev and government in the current circumstances. The president is expected to ensure, as before, the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, its protection from transnational terrorism and other forms of political violence, resumption of economic growth powered by international investment, equitable allocation of the national income, an accelerated development of infrastructure across the vast country, and the transition to younger generations of the administrative, managerial, and political elites in the state and private sectors. Those expectations are likely to be transferred in due course to the next leadership, be it personalized (something difficult to emulate after Nazarbayev) or be it a more collegial one.


Managing an Unstable Region and World
Kazakhstan’s leadership discusses such issues candidly with its population and its international partners. It is a measure of Kazakhstan’s openness to the world that this country’s leadership must constantly evaluate the impact of global and regional processes on Kazakhstan, and how to adjust policies for a more effective participation in those processes. For it is an increasingly unstable world to which Kazakhstan is open and exposed.
The most serious challenges in that world are of recent date and unaccustomed, singly and in combination, to Kazakhstan. They include the economic slowdown or downturn in Kazakhstan’s main trading partners (the EU, Russia, China), declining global prices for oil and other export commodities of Kazakhstan, unpredictable turns in Russia’s foreign policies under President Vladimir Putin, economic and political risks of membership in the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, and relative disinterest of the United States toward Central Asia in strategic terms.
Kazakhstan’s “multi-vector” policy is designed to promote stability in the international environment on issues directly affecting Kazakhstan. The basic goal is to multiply the sources of international support for Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and its secure development. This policy represents, to some extent, a creative adaptation of the age-old practice of small and medium powers to balance between great powers and power blocs. In Kazakhstan’s case, however, multi-vectorism is not limited to reactive maneuvering between Russia (the main, if undeclared, source of concerns), China and the West (as undeclared balancers). Rather, Kazakhstan’s multi-vectorism involves pro-active initiatives to influence big players’ policies in the Central Asian region and the relevant decisions of international organizations.
The policy operates by diversifying Kazakhstan’s affiliations to international organizations and maximizing its diplomatic initiatives relevant to Central Asia there. It aims for stability and predictability in the region and beyond through the adjustment and balancing of the multiple interests involved. The multi-vector policy expresses Kazakhstan’s sense of its own identity as a bridge between Asia and Europe, a cultural crossroads, and almost pre-destined in these ways as an international diplomatic platform, its reach out cross-continental in scope (see Johan Engvall, Svante E. Cornell: “Asserting Statehood: Kazakhstan’s Role in International Organizations,” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center Silk Road Paper, December 2015).
Kazakhstan’s stability rests on harmonizing the country’s multiple internal and external identities. Multi-vectorism is both a considered strategy and an outgrowth of those multiple identities, which Kazakhstan is bringing to bear in its balanced foreign policy. This is a Muslim-majority, multi-confessional country, and a firmly secular state; a nation of the Turkic-speaking family, albeit with Russian still a lingua franca, though slowly receding as such; a part of the Muslim World and of the Turkic World, but not of the “Russian World;” a post-Soviet country, though more open to globalization than any in that category; an Asian country that views itself as bridging Asia with Europe, increasingly becoming an extension of the European economy, albeit in the mineral-extractive sector mainly.


The Russia Factor
Russia regards Kazakhstan, by definition, as part of a Russia-led Eurasian economic and security system through the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union (CSTO, EAEU). In that sense, Moscow’s view of Kazakhstan’s independence and sovereignty is a restrictive view, contingent on Kazakhstan’s remaining a member in good standing of those organizations.
Within the Eurasian Economic Union (officially launched on January 1, 2015), Kazakhstan aims to capitalize on that single market which promises free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor and common transport tariffs. However, Moscow’s suggestions to create EAEU supranational bodies and delegate sovereign powers to them, introduce a single currency, or institutionalize the EAEU politically are all viewed by Kazakhstan (along with other member states) as contrary to its interests. Kazakhstan (again, along with others) has refused to join Russia’s counter-sanctions on the EU in connection with the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization and Kazakhstan completed their long-running negotiations and Kazakhstan became a full WTO member in November 2015.
As a post-Soviet country with a sizeable ethnic Russian minority population (currently some 23 percent of Kazakhstan’s total population, but concentrated in the country’s north and north-east), Kazakhstan proactively cultivates an atmosphere of harmony in inter-ethnic relations. It is to the advantage of Kazakhstan’s stability that the political culture of deference to state authority is shared across ethnic lines in the country. Recently, however, Kazakhstan has seen Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine, and must consider the potential wider implications of the expansionist “Russian World” doctrine.
In an oft-quoted remark, Russian President Vladimir Putin has credited Nazarbayev with having “created a state on a territory where no state had existed previously.” Some observers have interpreted Putin’s remark as an insinuation that Kazakhstan is an artificial state susceptible to partition, by analogy with Putin’s earlier comments about Ukraine. This reading is almost certainly mistaken or unduly alarmist, however. Overall the Kremlin’s message is that CSTO and EAEU member states can count on preserving their territorial integrity with Russia’s support, while those choosing a Western orientation (as “single vector”) risk losing their territorial integrity at Russia’s hands or with its connivance (Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine). In Kazakhstan’s case, the state leadership has successfully avoided a split in society along ethnic and regional lines over the country’s strategic orientation. President Nazarbayev’s personal rapport with Putin can be viewed as a guarantee of stability in inter-state relations for the duration of Nazarbayev’s lifetime.
China’s massive economic interests in and with Kazakhstan constitute, in effect, a factor of geopolitical stability in the region. These have turned Kazakhstan into China’s top investment destination in Eurasia, with $ 26 billion as of 2014 (Xinhua, May 7, 2015), and more planned at similar levels of magnitude. These interests make China a stakeholder in Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and security, providing Kazakhstan with wider political and economic leeway vis-a-vis Russia.
Chinese interests in Kazakhstan advance in two stages, planned for the decades ahead. The first stage focuses on oil and gas pipelines connecting Kazakhstan (as well as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan) with China. These have been built during the last 10 years as Chinese-led projects, partly reversing the direction of Central Asian energy export flows from Russia toward China, with Kazakhstan providing the main transit route for deliveries from third countries to China. The second stage in Chinese planning focuses on land transportation connecting China to Europe via Central Asia, with Kazakhstan again to provide the main transit routes. In this context the two countries intend to align China’s Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative with Kazakhstan’s Bright Path stimulus program. The common intention is to build and/or upgrade rail and road cargo routes between China and the European Union via Kazakhstan.


Kazakhstan and the West
While Russia and China pursue coherent strategies toward Kazakhstan and the wider region, the United States currently seems bent on disengagement or, occasionally, groping to define some elements of a strategy. Viewing the region through the prism of Afghanistan or Islamist terrorist threats from outside the region are narrow, ad hoc approaches that cannot substitute for a U.S. strategy and fall short of expectations in the region. Those expectations are still focused, basically, on maintaining a stable triangular balance between Russian, Chinese, and U.S. (seconded by the EU) power, influence and engagement (S. Frederick Starr et al., “Looking Forward: Kazakhstan and the United States,” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center Silk Road Paper).
The European Union collectively holds the first place among Kazakhstan’s foreign trade partners, with a turnover of some $ 54 billion in 2014, or slightly more than 50 percent of Kazakhstan’s total foreign trade turnover (Trend, December 22, 2015). The EU is the final destination of nearly 70 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil-sector exports (which represent some 90 percent of the total value of Kazakhstan’s exports to the EU). The bulk of Kazakhstan’s oil and petrochemicals deliveries, however, reach Europe via Russia, which is a sub-optimal situation for both Kazakhstan and the EU in terms of security of transit and supply. The EU is also the largest foreign direct investor in Kazakhstan, representing over 50% of FDI in Kazakhstan as of 2014 (European Union External Action Service, “New EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement,” December 21, 2015.)


While external challenges accumulate, Nazarbayev---who turns 76 this year---is expected to steer the domestic transition of power during his current term of office. When embarking on this term (Kazinform, April 29, 2015), Nazarbayev listed the main sources of international instability surrounding Kazakhstan that subsequent events continually bear out: a) Disorders of the international state system, with new types of conflicts conducted by states and non-state actors motivated by radical ideologies; b) Global economic turbulence, economic sanctions and counter-sanctions, and divisions among trade blocs; and c) Growing dysfunctions in the established international security institutions and economic institutions. Such an external context generates new types of potential vulnerabilities for Kazakhstan.
To forestall a spillover of these negative trends into the country, Kazakhstan’s leadership seeks new means to consolidate the basis of domestic stability. This includes state-encouraged development of a middle class. Stimulating the formation of a property-owning middle class has long been on the country’s economic agenda, but is now acquiring additional significance as a source of social and political stability. Kazakhstan’s government is developing privatization programs to auction state-owned small and medium sized enterprises, shares in large state enterprises, and agricultural land. Assets of the national holdings Samruk Kazyna, Baiterek, and KazAgro could be included in the privatization program. In his recent state-of-the-nation address (Kazinform, December 1, 2015), ruling out tax hikes on private business, Nazarbayev also hinted at fiscal amnesty, encouraging “wealthy Kazakhs and all Kazakh businessmen, with capital in the country or abroad … to legalize your capital and participate in privatization bids.”
Nazarbayev went on to suggest: “Enrich yourselves, create jobs, pay taxes … The state provides unprecedented measures for privatization and economic liberalization. We want to create a state where prosperous citizens live well and do well, for themselves and for the country.” Nazarbayev, however, coupled such encouragements with a strong warning against conspicuous consumption that excites social envy (Kazinform, December 1, 2015).
That “enrich yourselves” remark brings an echo from the long evolution of modern Europe. Some 180 years ago, French Prime Minister Francois Guizot famously urged the bourgeois, “enrichissez-vous” through productive investments of their capital. Kazakhstan may now be approaching an “enrichissez-vous” moment in its own social development. Not coincidentally, Guizot’s financial liberalization overlapped with the country’s move from royal absolutism to a constitutional monarchy. And it took France another half-century before it became a parliamentary republic, unstable even then.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Fellow with the Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C.

Read 12829 times Last modified on Friday, 19 February 2016 22:59





  • ASIA Spotlight with Prof. S. Frederick Starr on Unveiling Central Asia's Hidden Legacy
    Thursday, 28 December 2023 00:00

    On December 19th, 2023, at 7:30 PM IST, ASIA Spotlight Session has invited the renowned Prof. S Fredrick Starr, who elaborated on his acclaimed book, "The Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane." Moderated by Prof. Amogh Rai, Research Director at ASIA, the discussion unveiled the fascinating, yet lesser-known narrative of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment.

    The book sheds light on the remarkable minds from the Persianate and Turkic peoples, spanning from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China. "Lost Enlightenment" narrates how, between 800 and 1200, Central Asia pioneered global trade, economic development, urban sophistication, artistic refinement, and, most importantly, knowledge advancement across various fields. Explore the captivating journey that built a bridge to the modern world.

    To know watch the full conversation: #centralasia #goldenage #arabconquest #tamerlane #medievalenlightment #turkish #economicdevelopment #globaltrade

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Some Lessons for Putin from Ancient Rome
    Thursday, 04 January 2024 17:01
    By S. Frederick Starr 
    American Purpose
    January 4, 2024
    Vladimir Putin, having sidelined or destroyed all his domestic opponents, real or imagined, now surrounds himself with Romano-Byzantine pomp and grandeur. The theatrical civic festivals, processions of venerable prelates, cult of statues, embarrassing shows of piety, endless laying of wreaths, and choreographed entrances down halls lined with soldiers standing at attention—all trace directly back to czarism, to Byzantine Constantinople, and ultimately to imperial Rome. Indeed, Putin considers himself as Russia’s new “czar,” the Russified form of the Latin “Caesar.”
    But besides all the parallel heroics, Roman history offers profound lessons for today’s world. All of America’s Founders saw the Roman Republic as the best model for their own constitution. Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler, by contrast, found in imperial Rome a stunning model for their own grandeur. True, some of Rome’s ancient chroniclers, including the celebrated Livy, so admired specific politicians that they saw only their good sides and ignored the problems and failures. Yet there were others, notably the pessimistic Sallust, who not only wrote bluntly of history’s painful issues but delved deep into their causes and consequences.
    Is Putin likely to delve into the history of Rome for insights on his own situation? Unfortunately for Russia, Putin is not a reader, preferring instead to engage in exhibitionist athletic activities, preside at solemn ceremonies, or offer avuncular obiter dicta. However, if he would study the Roman past, he might come to realize that that model presents more than a few chilling prospects that he will ignore at his peril.
    To take but one example, a glance at Roman history would remind Putin that self-declared victories may not be as victorious as he and Kremlin publicists want to think. Back in the 3rd century B.C., when Rome was still a small state in central Italy, it was attacked by a certain King Pyrrhus, a rival ruler from Epirus, a region along today’s border between Greece and Albania. In his first battles Pyrrhus routed the Roman legions, and celebrated accordingly. But matters did not end there.
    Like Pyrrhus, Putin’s army scored some early victories in its war on Ukraine. As recently as December 1, Putin’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu was still claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Russian forces “were advancing on all fronts.” Pyrrhus made similar false claims, only to discover that his own soldiers were no match for the determined Romans. As the Romans drove Pyrrhus’ army from the field, he groused, “If we win one more such victory against the Romans we will be utterly ruined,” which is exactly what happened. Pyrrhus’ statement gave Romans the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which we still use today. Putin should apply it to his “victories” at Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
    Another crisis in Rome’s early formation as a nation occurred when a peasant uprising threatened Rome itself and, according to the historian Livy, caused panic in the Roman capital. In desperation, the elders turned to Lucius Cincinnatus, who was neither a military man nor a professional politician, but who had earned respect as an effective leader. It took Cincinnatus only fifteen days to turn the tide, after which he returned to his farm. George Washington rightly admired Cincinnatus and consciously emulated him, returning after the Battle of Yorktown to Mount Vernon. By contrast, Putin’s “special military operation,” planned as a three-day romp, is now approaching the end of its second year. Putin, no Cincinnatus, doomed himself to being a lifer.
    Roman history is a millennium-long showcase of motivation or its absence. In this context, Putin might gain further insights by examining Rome’s centuries-long battle against the diverse tribes pressing the empire from the north. For centuries Rome’s legionnaires were well trained, disciplined, and committed. The list of their early victories is long. Both Julius Caesar and the philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius succeeded because they motivated and inspired their troops. But over time the Roman army was increasingly comprised of hirelings, déclassé men who fought not to save the empire but for money or a small piece of the bounty. Inflation and rising costs outpaced pay increases. Punishment was severe, in some cases including even crucifixion. In the end, Rome’s army eroded from within.
    This is what is happening to the Russian army today. Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with what was then an army of several hundred thousand trained professional soldiers. But after the Ukrainians killed more than 320,000 Russian troops, their replacements were unwilling and surly conscripts and even criminals dragooned from Russia’s jails. Putin quite understandably fears such soldiers. Putin’s army, like that of the late Roman Empire, is collapsing from within.
    By contrast, Ukraine’s army at the time of the invasion was small and comprised mainly Soviet-trained holdovers. Both officers and troops of the line had to be quickly recruited from civilian professions and trained. Yet they quickly proved themselves to be disciplined and resourceful patriots, not tired time-servers. True, Ukraine is now conscripting troops, but these newcomers share their predecessors’ commitment to the nation and to their future lives in a free country.
    Sheer spite and a passion for avenging past failures figured prominently in Putin’s decisions to invade both Georgia and Ukraine. Roman history suggests that this isn’t smart. Back in 220 B.C., Rome defeated its great enemy, the North African state of Carthage. Anticipating Putin, the Carthaginian general Hannibal sought revenge. Acting out of spite, he assembled 700,000 foot soldiers, 78,000 mounted calvary, and a force of war elephants, and crossed the Alps. Though he was a brilliant general, Hannibal’s war of spite turned into a disaster.
    Why did Hannibal lose? Partly because of his sheer hubris and the spite that fed it, and also because the Romans avoided frontal battles and simply ground him down. They were prudently led by a general named Fabius Maximus, whom later Romans fondly remembered as “the Delayer.” Today it is the Ukrainians who are the Delayers. By grinding down Putin’s army and destroying its logistics they have positioned themselves for victory.
    The Roman Republic fell not because of any mass uprising but because of the machinations of Julius Caesar. A victorious general, Caesar looked the hero as he was installed as imperator. As was customary at such ceremonies, an official retainer placed behind the inductee solemnly repeated over and over the admonition to “Look behind you!” Caesar failed to do so and underestimated the opposition of a handful of officials and generals who feared the rise of a dictator perpetuus. Even if Putin chooses not to read Cicero, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, he could productively spend an evening watching a Moscow production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.
    Turning to a very different issue, Putin seems blithely to assume that whenever Russia defeats a neighboring country it can easily win the hearts and minds of the conquered, whether by persuasion or force. This is what many Roman generals and governors thought as well, but they were wrong—fatally so. Speaking of the impact of corrupt officials sent by Rome to the provinces, the great orator-politician Cicero declared to the Roman Senate, “You cannot imagine how deeply they hate us.” Does Putin understand this?
    Finally, it is no secret that Russia today, like ancient Rome, is increasingly a land of immigrants; its economy depends on impoverished newcomers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia who fled to Russia in search of work. Yet Moscow treats them as third-class citizens and dragoons them as cannon fodder or “meat” to die by the thousands on the Ukrainian front. Rome faced a similar problem and wrestled with it unsuccessfully over several centuries. Over time the despised immigrants who poured across the Alps from Gaul demanded a voice in Roman affairs, and eventually took control of the western Roman Empire.
    Sad to say, neither Putin himself nor any others of Russia’s core group of leaders show the slightest interest in learning from relevant examples from Roman history or, for that matter, from any other useable past. Together they provide living proof of American philosopher George Santayana’s adage that, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In Putin’s case, though, he seems never to have known it. 

    ABOUT THE AUTHORSS. Frederick Starr, is a distinguished fellow specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus at the American Foreign Policy Council and founding chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

    Additional Info
    • Author S. Frederick Starr
    • Publication Type Analysis
    • Published in/by American Purpose
    • Publishing date January 4, 2024
  • CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr comments on "Preparing Now for a Post-Putin Russia"
    Friday, 03 November 2023 18:30

    Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in office, is ousted in a palace coup, or relinquishes power for some unforeseen reason, the United States and its allies would face a radically different Russia with the Kremlin under new management. The geopolitical stakes mean that policymakers would be negligent not to plan for the consequences of a post-Putin Russia. On November 2, 2023, CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr joined a panel organized by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Europe and Eurasia for a discussion on how US and allied policymakers can prepare for a Russia after Putin.

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...