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PRELIMINARY RESULTS OF THE CENTRAL ASIAN EXPERT FORUM: REGIONAL PROBLEMS AND THEIR SOLUTIONS
ЦЕНТРАЛЬНАЯ ЕВРАЗИЯ - ФОРУМ
28.03.2019 13:11

Alexey Strokov (Uzbekistan), expert of the Central Eurasia Analytical Group and member of the Expert Council of the Central Eurasia project (www.ceasia.org). Under the general editorship of  Vladimir Paramonov, head of the Central Eurasia Analytical Group and the Central Eurasia Internet project. Translated by Yekaterina Seifulina (Kazakhstan), editor of the English channel of the Central Eurasia Expert Network .

The virtual expert forum on the Central Eurasia Project (Tashkent, Uzbekistan, www.ceasia.org) is perhaps the most large-scale and ambitious attempt to accumulate the opinions of the most socially active representatives of the intellectual elite of the Central Asian (CA) countries on one platform. Two principal questions were brought up for discussion: "What problems on the development path of the countries of Central Asia and the relations between them would you identify?" and "How do you think you can most effectively solve these problems?"

These issues are indeed extremely relevant for the countries of the region. Due to a number of expert assessments, since the collapse of the USSR, the Central Asian states, unfortunately, have not reached the trajectory of sustainable development, and many important indicators in the political, economic, social and security spheres are still significantly lower than the corresponding indicators of the recent Soviet past with all its advantages and disadvantages. At the same time, despite the fact that hundreds of documents (treaties, agreements, etc.) were signed between the Central Asian states, they turned out to be not so effective, and all sorts of problems related to the collapse of the Soviet Union were only accumulating, without being solved at all.

Moreover, interstate regional cooperation remains at an extremely low level, limited to only selective forms of cooperation. However, it happens despite the fact that basically none of the Central Asian countries opposes regional cooperation and integration. On the contrary, the peoples of the Central Asian states only support this idea, and the political elites and state structures declare the same. Even official representatives of Turkmenistan, without expressing support for regional integration, at least do not object to the very idea of regional cooperation. Moreover, in the context of the new international policy of Uzbekistan under Sh.Mirziyoyev, conditions for activating interstate regional cooperation have drastically improved.

The analysis of the preliminary / intermediate results of the discussion (based on a synthesis of 50 out of more than 100 expert opinions) suggests that the CA expert community overall has a more or less clear understanding of the problems standing in the way of the development of Central Asian countries and the relationship between them. However, it should be frankly admitted that there is not yet a clear and, even more so, consolidated understanding of what it is specifically necessary to be done in terms of solving these problems. At least, where to start. So, answers to the question "How, in your opinion, can these problems be most effectively addressed?" are often fairly general, vague and / or controversial. Moreover, some experts, in fact, even avoided answering the question about possible solutions to existing problems.

ASSESSMENTS OF THE PROBLEMS

As for the conceptual and critical designation of problems, many valuable ideas were expressed. For example, the “lack of a systemic vision of the development perspectives of states” is noted, as well as the fact that “the existing development programs and strategies are largely declarative and do not rely on the necessary resource and organizational support,” “officials at all levels seek to avoid responsibility for independent actions” (Maxim Kaznacheev, Kazakhstan). If so, then what kind of development of Central Asian countries and, especially, what kind of regional cooperation / integration between them can we talk about?

Another valuable thought was perfectly expressed by Sherali Ryzoyon (Tajikistan) and consists in honest recognition of the fact "the lack of systemic regional studies that would be initiated by the Central Asian countries themselves." A Tajik scientist rightly notes that "all research and even expert and analytical discussion platforms are initiated exclusively by non-regional players." But if there is no research, then there can be no clear understanding of what should be done and how, and therefore there can be no effective management / political (both strategic and tactical) decisions.

It is also correctly noted that “the countries of Central Asia are not interdependent in economic terms, they are not even linked by foreign trade” (Bulat Sultanov, Kazakhstan), which objectively is a serious obstacle to economic cooperation in the region. Another expert, Aset Ordabayev (Kazakhstan), said in more detail: “Central Asian countries do not have a clear economic motivation to intensify interaction with each other (turnover is small, mutual investments are not large, there are such problems as weakness of economic systems, thinness of markets, competition among Central Asian countries for transit corridors)”.

There is also very valuable opinion that “in the region the idea of unification, which would be commin for everyone, cannot be formulated, so it is not clear on what basis to unite and why?” (Dmitry Orlov, Kyrgyzstan). In other words, there is still no integration project in Central Asia, and this seems to be the essence of all the problems on the path of relations among the Central Asian countries. In this regard, many experts note that “Central Asian countries simply lack the motivation to start the process of regional integration” (Gulnara Dadabayeva, Kazakhstan), “there are no integration mechanisms” (Bahrom Rajabov, Uzbekistan).

Some experts also emphasize that “the ruling elites of the countries of the region understand their personal interests and benefits as the interests of peoples” (Dmitry Orlov, Kyrgyzstan). In addition to this thought, the opinion of Bahtiyor Babadzhanov (Uzbekistan) deserves attention, stating that “it is pointless to discuss the problems of regional integration (although its relevance is obvious) while all issues are in the hands of a limited circle of politicians and leaders of countries whose mentality is tailored according to old patterns of “republican competition” and whose understanding of narrow national interests is extremely limited.” B.Babadzhanov also notes that “in the Central Asian countries there is still no system of public influence on political decisions taken.”

In general, almost all experts recognize that everything (or a great deal) depends on the leaders of the states, and fundamentally nothing depends on the peoples and even the intellectual stratum or the very expert community! In the conditions of Central Asia, this is, unfortunately, true. It is possible that these are the consequences of “social immaturity” that affects all post-Soviet countries, where citizens try not to think about the fate of their countries and the future, preferring to shift it to the leaders of the states.

In turn, the leaders of the Central Asian countries themselves "prefer to build political, economic and other ties with large extraregional states at the expense of regional cooperation" (Kosimsho Iskandarov, Tajikistan). This creates additional problems in the development of the Central Asian countries and the relations between them. Moreover, such a “uselessness” of the Central Asian states to each other is largely objective, as the countries of the region have almost nothing to offer each other: neither reliable political, and, moreover, military support, nor investments, nor technologies, nor complex production of goods (machinery / equipment, etc.)

Of particular note is the valuable opinion of Yerkebulan Bekturov (Kazakhstan) that “a serious problem in the development of Central Asian countries is a mentality based on close relationships (cronyism), which means that there are “glass ceilings” that prevent career development for the worthiest people”. As a result, in his opinion, “there are a lot of managers-henchmen of influential clans and their offsprings, relatives who hold their posts not by seniority and not by abilities / valuable experience, but by understandable criteria.”

Komron Rakhimov (Tajikistan) emphasizes the same: “professional employees often do not find the support of their states, and priority is given to those who have strong ties.”According to the Tajik expert, “hence we have the extremely low level (on average) of the professionalism of the managing elite and, as a result, its lack of a vision of strategic development prospects.” Moreover, such a bureaucratized and illiterate “elite” is unlikely to be able to prepare an effective regional development project. Maxim Kaznacheev (Kazakhstan) expresses himself in the same way, highlighting the same problem. However, the most terrible, in the opinion of Erkebulan Bekturov (Kazakhstan), is that “the so-called opposition is just a group of people tamed by the current authorities, which is necessary for it as a kind of “litmus test” demostrating how great social tension is in society.”

In turn, Rustam Burnashev (Uzbekistan) identified such a problem as “the lack of a holistic power field” and the presence of “competition ofinfluence groups”. Therefore, in his opinion, “each social group (ethnic, religious), acting as one of the many centers of power, seeks to increase their own security, which is perceived by other groups as a challenge or threat to their security and, accordingly, generates a response.” Thus, the hidden struggle for power / influence of internal groupings, as the expert believes, is actually the main obstacle to development.

In other words, some experts agree that in the Central Asian countries there is no constructive opposition that could offer something reasonable / valuable. As a result, the following situation arises: there is no de facto constructive opposition in the region, and the current administrative bureaucracy, by and large, is fragmented on the basis of narrow clan interests, is illiterate, extremely cautious, and even coward (fears responsibility, independent actions on one or another important issues). Thus, everything is locked in essence on the five leaders of the countries of Central Asia. However, are their efforts enough to give a powerful impetus to the development of Central Asian countries and the relations between them? Perhaps this requires consolidation and focus on the productive activities of the entire intellectual capital of the Central Asian states? This cannot be observed yet.

The ideas expressed by Rafael Sattarov (Uzbekistan) are also very valuable. In his opinion, among the main problems in the development of Central Asian countries and relations the following can be stressed: “the unreadiness of the countries of the region to solve their problems independently”, “a different view of the historical past”, “outflow of human capital”. A similar position is taken by Bahrom Rajabov (Uzbekistan), which points to the “lack of integration mechanisms” and “the outflow of professionals (technocrats in a good sense) driving development / reforms.”

The following opinion is also highlighted: “the states of the region are still at the stage of forming their own national-state identity. Accordingly, the separation as states and nations with their own national values is natural” (Arsen Usenov, Kyrgyzstan). This also shows that the ruling elites are still strictly limited to the idea of national independence, since no other idea was developed by the states. Farhad Tolipov (Uzbekistan) speaks about the same thing, pointing to “ideological and institutional famine” and Faridun Zamonov (Tajikistan), notes “the high politicization of all spheres of life in the Central Asian countries.”

In addition, it is noteworthy that "the confrontation between the USA and Russia distracts the countries of Central Asia from solving urgent problems on the way of their development" (Danial Saari, Kazakhstan). Shukhrat Evkochev (Uzbekistan) also speaks about the geopolitical confrontation of major powers, and Saifiddin Juraev (Uzbekistan) focuses on "problems related to the global context: the rapidly changing system of international relations." Komroni Hidoytzoda (Tajikistan) adheres to a similar position, pointing out that "the process of independent development of the region is facing tough external pressure." However, is external influence among the main problems?

The given opinions of experts, from our point of view, most conceptually, accurately and vividly reflect the main problems in the development of Central Asian countries and the relationship between them. It appears that the remaining expert assessments either focus on ideas that are similar in meaning, or on things that are consequences of the main problems voiced, in general, on narrower / specific / detailed issues in the areas of politics, economics, security and social sphere. Such expert opinions are also fundamentally important and significantly enrich the discussion, including by identifying specific facts and / or trends.

In particular, many representatives of science, culture and art see the main problems in the development / interaction of the region mainly in the social sphere, clearly pointing to a sharp decline in humanitarian (social) contacts between Central Asian countries.

The same experts also honestly admit the fact that the peoples of the states of the region began to communicate less, to understand each other less, in fact, they are in information isolation from each other. Khusniddin Ato (Uzbekistan) speaks about this in particular, noting “the problem of weakness of communication, interaction, cooperation”, Saule Suleimenova (Kazakhstan), pointing to “lack of connections”, Marat Rakhmatullaev (Uzbekistan), stating “a deepening cultural gap, scientific, educational and informational links.” Mukhit-Ardager Sydyknazarov (Kazakhstan) and Serdar Ibragimov (Turkmenistan) point to the weakness of interstate interaction in general. Aigerim Turgunbaeva (Kyrgyzstan) says that Central Asian countries “prefer national, often short-term, interests to regional and long-term interests.” Arsen Sarsekov (Kazakhstan) points out that “the disunity and fragmentation of the information space hinders the integration of the Central Asian states.” In turn, Bakhrom Ismatov (Tajikistan), Bakhyt Rustemov (Kazakhstan), and Laila Akhmetova (Kazakhstan) also rightly focus on the disunity of the countries of the region in general.

Against this background, in their assessments of problems, some experts emphasize the ongoing process of political disintegration of the region, noting that countries are oriented towards different goals and objectives. Thus, Arslanbek Omurzakov (Kyrgyzstan) identifies “a lack of mutual understanding, ambitions of leaders and elites, different approaches to solving problems.” Shokir Khakimov (Tajikistan) and Taalatbek Masadykov (Kyrgyzstan) are clearly talking about this. In turn, Enebay Kakabaeva (Turkmenistan) particularly points to the “lack of mutual trust between the Central Asian countries.”

At the same time, some experts tend to see the core of regional problems in the economic sphere. For example, Farrukh Salimov (Tajikistan) notes the “inefficiency of economic institutions" and the "surface of the reforms” or their absence.       

In addition, many experts rightly point out the security sphere as the source of many problems, including problems related to the delimitation and demarcation of borders, the general use of water and energy resources, and the development of transport links. In particular, the following experts clearly say about that: Kamoludin Abdullayev (Tajikistan), Aita Sultanaliyeva (Kyrgyzstan), Aigerim Turgunbayeva (Kyrgyzstan), Layla Akhmetova (Kazakhstan), Rakhmatsho Makhmadshoev (Tajikistan), Mukhit-Ardager Sydyknazarov (Kazakhstan), Taalbekbek Masadykov (Kyrgyzstan).

“Corruption, remoteness from world financial centers and excessively rigid vertical of power” (Arsen Sarsekov, Kazakhstan), “excessive authoritarianism, lack of democracy, underdevelopment of political culture” (Galym Ageleuov, Kazakhstan) are also called as typical problems. Around the same context, Faridun Zamonov (Tajikistan) also spoke.

In turn, certain experts identify problems in the field of labor migration (Valentina Chupik, Uzbekistan) or environmental problems related to the disappearance of the Aral Sea as important issues (Janyl Jusupjan, Kyrgyzstan).

Or, for example, Olga Kobozeva (Uzbekistan) notes a whole range of socio-economic problems on the path of development of Central Asian countries and the relationship between them: low level of medicine, poor social protection, water problems, environmental problems, lack of professional staff, underdeveloped economy, low level of education, underdeveloped infrastructure, etc. All these are also true, although, perhaps, they are already consequences of the main problems.

RECOMMENDATIONS TO ADDRESS THE PROBLEMS

Question: "How do you think you can most effectively solve these problems?" proved to be quite difficult for all the experts surveyed.

Many experts (relative majority) suggest using mainly political mechanisms as recommendations.

For example, Osman Dosov (Kazakhstan) believes that “Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could create something like an axis of regional cooperation,” and Taalatbek Masadykov (Kyrgyzstan) proposes the formation of a "Central Asian Union, like the European Union.” Aidar Amrebaev (Kazakhstan) adheres to a similar position, which stands for “forming a self-sufficient and autonomous strategy for the entire region based on a multi-vector foreign policy doctrine.” Farhad Tolipov (Uzbekistan) speaks about the same, rightly defending the importance of a regional institutional format. In turn, Bakhyt Rustemov (Kazakhstan) and Arsen Usenov (Kyrgyzstan) rely on the political will of the leaders of the countries to solve regional problems. It also proposes “the creation of a Central Asian regional structure without the involvement of any other countries, which should deal with the problems of Central Asia” (Kosimsho Iskandarov, Tajikistan).

There is also quite valuable recommendation on the need to “coordinate the participation of the Central Asian countries in various international organizations to form a single platform, coordination of initiatives and voting”, for which it is proposed to “create a Central Asian Council with official representation from all states of the region” (Aydar Amrebaev, Kazakhstan).

A very original idea is expressed by Kamoluddin Abdullayev (Tajikistan), proposing the formation of an Uzbek-Tajik state (still hypothetical). This state, in his opinion, will “contain all the components of the Islamic-Persian and Turkic culture,” which will constitute “the core of the identity of the entire region and make it close and understandable to the nations of South Asia and the Near and Middle East.”

The proposed political mechanisms are generally logical and correct, but it is not entirely clear how to really ensure their operability. On the one hand, it is impossible to do without the creation of supranational structures, for which the ruling circles of the Central Asian countries are absolutely not ready yet. On the other hand, without a leader, no integration project is possible, but there is no leader in Central Asia so far.

Other experts rely mainly on economic mechanisms in solving regional problems. Among the most valuable opinions, it is worth noting the following: “it is necessary to develop a system of phased integration, including the allocation of production capacity ... but something needs to be borrowed from the Soviet model of economic development” (Komroni Khidoytzoda, Tajikistan). A consonant recommendation: it is necessary “to develop an optimal model of regional cooperation by creating joint ventures, free economic zones, etc., to bring together the legislative and regulatory framework in the field of foreign economic activity” (Nazokat Kasymova, Uzbekistan). Zainab Muhammad-Dost (Uzbekistan) speaks about the same thing, which emphasizes the importance of re-industrialization, overcoming the raw material orientation of Central Asian countries, encouraging the development of medium-sized businesses, eliminating trade barriers, and reestablishing economic ties.

Aset Ordabayev (Kazakhstan) expressed a very original idea, proposing “the implementation of an ambitious program to create joint ventures in Central Asian countries with the participation of capital from the states of the region.” He also recommends “inviting foreign companies to participate in regional economic projects, giving them preferences for the entire region.” Moreover, the importance of forming a single Central Asian market (Gulnara Dadabayeva, Kazakhstan) is rightly noted. All these seem to be correct, but it is not clear how to start these mechanisms.

Against this background, some experts propose to consolidate the efforts of the Central Asian countries in addressing regional security issues. For example, Rakhmatsho Makhmadshoev (Tajikistan) recommends “to start the formation of joint military and anti-terrorist structures, divisions, groups”. In turn, Anna Gusarova (Kazakhstan) proposes to unite efforts in the fight against transnational threats (including radical Islam, extremism and terrorism).

There are also experts who advise to take measures to intensify social / humanitarian ties between the countries of the region. So, Marat Rakhmatullaev (Uzbekistan) stands for “intensification of joint activities in the cultural, scientific and educational spheres through the implementation of projects that are important for our countries.” Arsen Sarsekov (Kazakhstan) speaks about the same thing, proposing “the integration of the information space of the Central Asian countries.”

Nevertheless, those experts who highlight the research component as an indispensable condition for solving regional problems deserve special attention. For example, there is a proposal “to create a regional scientific and expert platform where you should regularly hold various scientific, analytical, research activities on the most topical issues of cooperation in Central Asia” (Farrukh Salimov, Tajikistan). Approximately the same thing is offered by Saifiddin Juraev (Uzbekistan), recommending “to pay more attention to expert-analytical support of the decision-making process.” Finally, the idea of ​​Mukhit-Ardager Sydyknazarov (Kazakhstan) proposing “to create an Institute for the Study of Central Asia - a common expert and research center for Central Asian countries”, deserves special attention.

In addition to this idea, it is also proposed to intensify meetings at the highest level (Arslanbek Omurzakov, Kyrgyzstan), and “to intensify joint activities in the cultural, scientific, educational spheres through the implementation of regional projects” (Marat Rakhmatullaev, Uzbekistan). Similar recommendations are made by all representatives of the cultures and arts of the region.

Of course, it is the intensification of scientific and expert contacts, the organization of joint research and projects that can really give an important impetus to the process of consolidating the intellectual resources of the region. However, it requires political support for these ideas from the leaders of the Central Asian states.

It seems that the above recommendations of experts are the most specific in terms of solving problems on the development path of the Central Asian countries and the relationship between them.

However, in general, taking into account the preliminary results of the entire survey, it seems that the expert community of the Central Asian countries has not yet developed a clear and precise idea of ​​how to solve existing problems. Recommendations offered by experts mainly reduce to the intensification of human connections / contacts, various official and unofficial events in various spheres (politics, economics, security, social / cultural / humanitarian ties).

All this is true, but the proposed activities are too scattered, non-systemic. The most important thing is that there is no understanding of what and in what sequence should be done in order to overcome the disunity (in all respects) of the countries / peoples of Central Asia that arose after the collapse of the USSR.

This leads to a natural conclusion: it is necessary to consolidate the intellectual resources of all Central Asian states in order to conduct large-scale research to develop effective and mutually beneficial for all stakeholders mega-projects for regional development and integration in all major areas.

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