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Central Asian Summit without Ashgabat: Why?

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Photo: google.com

President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has refused to attend the Central Asian Summit to be held in Astana during Navruz celebrations (in the second half of March). Parliament Speaker Akja Nurberdiýewa will represent Ashgabat at the event.

Initiated by Uzbekistan, the summit will be chaired by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Experts say this may be a landmark event for regional development of Central Asian states, since their leaders are meeting for the first time within the last 13 years.

Uzbekistan’s idea to hold a regional summit was quite surprising for Astana, as under president Islam Karimov Uzbekistan showed no interest in alliance or any integration projects, whereas Kazakhstan has traditionally suggested various integration projects, including the Union of Central Asian States offered in 2005. The project looked to ensure the region with food and energy using the region’s resources only. Unfortunately, the project has come to nothing.

Changes have come to the region with new president of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who advocates for rapprochement with neighbors. He has suggested not only holding the Central Asian Summit, but also introducing a Consultative Council to hold high-level discussions on regional issues. This will not be a new international organization or an integration union, the Uzbek leader explained, but a new platform to “coordinate positions on major issues.”

Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev was the first to respond to Tashkent’s initiative. The other regional leaders welcomed the idea as well. Therefore, President Berdymukhamedov’s refusal to attend the summit seems surprising and logical at the same time. Talking to EADaily, Alexander Knyazev, PhD in Historical Sciences, an expert on Central Asia and Middle East, said Turkmenistan stays isolated from the world and seems to have no plans to change anything.

“Berdymukhamedov has nothing to discuss with presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, much less in a five-power format. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have no export products to transit via Turkmenistan, neither have they anything to import from Turkmenistan having no border with it. Interests of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are at a higher level, they seek to work with all the countries in the region and outside it,” Knyazev said. According to him, such initiatives should not be overestimated and it will be a consultative meeting that will not result in any compulsory decisions. “Berdymukhamedov, actually knows this,” he said.

Kazakh political analyst, director of the Risk Assessment Group (Alma-Ata) Dosym Satpayev also believes that Berdymukhamedov’s refusal to attend the summit will change nothing. “Turkmenistan is not the key player in the region, at least, because it cannot make any offers of regional cooperation. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are more likely to make offers,” he said comparing the situation with EU, where France and Germany are the bone of the Union while other countries are more passive. “If Astana and Tashkent become the bone of regional cooperation, it will be good. The others will join them,” Satpayev told EADaily.

On the other hand, Turkmenistan is part of the region and it has closer ties with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan from viewpoint of common projects and geographical location than with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In this light, Ashgabat’s unwillingness to support regional integration looks strange. The country is not a member of any integration union – CSTO, EAEU or SCO. Ashgabat demonstratively stays committed to its neutral status, though closer ties with Tashkent will help it settle many of its issues, at least security-related ones. Who Turkmenistan will rely on in case of serious problems on the Afghan border? It will be neither Russia nor USA, but its closest neighbors, the more so as it has an agreement of military assistance with Tashkent.

Dosym Satpayev believes that Kazakhstan will take the first role in this regional integration project, since it seeks to reanimate its previous projects. At present Tashkent and Astana are holding some working discussions concerning the format of the summit: official format implies official statements with certain commitments, whereas an informal one - just a friendly meeting of neighbors.

“I think a regional bloc may emerge in the future if it is based on two main areas: border security and cooperation in the water and energy field,” Dosym Satpayev said.

EADaily’s Central Asian Bureau

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