Sunday, 25 November 2018 12:31

Modernization and Regional Cooperation in Central Asia: A New Spring?


Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
November 2018


Click to download PDF 


1811CA-Regional-coverExecutive Summary 

Until recently, regional cooperation among Central Asian states has left much to be desired. While a number of initiatives have been launched over the past quarter-century, there is no functioning mechanism for coordination among the region’s states, and by early 2018, a decade had passed since Central Asian leaders met without the presence of foreign powers. Little wonder, then, that despite the close cultural and historical connections linking Central Asians together, the very existence of a Central Asian region has come to be questioned.

In the past two years, there are important indications that this gloomy picture is rapidly changing. The pace of interaction among regional states has grown considerably. Controversies over border delimitation and water use have been largely resolved. In March 2018, leaders of five Central Asian states met in Astana at the invitation of the President of Kazakhstan, but at the initiative of the President of Uzbekistan. In June that year, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution, submitted by Central Asian states, that supported the strengthening of regional cooperation in Central Asia. Preparations are underway for a second summit of Central Asian leaders in March 2019. What are the prospects of such cooperation?

An overview of Central Asian regional cooperation to date shows that the roots of regional coordination lie in the late Soviet period. Central Asian leaders of the Brezhnev era worked together to coordinate their responses to Moscow’s demands, and built a united front to maximize their freedom of maneuver. When independence was thrust upon the region, the leaders of the five republics took steps to continue this practice, and even to deepen it through common institutions. This, however, turned out to be premature for two main reasons. First and foremost, the new states had enormous domestic challenges, and needed to focus their energies on the building of state institutions, often from scratch. This condition, common to post-colonial situations, preoccupied them for the better part of two decades. Today, however, Central Asian states are considerably more consolidated, meaning they are able and willing to look beyond their borders to seek regional solutions.

Second, there was, and remains, a rival to Central Asian cooperation: that of Eurasian integration, led by Moscow. Because of their economic and security dependence on Moscow, regional states sought simultaneously to deepen regional cooperation in Central Asia, while also engaging in Eurasia-wide integration structures. This appeared to work until geopolitical competition in Eurasia accelerated between 2001 and 2005. Central Asian states had set up an increasingly successful structure for regional cooperation; but this came to an end after Russia first joined the organization, and subsequently engineered its merger into Eurasia-wide integration structures in 2005.

What, then, is different today? Three main factors provide an impetus for the rebirth of regional cooperation in Central Asia. The first is that the prospect of continental trade linking Europe and Asia across the region is no longer an illusion, but rapidly becoming reality. To reap the full benefit of this process, Central Asian states must develop their coordination of policies in economic and customs matters, among other. The second is that while high commodity prices generated a certain level of complacency for a number of years, this changed with the drop in oil prices in late 2014. Beginning in 2015, a serious effort at political and economic reform began in Kazakhstan. In 2016, the power transition in Uzbekistan led to the rise to power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who embarked on an ambitious program of reform of state institutions in every sector. These reform initiatives in Central Asia’s largest states weakened forces that benefited from the status quo, and required a greater level of regional cooperation to achieve economic modernization and development. Third, the role of Afghanistan is different today than in the 1990s. While it was only seen as a source of trouble at the time, Central Asians presently understand that Afghanistan is a Central Asian country that holds the key to their linkages to the south, and have increasingly engaged to help resolve Afghanistan’s problems.

As Central Asians seek to design structures of cooperation that fit their needs, they should certainly build on the achievements of the late 1990s. But an overview of other global efforts at regional cooperation is also instructive. An overview of several such initiatives suggests that two in particular hold relevance for Central Asia: ASEAN and the Nordic Council.

ASEAN emerged at a time of severe geopolitical tension in Southeast Asia, and succeeded in forming a consensus among regional states to prevent efforts of great powers to pit one regional state against another. From the early 1970s, ASEAN developed mechanisms that secured unity among regional states, and helped them approach foreign powers as a unit rather than separately. Moreover, ASEAN focused considerable energies on the economic front, and helped Southeast Asia develop into a growth engine in the global economy.

The Nordic Council has more limited ambitions than ASEAN, but is relevant because it shows that regional cooperation can succeed even in a situation where member states have divergent approaches to continent-wide integration structures. Much like Central Asia, the Nordic countries share close cultural and linguistic linkages, but have different patterns of membership in cooperative structures like the EU and NATO. That has put some limits on their regional cooperation, but it has not hindered them from entering into far-reaching agreements, such as the free movement of people and labor decades before the EU Schengen agreement.

A comparative examination of the structures for regional cooperation in the Nordic Council, ASEAN, Mercosur and the Visegrád Group leads to a very specific and highly significant conclusion, namely, that institutions matter. The relative weakness and ineffectiveness of Mercosur and the Visegrád group is a direct consequence of their weak institutional structures. ASEAN and the Nordic Council, by contrast, derive their effectiveness from the fact that over more than half a century they have focused serious attention on strengthening their institutional structures.

The coherence and rigor of Central Asia’s future institutional structures will determine their effectiveness.  This, rather than high-flown rhetoric about regional cooperation or highly publicized one-time meetings and conferences, will shape the future Central Asia. Similarly, one must also caution against too forceful and fast-paced efforts, advocating instead a gradual, step-by-step and flexible approach that will make sure all participants are fully content with the way their interests are protected and secured. 


Read 21282 times Last modified on Sunday, 25 November 2018 12:45





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.