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Why This Central Asian Summit Could Be Different

(Clockwise from left:) A composite file photo of Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
(Clockwise from left:) A composite file photo of Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The first summit of Central Asian leaders in nearly 20 years is set for March 15 in Kazakhstan's capital Astana.

There have not been many Central Asian summits. Not counting the Aral Sea summit of April 28, 2009, which was dedicated to one topic, there have been only five such meetings since the U.S.S.R. collapsed in late 1991 and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan became independent.

There have been 17 total solar eclipses visible from various parts of Earth in that same time frame, so the gathering in Astana is significant simply because it is happening.

There is every possibility that the March 15 gathering will also be the most successful Central Asian summit ever held, though admittedly that is not saying much.

For example, the first Central Asian summit was arguably the most productive meeting to date.

Ashgabat 1991

Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kyrgyzstan's Askar Akaev, Tajikistan's Rahmon Nabiev, Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov, and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov assembled in Ashgabat on December 13, 1991 with one question on the agenda -- what were they going to do now?

The Belavezha Accords dissolving the Soviet Union and establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had been signed in Belarus on December 8, 1991, and none of the Central Asian leaders had been invited.

The Central Asian leaders opted to join the CIS, though in truth they had little choice. The newly independent Central Asian states did not have armies, there were no existing trade agreements with countries outside the former U.S.S.R., the administrations hastily being cobbled together had no experience operating without Moscow's guidance, which was also true of the Central Asian presidents themselves, none of whom were trained to run a state on their own.

The decision to join the CIS was easy and was probably the last easy agreement the five presidents would ever reach.

Tashkent 1993, Dashoguz 1995

The summit of January 3, 1993, in Tashkent made an effort to create something like regional cooperation but it was doomed to failure -- one: because of the Tajik civil war and differences of opinion on what should be done to help the Tajik government; and two: because of Turkmenistan's increasing reluctance to tie its future to its Central Asian neighbors as Ashgabat pursued its policy of neutrality.

On March 3, 1995, the five met again in the northern Turkmen city of Dashoguz. Judging from the statement released after the summit, the gathering was about reassuring one another because it speaks about the five countries' memberships in international organizations and pledges support for UN efforts to save the Aral Sea. It also contains a line that says, "We confirm that equal cooperation, good neighborliness, and mutual respect will become the fundamental principles of our policies in relation to one another."

Ashgabat 1998, 1999

The summit of January 5-6, 1998, in Ashgabat was probably the strangest of all of the summits, simply because there seemed to be no set agenda going into the meeting. There was no warning about the summit coming until the day before it happened.

Officially, the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek presidents showed up in Ashgabat to wish Turkmen President Niyazov a speedy recovery from heart surgery he underwent in September 1997 but a summit ensued behind closed doors.

Little of what was said at the summit was made public but what did leak out indicated that there was not much cooperation. The Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek leaders invited Turkmenistan to join their Central Asian Economic Union but Niyazov's press office later released a statement saying Turkmenistan's neutral status prohibited it from joining such a grouping. The statement also mentioned, "Solutions by the Central Asian Union to the problems of energy transportation and the development of pipelines could be of interest to Saparmurat Niyazov."

Some things haven't changed much it seems.

The other tidbit of information that emerged from that summit was that Uzbek President Karimov and Kyrgyz President Akaev criticized Turkmen President Niyazov for failing to halt illegal narcotics entering Central Asia from Afghanistan via Turkmenistan.

A joint statement released at the end of the meeting called for more cooperation between the five countries.

Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov center) presides over the first-ever Central Asian summit in 1991.
Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov center) presides over the first-ever Central Asian summit in 1991.

By the time the five countries' leaders got around to meeting again on April 8, 1999, in Ashgabat, the situation had changed significantly. The Tajik and Uzbek governments were hurling accusations and criticisms at each other for reasons just covered by Qishloq Ovozi

The Taliban had arrived at the border with Central Asia. Nazarbaev, Akaev, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, and Karimov wanted to discuss a regional response to Islamic extremism. Niyazov's Turkmenistan, guided by its policy of neutrality, did not view the Taliban as a threat.

It was hardly surprising then that little came out of this last Central Asian summit, at least as far as cooperation among all five states was concerned.

Nazarbaev and Niyazov held discussions that would be more fruitful in the future. "I just held talks with my Kazakh counterpart Nazarbaev and we agreed to commit ourselves to cooperation with China," Niyazov told reporters.

The two were discussing the oil pipeline deal that Kazakhstan had signed with China and a gas pipeline deal Turkmenistan hoped to conclude, and eventually did, with Beijing.

Astana 2018

Which makes Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's decision not to attend this meeting in Astana all the more strange, especially since Berdymukhammedov seems to have time to go to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates ( when he could be talking about gas pipelines and electrical transmission power lines with fellow Central Asian leaders.

The silver lining here is that Turkmenistan is sending a delegation led by the speaker of parliament, Akja Nurberdyeva, so Ashgabat is not totally ignoring Central Asian cooperation as it did in the case of the Central Asian Union, later called the Central Asian Economic Union, which functioned from 1994 to 2004 without Turkmenistan as a member.

The summit in Astana is a big event. Only two of the five leaders who met in the 1990s are still in power. And most importantly, Uzbekistan has a new leader, President Shavkat Mirziyoev and unlike his predecessor Mirziyoev is amenable to regional cooperation.

Karimov's policies of fortress Uzbekistan essentially blocked off his country, which lies at the center of Central Asia, thereby making regional trade and other ties difficult.

The Central Asian leaders are unlikely to reach any monumental breakthroughs in Astana but if they can exit the meeting with smiles and handshakes rather than scowls and accusations, it will already mark progress in regional relations.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.



Photo of first Central Asian summit in 1991:

Combo photo of Central Asian leaders attending this year's summit:

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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