The Third Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club took place in Tomsk on May 16–17.
Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, noted in his opening speech that the world is undergoing global changes. Turbulence has swept over all regions, which has determined the need for a reorientation of Russian foreign policy.
Explaining why Tomsk was chosen as the venue for the current conference, Andrey Bystritskiy said that trade routes connecting Eurasia from east to west and from south to north had passed through this city, as the capital of Southern Siberia, for thousands of years. Now, when a new world order is being formed, it is important to understand our place in it, and how Russia and the countries of Central Asia can interact with each other and the outside world, and influence these processes. The integrating role of Central Asia is beyond a doubt.
Tomsk Region Governor Vladimir Mazur noted the special place of Tomsk as a scientific and educational centre with a 145-year history, which retains this status to this day. During the Soviet era, Tomsk University became an alma mater for many famous people from Central Asia, who, returning to their homeland, improved their respective nations’ science and industry. Today Tomsk universities remain a forge of personnel for the Central Asian republics. Now more than 9,000 students from the region study there. Tomsk, together with Moscow and St. Petersburg, is among the top three Russian cities in terms of attractiveness, accessibility and safety for students, and ranks among the top 100 student cities in the world in the QS rating. Tomsk universities can boast world-class scientific results.
Vladimir Mazur noted that the countries of Central Asia are key trade and economic partners for the Tomsk region. Their share in the turnover reaches almost 45%. They are joined by Mongolia and China, and in general, Asian countries account for almost 60% of Tomsk exports. The potential for cooperation is far from exhausted, he stressed. In the new conditions, we are faced with the task of achieving technological sovereignty, import advances and export orientation. For this, a consortium of scientific and educational organisations was created, which grew into the Big University project, where the main goal is the creation of sovereign technologies, the governor pointed out, inviting the countries of the region to pursue further cooperation.
Mikhail Galuzin, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, noted that in the updated Foreign Policy Concept of Russia, in the sections devoted to its regional directions, one of the priorities is clearly fixed to ensure stable, long-term, good-neighbourly relations with the CIS member states, including the states of the Central Asian region.
Today, this task has to be carried out amid particularly difficult geopolitical conditions. Anglo-Saxon hegemony is being replaced by a multipolar order based on the true sovereignty of peoples and a diverse array of civilizations. This process is natural and irreversible. However, a new equilibrium has not yet been reached.
Economic, informational, legal and military aggression has been unleashed against Russia. The West has projected a similarly dangerous agenda onto the Central Asian region, the diplomat noted. At the same time, the US and NATO are trying to involve the countries of Central Asia in their so-called partnership programs and training, they do not stop calling for the resumption of joint exercises in the region and the deployment of their military infrastructure there. It is obvious that such efforts are aimed at containing Russia; at driving a wedge between the region and our country and gradually turning it into a springboard for threatening our southern borders, the Deputy Minister pointed out.
The West views Central Asia solely as an instrument of its policy of containing Russia and China, through control of this crossroads of trade routes from Asia to Europe and vice versa.
Russia has a qualitatively different approach. Central Asia for us is a contiguous region with which we share a common history, a multi-level and widely branched system of mutually beneficial, equal relations, based on an alliance and strategic partnership and integration. We must not forget about the binding role of the Russian language as a means of interethnic communication, including between the peoples of the region.
Russia and the CSTO are uncontested guarantors of security in the region. Our country remains a key trading partner of the Central Asian states, with a high share in the region’s economy. It also remains one of the main consumers of Central Asian goods. In 2022, trade with the countries of Central Asia increased by approximately 20% and amounted to 41 billion US dollars. The volume of Russian direct investment in the region’s economy amounted to more than $3.6 billion, and the volume of investments accumulated since 2015 has exceeded $25 billion. Central Asian countries’ investments in Russia also quadrupled to over $4 billion. More than 10,000 Russian and joint ventures operate in the region, where they have created 900,000 jobs. The transport and logistics corridors tied to Russia, including the North-South international transport corridor, are of great importance for the region’s economy. Cooperation is also intensifying in the environmental sphere.
In the context of Russia’s confrontation with the collective West, which threatens all who support us with all sorts of so-called punishments, our Central Asian friends have a hard time, Mikhail Galuzin said. We are sure that the Central Asian countries see and understand this well. They understand that the artificial destruction of ties with Russia can result in more severe damage than the costs of the notorious secondary sanctions.
Russia is determined to consistently strengthen our relations, strategic partnerships and alliance with our Central Asian friends, the diplomat stressed, adding that cooperation in the “Central Asia +1” format plays an important role.
The first session, open to the press, was devoted to political dialogue and cooperation between Russia and the states of Central Asia in bilateral and multilateral formats. Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, opening the discussion as a moderator, noted that due to the breakdown in international communication, first due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then due to the acute military-political crisis in Eastern Europe, the whole situation has become unpredictable. Under these conditions, all the stereotypes to which we are accustomed have completely lost their meaning. In particular, the term “Great Game” has lost its relevance, as manoeuvring, which was normal in the zone of overlapping interests of large players in a state of rivalry that does not turn into irreconcilable confrontation. Now it has become inapplicable in the context of the critical radicalization of the Cold War. Now it is an irreconcilable confrontation and a zero-sum game.
Under these conditions, the unity and connectedness of the Central Asian region becomes a guarantee and the main condition for the survival of all of us, so that the region does not become drawn into the funnel of destructive confrontation between the main participants. In this light, the ideas of a large Eurasian economic space and close cooperation are relevant.
Fanil Kadyrov, Deputy Director of the International Institute of Central Asia, quoted Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who called the search for reasonable compromises with neighbours and the formation of a “belt of friends” around Uzbekistan one of the fundamental principles. The launch of the dialogue made it possible to create conditions for the legal registration of borders between the countries of the region, providing significant economic benefits from closer cooperation. The result was also the development of coordinated positions and close coordination between the countries of the region on international platforms. It became possible to hold consultative meetings of the heads of states of Central Asia with the definition of cooperation programmes for sustainable development. Speaking about cooperation between Moscow and Tashkent, Kadyrov noted that both countries continue to strengthen it and actively build it up. At the end of last year, the trade turnover amounted to 9.3 billion US dollars and the growth continues. Today, Uzbekistan and Russia have 215 promising joint projects worth $28 billion. For comparison, Uzbekistan’s GDP in 2022 was about $80 billion, he noted. The expert also drew attention to cooperation in the field of education, including the opening of branches of Russian universities in Uzbekistan, which contributes to an increase in the competitiveness of the country’s economy.
Stanislav Tkachenko, Professor at the Department of European Studies, Head of the “Diplomacy” Master’s Programme at St Petersburg University, gave an analysis in his speech of the economic state of the countries of Central Asia, noting that two problems are fundamental: isolation from the sea and dependence on water sources.
The West has not significantly helped the countries of the region and is not going to become a growth driver there. As a result, a community of states has emerged around the countries of Central Asia, striving to develop economic cooperation and solve transport, energy, food and other problems. These are Russia and China, as well as India, Iran and Türkiye. However, none of these countries can claim the status of a regional hegemon in the foreseeable future. The professor also gave an analysis of China’s “White Paper” on providing assistance to the poorest states and the Concept of the state policy of the Russian Federation in the field of international development assistance in relation to the countries of Central Asia.
Tkachenko formulated several theses, including the prevention and resolution of conflicts in the region, the influence of China and the United States, as well as other major regional powers. In his opinion, an alternative to the hegemonic model can be a model of equilibrium where there is a balance of power, which would take into account the interests of the sovereignty of the states of the region and the interests of the surrounding great powers.
Rustam Khaydarov, Deputy Director of the A. Bahovaddinov Institute of Philosophy, Political Science and Law of the National Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, noted that new geopolitical and geo-economic processes are emerging in the region, which are directly related to the formation of a multipolar world. Three poles of world politics meet here: Russia, China and the USA. At the same time, the collective West, led by the United States, supports a policy of confrontation with Russia and China, which requires the countries of the region to make a choice and join one of the parties to the conflict.
The United States, believing in its exclusivity, has already provoked conflicts in many parts of the world, and now the South Caucasus and Central Asia are under the gun, the expert believes, so Russia and China should be prepared for different military-political scenarios for the development of events in the region. The collective West sees only two valid options for the region: as a potential partner in the sanctions war against Russia and as an opportunity to open a new front for waging a proxy war against Russia.
The collective West has failed to impose its values on the countries of Central Asia and cannot offer alternatives to the CSTO and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The countries of Central Asia intend to build long-term relations with the US and the EU, but only on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s interests.
Addressing possible formats of cooperation, Rustam Khaidarov suggested considering the BRICS + Central Asian countries formula, since this format will minimize the consequences of the long-term sanctions war of the collective West against Russia and supporting countries.
Ivan Safranchuk, Director and Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Eurasian Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, noted the duality of relations between Russia and the countries of Central Asia. On the one hand, economic cooperation is rapidly developing, although they try not to advertise it, but on the other hand, our countries are not moving closer together politically. In his opinion, we underestimate the qualitative leap in worldview that Russia has made over the past year. Now Russia does not choose between sovereignty and development, we believe that sovereignty and material development are inextricably linked and support each other rather than presenting two alternate options. In the countries of Central Asia, the desire to maintain a multi-vector approach and participation in the “old globalization” and in new regional projects prevails. If Russia believes that the trajectory on which it is located is the only correct one, and sooner or later everyone will come here, then the countries of Central Asia, according to Ivan Safranchuk, are thinking how not to get on this track, but to keep participating in globalisation. Thus, despite our similarity, a different understanding of the underlying processes is growing, and in order to overcome this, we need to interact more.
The remaining sessions of the first day of the conference were held in a closed-door format.
The second session was devoted to the role of Russia and Central Asia in the new world economy.
One of the participants noted that in his country, prices for transport and energy carriers are now rising, and the volume of savings among the population is falling. In general, the problems of energy and food security are more acute throughout the world. More and more countries are resorting to protectionist policies. He cited Türkiye and Indonesia as examples. Such a strategy, in his opinion, leads to increased costs and increases the likelihood of the country being drawn into conflicts. In his opinion, this is largely due to a lack of information the countries have about each other. The creation of centres for the study of Russia in the countries of Central Asia would help solve the problem. This would make it possible to form common standards for the mutually beneficial use of each other’s potentials, incl. agricultural, human and transport. In general, we just need to understand how connected we are, and how we can be useful to each other.
Speaking about the transport potential of continental routes, the experts noted the reversal of traffic flows over the past year. What used to go West now goes south and east, in particular through the countries of Central Asia to India. If in the 1990s, rail freight transportation was declining, now the situation is reversed, the volumes are growing, as the economies and populations of our friendly SCO countries are growing.
In addition, the restrictions of recent years, caused in particular by the pandemic, indicate that trade will become more regional. With long distances affecting logistics, risks increase, and we should also expect increased trade diversification. Here Russia and the countries of Central Asia are of mutual interest to each other. For Russia, this region can become an important element in the supply of goods to the country under the parallel import scheme. For Central Asia, Russia can help solve the problem of energy shortages, due to the release of gas volumes, due to Europe’s refusal of Russian hydrocarbons. There are also prospects for increasing the export of electricity and LHG.
Russia can also help solve challenges in the field of food security; not only through the export of agricultural products, but also through the transfer of technology in the agro-industrial sector. In addition, joint projects are possible to modernise the infrastructure of Central Asia, solve environmental problems, and train highly qualified personnel.
The third session was devoted to the Eurasian context of interaction between Russia and the countries of Central Asia. If the entire 19th century could be thought of as the “Great Game”, then in the 21st century the same participants, together with the United States, are joining the game 2.0, in which the positions of China and Russia are undermined. In the new geopolitical realities, it is difficult to imagine that the PRC and Russia will watch indifferently as one of the countries in the Central Asia region becomes a problem behind their backs
Greater Eurasia is the largest region in the world, it is important to understand how we will build cooperation on such a large scale, not only in the economic and trade spheres, but also in the areas of security and ecology, which carry the widest range of risks. This raises the question of how stable their Central Asian neighbourhood will be for China and Russia.
According to one expert, all countries should be attentive to each other’s fears and concerns. Various external forces have their own plans for the integration of the countries of the region, but this only generates contradictions. Cooperation within the framework of the SCO and other integration organisations can become a way to overcome them. It would improve the security of the implementation of many large-scale projects, including in transport infrastructure.
As one of the experts figuratively said, we need thousands of new Afanasiy Nikitins who are capable of becoming conductors of social and humanitarian communication between our countries. After all, Nikitin travelled along the North-South corridor, which is often talked about today. The two troubles that he wrote about in “A Journey Beyond the Three Seas” — high duties and a large number of robbers at sea — remain relevant to this day. Therefore, it is necessary not only to ease administrative barriers, including visa formalities, but to also increase the general level of awareness of each other. Additionally, we need to develop common rules that would allow everyone to move forward in this complex and important space for us.