Central Asia. The winding road to regional integration

The aim of the paper is to present the current stage of integration among the Central Asian republics and to analyze directions and dynamics of this process in the nearest future. This study also attempts to identify factors which can either slow down or strengthen the process of integration as well as its causes and consequences.

Instytut Boyma 18.04.2021


The aim of the paper is to present the current stage of integration among the Central Asian republics and to analyze directions and dynamics of this process in the nearest future. A short theoretical part, presenting the definition and systematics of integration, provides an introduction. This study also attempts to identify factors which can either slow down or strengthen the process of integration as well as its causes and consequences. It analyses alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Eurasian Union and Eurasian Economic Union which are the only examples of the integration processes in the region.

Key words: Central Asia, integration process, SCO, CSTO, CICA, EAU, Central Asian Economic Union 


Integration processes in state and quasi-state structures (e.g. tribal, principalities) have been taking place uninterruptedly for thousands of years on all continents, irrespective of religious or cultural conditions. These processes are political in nature and result from various needs, from ensuring security and affiliation of national (tribal) identity, through increasing the bargaining power of the state in the world, to the pursuit of subordination of some states by others.

In the case of Central Asia, the potential process of integration is different from that among contemporary states, especially among the more economically, politically and socially developed ones. First and foremost, the conditions of this process in the case of the Central Asian republics are more akin to the tribal or pre-state relationships already forgotten in Europe. This is mainly due to the fact that this group of states did not so much regain their independence after the collapse of the USSR, but started a new form of existence as independent states, referring on the one hand to the existence of ethnic distinctions within the Soviet republics of councils, and on the other hand being the result of national aspirations, which were skilfully used by local leaders of communist parties to break free from Moscow’s control. Hence the problems that have plagued these republics practically to the present day, mainly rooted in deep-seated ethnic issues.

After the collapse of the USSR, Central Asia was suddenly thrown into the modern system of the existence and interdependence of states, with no time to evolve their own statehood and develop a system of functioning that would provide them with stability and lead to good neighbourly relations. However, it is certainly important to note that the republics quickly turned their attention to the primary problem they faced, namely the unambiguous sorting out of the borders arbitrarily drawn within the republics of the councils by Joseph Stalin. This problem did not apply only to Central Asia, for the Kremlin had similarly drawn boundaries for Ukraine, Belarus, but also for ostensibly independent Poland. Overcoming the barrier of an agreement on the recognition (and possible correction) of borders was the first stage in the integration of the republics. Subsequent stages require deeper cooperation, initially in accepting ethnic minorities in a region that was heavily mixed in terms of nationalities as a result of Soviet policy, and in the longer term in economic cooperation and finally in working out common political goals.

Central Asia’s road to integration, more or less advanced (rather the former), has already begun. It has been going on uninterruptedly since 1996, when the informal “Shanghai Five” were formed. This process is slow, at times imperceptible, but looking back over decades it is clearly influencing the structure of this conglomerate. It is certainly not a question of whether Central Asia will integrate, only when and in what form. Looking at the emergence of the European Economic Community (EEC) and its evolution into the European Union (EU), or more closely at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), one can assume that at a certain stage of the development of states, integration ceases to be a choice and becomes a necessity.

Central Asia can hardly be expected to progress quickly in this process. It is enough to look at the EU, which had its beginnings in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) founded in 1951 and took 6 years to create the EEC and 35 years to evolve into the unique political entity that is the European Union. This process was carried out by rich, socially developed countries, whose statehood was based on centuries of tradition. The geopolitical, cultural and historical differences between Central Asia and Europe make it necessary to consider integration in an individual way that is perhaps difficult for people shaped in Western culture to understand. It is therefore worth taking a closer look at how this process is taking place and what directions it may have in a culturally different area facing economic and social conditions so different from those of Europe after 1990.

Lines of integration

The concept of integration is universal and is customarily used to describe the process of merging, creating a whole from particles, and in relation to state organisms it is a dynamic process of unification, unification in order to create a specific community (Marszałek, 2004). This process may concern both the political and economic spheres. Regardless of the nature of unification, it is always required to cede some of the sovereign rights vested in states, to a superior body within the framework of an agreement between them. Such a body becomes a supranational institution, representing the common interests of member states in external relations (Ruszkowski, 2007). In the light of the above definition these requirements were fulfilled by the European Economic Community (EEC), but not by the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), as it was formed by the Soviet Union and its satellite states subordinate to it, deprived of actual sovereignty.

The effectiveness of the integration process requires four basic conditions to be met (Ruszkowski, 2007):

  • cooperation, in which the pursuit of goals by one country contributes to their achievement by another, which is customarily referred to as partnership;
  • convergence, i.e. aiming at convergence of basic economic indicators and reduction (elimination) of differences of economic, as well as political or even social nature
  • harmonisation, involving the unification of various areas of the functioning of states, usually resulting from legal regulations
  • coordination, involving broadly understood joint action in relation to a given situation or to achieve objectives. Coordination is the link between the three conditions mentioned above.

A basic agreement between states on the question of the integration model plays an important role. Usually, the initial model is functionalism, involving the concentration of activities in specific economic sectors. An example of such a form of integration in Central Asia is the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), proposed by Russia, and although there are forms of coercion into membership, it is assumed that it has the character of voluntary membership of states (M. Zajac-Frąc, 2011). Much more advanced models of integration are federalism and confederalism. In the first case, states cede the vast majority of their sovereign rights to a supranational body, with the usual focus on those areas that can be most effectively managed on a large scale, e.g. the armed forces, financial policy, foreign policy. This type of model is e.g. the United States or the United Kingdom in the area of union with Scotland. Confederalism, on the other hand, is based on an agreement between states, but with them retaining virtually full sovereignty. Unification in this case takes place through intergovernmental agreements, so an overarching, international body is not necessary here. Examples of such an organisation include the Visegrad Group or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (T. Sieniow, 2010).

Central Asia is therefore faced not so much with the dilemma of whether or not to integrate, because, as initially assumed, integration is a natural process in the development of states, but how to carry out these activities and what model would be the most appropriate for achieving the goals and expectations of individual republics.

Begins of integration in Central Asia

The emergence of new states in Asia on the ruins of the Soviet empire not only changed the balance of power in the region, but also gave rise to a number of international problems. One of them was the issue of the course of borders, arbitrarily drawn by the Soviet authorities within the union republics. The now independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan declared their independence within their existing borders, which was, however, only the beginning of a final agreement on their course. This required an agreement between all the parties concerned, as well as China and Russia, which formed the basis for the first form of integration in the region, in line with the functionalism defined earlier. At a meeting of the leaders of Russia – Boris Yeltsin, the People’s Republic of China – Jiang Zemin, Tajikistan – Emomali Rahmonov, Kazakhstan – Nursulan Nazarbayev and Kyrgyzstan – Askar Askaev, issues related to achieving stability and ensuring long-term regional security were discussed. The result of this meeting was the establishment of the so-called Shanghai Five on 26 April 1996, which was not very formalised but constituted the first and, as it turned out, momentous step towards further integration (Ross, 2011). Turkmenistan did not participate in the talks and announced a policy of neutrality, requiring it to abstain from participation in any international organisations (the UN being an exception). The other republic that distanced itself from the project was Uzbekistan, as President Islam Karimov was very distrustful of any manifestations of activity involving the Russian Federation.

Subsequent summits of the Five in Moscow in 1997, Almaty in 1998 and Bishkek in 1999 broadened the scope of issues to include cooperation in combating terrorism and countering illegal immigration and growing drug trafficking. As the catalogue of issues requiring multilateral cooperation expanded, it became necessary to develop a new formula and greater formalisation and institutionalisation, in other words, to deepen integration. The new formula became the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), established at the 6th Shanghai Summit on 15 July 2001. In addition to the ‘Shanghai Five’ countries, Uzbekistan became a new member (Gill, 2007). The scope of the organisation’s activities is much broader, as it encompasses issues such as the fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism (the so-called ‘three forces of evil’), counteracting illegal immigration and smuggling of weapons and drugs, economic, social and cultural cooperation, as well as the development and implementation of measures in the field of environmental protection, harmonisation of laws and coordination of efforts to integrate into the global economy (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, 2002).

Despite such enormous potential and the expansion of the membership list in 2015 to include two more states, India and Pakistan, the organisation has undoubtedly failed to meet the expectations of the Central Asian republics. The initial enthusiasm, triggered by the creation of the first and the most powerful organisation demographically, geographically, militarily and economically, quickly turned into marasm caused by the particularism of the interests of the two main players, namely Russia and China. Although a number of supranational institutions have been created in the SCO, the organisation has not really gone beyond the functionalist model, only partially implementing elements of confederalism. The most important decisions are taken at annual summits of the Council of Heads of State (the highest body of the SCO). Council summits are held once a year under the chairmanship of the head of the state organising the meeting. It is worth noting that the summits are held in a different member state each year, with the order of their succession determined by the order of the names of the states according to the Russian alphabet. The Council of Heads of State is the highest body exercising an overarching function over the other institutions mentioned, but excluding the Regional Anti-Terrorism Centre (Article 5 of the SCO Charter). The second decision-making body, also having its annual summits, is the Council of Heads of Government, which is competent to adopt the organisation’s budget, examine and decide on matters mainly economic and concerning relations within the organisation (Article 6 of the SCO Charter).

Although all the Member States have an equal vote, with such great disparity in all areas between the members, it is difficult to speak of preserving the partnership that is the sine qua non of integration. The strong economic dominance of China and the political dominance of Russia have made the Central Asian republics to be regarded as supplicants of these states, and their actions have been limited mainly to the skilful playing of both powers against each other, in order to maximise their own benefits.

Meanwhile, other integration projects have emerged, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), but from the moment of their conception they have been tainted by Moscow’s dominance (they were created on its initiative) and clearly serve its interests. Moreover, geographically, none of them is directed exclusively at the Central Asian area, taking into account its ethnic, economic or political specificities, as they aim at consolidating the post-Soviet area once again under Moscow’s leadership.

However, it is worth noting the CSTO, created in 2002. CSTO, whose source was the Collective Security Treaty, concluded in 1992 by most CIS members. This organisation was intended to manage the sphere of providing security to the CIS member states, but its real goal from the very beginning, was to promote Russia as the only effective guarantor of peace and stability in the post-Soviet area (Weitz, 2018). It is worth noting that the main objective of Russian activity within this structure was to secure its influence in Central Asia, where China was increasingly asserting its influence. The functioning of the CSTO in this region meant, in practice, duplicating the activities of the SCO, in which Russia’s influence was balanced by China’s economic power. To sum up, although the organisation fulfils the functional objectives of integration, it can hardly be considered an element of the unification process of the Central Asian republics, as their actual interests are pursued alongside Moscow’s overarching policy objectives. Moreover, only three countries in the region are currently members of the CSTO: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Until 2012, it also included Uzbekistan, whose president, Islam Karimov, considered further rapprochement with Moscow too dangerous for the country’s sovereignty (and, by implication, his own interests).

Aspiring to dominate the region, Russia also created an economic organisation that was to be a copy of the EEC. On 10 October 2000, the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEU) was established, which was joined, in addition to Russia, by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and in 2006 by Uzbekistan (Kassenova, 2012) . This strictly economic organisation, like the OUBZone, was from the outset marked by the stigma of the Kremlin’s desire to dominate the post-Soviet area and, in particular, to stem the increasingly evident loss of economic influence in the region to China. This direction was confirmed by the further evolution of the EAEU: the Customs Union between the economies of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus was established on 1 July 2010, on 1 January 2012 Common Economic Space, From 1 January 2015, the implementation of the principle of the “four freedoms”: the movement of goods, services, capital and workers began already within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which transformed into the EAEU. A very important element of building an economic community is the administrative barriers pushed through by Russia, which restrict the freedom of access to the common market for Chinese products (Strzelecki, 2016). However, these measures quickly had a negative impact on the economy of Kazakhstan, which has the most extensive and deepest economic relations with Beijing. It is therefore hardly surprising that Nur-Sultan has increasingly criticised Moscow’s diktat, which has given rise to a significant cooling of relations with the Kremlin (Sanchez, 2020 and Clarke, Rice 2020).

The organisations presented, however, although they are forms of integration, do not fulfil the conditions necessary to be considered a model example of Central Asian integration. First of all, each of these organisations covers a geographical area far beyond that occupied by the five republics. Additionally, and more importantly, none of them defines the goals of this group of states as supreme; on the contrary, they are at best coherent with the particular interests of the powerful leaders (Moscow and Beijing). Given its geopolitical potential, Central Asia is faced with the need to develop its own regional integration model, which will safeguard the interests of the individual republics and act as a significant barrier against domination by powers vying for influence.

Central Asia the need for integration

The geographical location of Central Asia is an undoubted asset in the continental and even global strategic game. The region’s location in the immediate vicinity of Russia, China and Iran, its proximity to India and the intersection of routes from Asia to Europe strengthen the interest in the region on the part of the largest global players, from China, Russia and India, through the European Union (based on bilateral agreements between member states) and Japan, to the United States. The relative economic and political weakness of the individual republics, even those most advanced economically, means that only a unified Central Asia will be able to gain long-term advantages in the emerging multipolar world.

The first attempts at integration were already made on the initiative of Kazakhstan, the most politically active state in the region, soon after the declaration of independence by the individual republics. It was crucial to strengthen the still unstable region in the face of the challenges faced by the young states: management of water resources, distribution of natural resources which are the main source of income for the republics, as well as effectiveness in securing relative independence from Russia, which has not shed its imperial inclinations. Such a project was the Union of Central Asia (UAC), which was not fully realised, mainly due to Turkmenistan’s desire for neutrality and the rather reluctant policy of I. Karimov towards the Kazakh leadership. Karimov towards the Kazakh leadership in the region. Despite these obstacles, in 1994 Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement establishing a Common Economic Space (CES), the aim of which was to ensure the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, and to coordinate activities in the spheres of budget, tax, prices, customs and monetary policy. To make the organisation operational, an Interstate Office and an Executive Committee were established, responsible for coordination, consultation and analysis of activities (Kassenova, 2012). In 1998, Tajikistan joined the YPG and the organisation was renamed the Economic Union of Central Asia (CAU), becoming the heir to the Union of Central Asia. Despite these efforts, the organisation gradually lost its relevance, mainly due to the active integration policy of Russia, which presented the CAU project and eventually ceased to exist in 2006 (Kassenova, 2012). In 2007, President N. Nazarbayev made a renewed effort to reactivate the UAC, but Russia’s not too strong influence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan’s distanced policy and Turkmenistan’s neutrality, effectively blocked the implementation of this initiative (Azizov, 2017).

In the current reality, the question of Central Asian integration is still open and seems to be closer to realisation than just a few years ago. First of all, two significant changes in the region have contributed to this. The first was the assumption of power in Uzbekistan by Sh. Mirziyoyev followed the death of I. Karimov in September 2016, which marked the beginning of a new chapter in the republic’s internal and external politics. The most important change was the loosening of internal political and economic conditions, which in practice meant a dynamic departure from the authoritarian state model.In foreign policy, in turn, Uzbekistan has not only opened up to deepening relations with its neighbours, especially with its biggest rival Kazakhstan, but has also established relations with the United States, the European Union, Japan, India and Iran, and is showing openness to potential membership in EAEU (Hashimova, 2021). A second symptom of change is Turkmenistan’s gradual shift away from a policy of neutrality. This process will probably take a few more years, but it seems that the juxtaposition of potential economic gains for the crisis-ridden republic will prompt President G. Berdymukhamedov to abandon political isolation (Daly, 2020).

The potential integration model remains an open question. It seems that the only viable solution is to create an organisation based on the principles of functionalism, because the mutual distrust between the authorities and the societies of the republics is still too strong for unification to be achieved on the basis of confederalism. As an example of this direction of integration, it is worth mentioning the Visegrad Group, regardless of its actual effectiveness in the international arena, or the geographically closer and more advanced form of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The latter organisation is particularly noteworthy, because at the time of its establishment in 1967, the states that comprised it were struggling with similar problems as Central Asia today: illegal migration, corruption, authoritarianism, drug abuse, lack of civil societies, and low economic development and technological advancement (Asiryan, Butler, Lee, 2020). At the same time, ASEAN is an excellent example of effective cooperation in overcoming barriers to development and an indication of how to succeed in a globalised world.


It seems that Central Asia is gradually maturing towards unification across divides, and the particular interests of individual republics, while still constituting a strong brake on integration activities, will not block this process. The greatest challenge for the states is to develop a common formula for action that will, on the one hand, secure the strategically important economic areas of the states and, on the other, make it possible to maximise the economic benefits of their existence. In the case of Turkmenistan, these are deposits of energy resources, for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – water resources, for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – also energy resources, but also deposits of radioactive elements and metal ores.

It is undoubtedly crucial to create a platform that will provide a basis for political, social and economic dialogue and that will initiate economic diversification, the development of new technologies and also strengthen the process of improving the regional transport network. It is certainly more difficult to predict how social relations will develop in an integrated Central Asia in view of the still strong ethnic resentments as well as the diversity of power models, ranging from authoritarian ones in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, through progressively more democratic ones in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to those considered most advanced in terms of democratic principles in Kyrgyzstan. Rather, we should expect a strengthening of the functional model of integration, in which economic matters will play the leading role, while domestic policy will remain the sole responsibility of the individual authorities.

In principle, the path of integration is a natural process of evolution of interstate relations, which increases the chances of preserving the sovereignty of smaller and less developed states in a world dominated by existing (China, Japan, Russia, USA) and emerging powers (India). This assumption is confirmed by the integration of Europe, where even such economic powers as Germany or France have recognised the need for unification to increase their economic and political bargaining power and maintain their positions in the world. This course of action becomes all the more obvious in the case of the Central Asian republics if they wish to maximise the benefits of their strategically important location and not remain passive participants in the Sino-Russian games on the political-economic chessboard.

Translation: Karolina Piotrowska



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