Nazarbayev's Central Asian voyage. What are the underlying causes?

Last weekend President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited two Central Asian capitals –Tashkent and Ashgabat. In the latter, he mainly wished luck to the athletes before the start of the Asian Games, whereas a number of important trade agreements were signed in Tashkent. It should be noted that lately, the dynamics of intercountry contacts in Central Asia has noticeably brightened up. The Head of the Eurasian Studies Program at the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Foundation of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy Ruslan Isimov gave his vision of the motivation and actual reasons for Kazakhstan's activity.

- Ruslan, how do you explain such density of Nursultan Nazarbayev's meetings with the leaders of Central Asian countries?

The density of meetings between the leaders of the Central Asian countries, in my opinion, should be perceived as a natural state of affairs. We are close neighbors who have close trade, economic and political ties. Due to some personal factors, the relations were strained in previous years. Now everything goes back to natural, where there are clear interests and, most importantly, the necessity. After all, over the years, a lot of pressing issues have accumulated, that  require an immediate solution. Although Kazakhstan occupies the third place in the list of foreign trade partners of Uzbekistan, nevertheless, the potential for cooperation in this sphere has not been fully developed. This is evidenced by the decline in the indicators of mutual trade over the past five years (the peak of trade was achieved in 2013 when the trade turnover between the countries amounted to $ 2.1 billion. In 2016, the volume of mutual trade fell to $ 1.5 billion). According to the latest data, this year the figures are growing again. Of course, for us, the Uzbekistan market holds a vast potential for the export of processed Kazakhstan products.

Another important topic on the agenda of the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan cooperation is the development of projects in the transport sector. Uzbekistan is a country that doesn’t have even neighbors with access to the sea. In this situation, Uzbekistan seeks to develop transport cooperation with all its neighbors. Kazakhstan in this list is one of the leading partners of Tashkent, because the key transit routes of Uzbek exports pass via our territory. In this regard, Uzbekistan, which is not a member of the EAEU, is interested in signing an agreement with Astana on customs duties to facilitate the delivery of its products to the markets of Russia and other countries of the association. In this regard, it would be quite logical to discuss the establishment of a Special Economic Zone on the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border. It is also essential to expand not only freight but also passenger transportation between our countries.

- How do you assess the new regional policy of Uzbekistan; what prospects does it open for Central Asian cooperation? Are the outlines of the regional policy, which was extensively discussed by experts after the death of Karimov, starting to appear?

- Yes, there are indeed significant changes in the regional policy of Uzbekistan. But, at the same time, the principle of deliberate self-isolation inherent in Tashkent's foreign policy seems to remain relevant. Yes, today Tashkent seeks to step up its external relations, especially with neighboring countries. However, in my opinion, this is a compulsory measure. Improving ties with the Central Asian republics is needed to address topical issues that have been waiting for decades to be considered. During this time, many of them became critical. It got to the point that military equipment was moved to the border with Kyrgyzstan. Proceeding from this, border issues with neighbors became paramount for the new leadership. However, in the long term, the trend towards regional development in Tashkent's foreign policy is unlikely to continue. In general, speaking about the new policy of Uzbekistan, one should not forget a few subtle aspects.

Firstly, the first president of Uzbekistan left behind one of the most closed countries politically and economically. Against this background, it is evident that the actions and reforms of the new leadership will be perceived in the context of democratization and liberalization. Undoubtedly, the Uzbek authorities today are carrying out a number of new reforms aimed at opening the economy.

According to the studies of the authoritative scientists of the West (Harvard economists), after the regime change in a country where there were rather stringent conditions, the process of liberalization will be observed in the next few years. No matter what the authorities would do, everything will be strikingly different from what it was. Then the package of urgent reforms will be exhausted, and the regime will again try to close (self-isolate). In this case, I would like to hope that the theory of scientists will not work and the reforms in the country will be long-term. Secondly, it seems to me that the transit period in Uzbekistan has not yet been fully completed. With all the facade prosperity, there are some complicated social, financial and economic problems. Proceeding from this, the authorities of the country will try to win as much time as possible to consolidate the system around the new leader Oksaray. But the actual changes and the direction of Uzbekistan's foreign policy within 3-5 years will reveal Tashkent’s true roadmap. I can be mistaken, but it seems to me that the Uzbek authorities gravitate toward the West.

- What is Nazarbayev's interest in the trip to Turkmenistan, what projects can the two countries jointly implement? Recently, Turkmenistan has been in a difficult economic situation. Is it possible that Ashgabat will ask for financial assistance from Astana?

- Due to a complex set of factors including energy issues, cross-border cooperation and problems of determining the status of the Caspian Sea, Ashgabat remains one of the key partners for Kazakhstan in Central Asia and the Caspian.

Today, the Turkmen authorities face real difficulties in the economy. The slump in economic indicators forced the authorities to cancel all social benefits in early summer. The actual closure of exports in China increases Turkmenistan's dependence on Beijing. Under these conditions, we will observe an active search by the Turkmen authorities for alternative supply routes and consumers of hydrocarbons. This is connected with the activation of such projects as TAPI, the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Moreover, we have observed the intensification of the foreign policy of Ashgabat as a whole. Apparently, the Turkmen authorities also do not want to stay out of the close ties between the countries of the region. The meeting of Nursultan Nazarbayev with Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is of great importance in terms of strengthening regional cooperation.

The agenda included issues of further cooperation expansion in the sphere of rail and road freight traffic. The railway line Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran, which was put into operation last year, showed its efficiency in a short time. China joined this line through Kazakhstan, and the first cargoes from the Chinese city of Yiwu were transported. That is, the potential for interaction in this industry is great, and the parties need to think through options for expanding cooperation. It would also be appropriate to launch a ferry connection between the port cities of our countries. As research shows, there is a growing need for that.