Frederick Starr: "Creating regional association to benefit Central Asian countries"
A new era of opportunities lies ahead for Central Asian countries, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the American Foreign Policy Council Frederick Starr believes. Speaking with Vestnik Kavkaza following the results of the international conference themed 'Interconnectivity in Central Asia: Challenges and New Opportunities,' which was held in Tashkent, he assessed the prospects for Central Asian integration, the first steps of which have already been taken: the neighboring countries opened their markets to each other. For the first time since the formation of the new independent states in the region, close coordination has been established in the field of industrial cooperation, investment and security. The enhanced interaction in Central Asia is an objective, stable and irreversible trend, based on a firm political choice of all countries in the region, which has deep historical background.
- Will the Central Asian countries be able to develop mechanisms for regional cooperation? Will they be ready for such cooperation, because they may have to give up something - if not the sovereignty, then ambition?
- Yes, the states in the region are very different. But the thing is that they have fewer differences compared to ASEAN countries - the difference is huge there in comparison with Central Asia. For example, the difference between the participants of the integration association Nordic Council is colossal.
- But these countries are open to cooperation. And what about Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, for example?
- This is true. There has been and will be disagreements, most likely. This is inevitable - all the countries are different. Central Asia is a polycentric region. Just look at the region's nature - the world's tallest mountains are here. Its steppes are the largest in the world, it also has the driest deserts and flowering oases. Think of how huge is the difference. Different societies. Different cultures: Turkic, Persian. Nomads and sedentary peoples are completely different. But they were all inextricably linked for centuries. They printed money here and, in essence, ruled the world currency. There were noticeable for their time manufactures in the region. The Great Silk Road passed through here, there was a neutral transport zone here. It was more than neighboring relations.
I agree with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's words - the countries of the region have common interests, common understanding, common tasks, common history and good knowledge of each other. Everything is possible on such a basis. Therefore, I'm fairly certain that the countries will cooperate.
It should also be noted that sensitive people live here. We can say hat the region’s economy is not quite up to the present level, but in psychological terms, the local population knows better how to say, what to say and when to act in order to maintain relationships.
- What is the place of Central Asia on the map of American politics?
- A special one. All global powers should go easy on what's happening, the region should be supported. How? Like a son or daughter. Providing help, but it is important to know when to step aside and calmly observe. 28 years ago, the first steps were taken. Since then, the West, Russia and China have believed that they are obliged to help solving problems in the region, which affects all of us.
- What interests does the United States have in this region?
- Of course, there is an economic interest and there is a geopolitical one. This can be said about Russia, about China, about India and about the United States. But for 28 years, these countries have not solved the issues of drug business, corruption and terrorism in the region. The Central Asian countries must resolve these issues themselves. It is important that Russia, America, China and India are engage in a dialogue with each other. The United States will not interfere in the affairs of Central Asia, but Russia and other countries should not interfere either. In my opinion, it seems possible to agree on such basis.
- Do you believe it?
- Yes, it is a system of checks and balances. Such mutual understanding is possible. I have the utmost faith that China, the U.S. and Europe are ready for this. In my opinion, such approach is in the interests of Russia either. In any case, in Russia they write and talk about it. If the Central Asian actors want to ask our, the great powers, help, they are welcome. But we should not escalate the situation. Tashkent is working on regional cooperation, and this is not directed against anyone. These are not just pretty words. Every country insists on preserving sovereignty. A new union will be created, but not a new state or an alliance with supranational bodies. What is happening in the context of integration is a new system of relations - the second floor in the sovereignty house. They do not need external forces to be strong and prosperous, they need to communicate with each other. This is important for the Central Asia countries to hold a conversation with the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. The most important thing is that they talk to each other, a new regional consciousness is being formed. Disunited Central Asia is easy to break, acting on the divide and conquer strategy. And if they are united - they have their own voice.
- Chinese economic expansion in the region, the inclusion of Central Asia in the Belt and Road Initiative can be considered as a challenge or threat to the interests of the United States and their partners, for example India?
- That's a very difficult question. Therefore, to some extent the fate of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and vice versa depends on the project. There is a difficult and, I must say, a sad situation in Xinjiang. [It's about a complex social and religious situation, as well as the so-called national minority vocational training centers - for Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Kazakh people, the presence of which caused public discontent - VK]. This affects the whole of Central Asia. In terms of history and culture, it has been part of Central Asia since ancient times. They need to somehow solve this Rubik's Cube.
For some reason, China is convinced that the issue can be solved only with money. But this is a more subtle matter. Beijing, as is known, provides multimillion-dollar loans to Central Asian countries. I hope that all regional players have enough caution in accessing Chinese loans. They are already overburdened with debt and unlikely to ever pay off unless China writes them off. This is a very serious addiction. Always in history, key player sought to crush and dominate. This is an ancient strategy and a very harmful one. I hope that one day global powers will stop the Great Game, because it is not particularly useful. And if the Central Asian countries can get together, their future will be promising. They will have the opportunity to solve all problems, including Chinese loans, together. The emergence of regional unification will benefit the Central Asian countries.