Although the C5+1 format, first introduced by the United States for cooperation with Central Asia in 2015, has been relegated to the background since the Trump administration, it was revived after Biden came to power, or rather after the Democrats returned to the helm.
This is evidenced by the announcement on January 7, 2021 of “Central Asian Investment Partnership”, a joint initiative of the United States, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan designed to raise $1 billion worth of investments in Central Asian countries. However, the United States has strong rivals in the region—Russia, China and Iran. Russia’s influence in the region is dwindling. For example, in 2012, Uzbekistan withdrew from the CSTO (Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization), and the issue of the withdrawal of both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan from the Eurasian Economic Union is being discussed in Western circles today. If these countries leave Russia’s orbit, what platform will they prefer instead? Could it be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, with China as the central power? Or cooperation with Iran? Perhaps the Turkic Council?
With all these questions that remain unanswered, the increase in cooperation meetings of Turkic-speaking states (that is, Turkic states) in recent days has led to debates in various circles on the formation of a stronger union between these states and the possibility of it becoming an important alternative to declining Russia’s influence in the region. The article “C5+1: a pan-Turkist vector” by Central Asia expert Alexander Shustov can be taken as the first sign of Russia’s agitation. Shustov sees Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar’s visits to Central Asia in late 2020 and the signing of military cooperation agreements with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which he calls the “backbone” of the region, as the beginning of genesis of the Turkic Council’s military wing, the Great Turan Army, and he cannot hide the understandable Russian concern about it in his article. He calls Azerbaijan a springboard for Turkey’s jump into Central Asia, and in this regard assesses the transport and energy corridors against Russia and in favor of the West as a US (Western) project aimed at reducing Russia’s influence in the region. In other words, he insinuates that the Turkic Council was supposedly a US project. Moreover, Shustov claims that the post-Soviet South Caucasus was torn from Russia by transport and energy corridors, thus eliminating Azerbaijan’s dependence on Russia in energy export and, indirectly, in politics, and that Georgia was completely cut off from Russia over time because Azerbaijan supplied Georgia with energy, pointing out that the new venue for such a project is Central Asia. The Trans-Caspian transport and energy corridor project plays a key role in this regard.
It is interesting that the Trans-Caspian corridor is the main topic of discussion at the meeting of Ministers and High Officials in charge of Information and Media of the Turkic Council currently taking place in Baku. Although it raises the question of whether all this is a coincidence or a necessity in the context of the recently strained relations between Russia and the West, it is clear that the ever-growing relations between the Turkic states are real. However, Russia has a traditional pro-Western policy toward post-Soviet countries—conflict hotspots and wars: Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and North Ossetia in Georgia, Donbass and Crimea in Ukraine. What can we expect from Central Asia trying to break away from the Russian vector? Ironically, it was Shustov who wrote about “Karabakh a la Central Asia” in his 2016 article. Are there really phenomena in Central Asia resembling the Nagorno-Karabakh war/conflict, or did Shustov exaggerate it on purpose or unintentionally? Can such a conflict hinder cooperation between the Turkic states? To find answers to these questions, we first need to clarify what Shustov meant when he said, “Karabakh a la Central Asia”.
Located on the borders of three Central Asian states, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, surrounded on all four sides by mountains (Kuramin, Chatkal, Alai, Fergana and Turkestan mountains) and rivers (the Naryn and the Kara Darya that join together to form the Syr Darya River), spanning a vast area (100 km from north to south, 300 km from east to west) with its breathtaking nature and natural resources, Fergana Valley, has long been a major center of security problems and border disputes between these countries. Cities in the Fergana Valley include: Khujand in the Tajik part of the valley, Osh, Batken and Jalal-Abad in the Kyrgyz part, and Kokand, Fergana, Namangan and Andijan in the Uzbek part.
In 1876, the Fergana Oblast was established under the Turkestan Governor’s Office in this area occupied by the Russian Empire. After the establishment of Soviet rule in the territory of the empire, ethnic nation-states were established in the territory of Turkestan, i.e., in Central Asia: Turkic states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the state of Tajikistan. The Fergana Valley was divided between three of them, thus forming an ethnically mixed territory. This division proved to be the main challenge for stability and security in the region after the collapse of the USSR. Thus, in the post-Soviet period, this area was the epicenter of ethnic conflicts in Central Asia, of the activity of radical religious groups and extremists, major economic problems in the region, water and energy problems, and even uprisings that led to coups. The reason for this is that the countries of the region did not fully and clearly define the borders in this area and the resulting confrontation.
For example, the first ethnic confrontation in the Fergana Valley took place between Meskhetian Turks (deported from Georgia by Stalin’s order during World War II (1944)) and Uzbeks, resulting in the resettlement of the Meskhetian Turks. In 1990, Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs clashed in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akayev, sought to curb Kyrgyz national feelings and show leniency towards non-Kyrgyzs, so he was supported by non-Kyrgyz population, Uzbeks and Tajiks, throughout the 1990s. US Secretary of State Strobe Talbott called him “Thomas Jefferson of Central Asia” for presenting the “Kyrgyzstan is Our Common Home” concept to the UN High Commission on National Minorities and other democratic initiatives. However, his subsequent actions aimed at staying in power strengthened the opposition in the country, and the opposition in Central Asian countries can be generally characterized as radical, conservative and religious.
The activities of radical religious groups led to serious security issues that persist in the region to this day. Today, there is a growing process of Islamization in the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. This process intensified after the collapse of the USSR, especially in the Fergana Valley. The first violent explosion by the Islamic Movement took place in 1992 in the Uzbek city of Namangan.
In Tajikistan, the struggle between the government and supporters of the Islamic Movement led to the 1992-1997 civil war. Radical religious movements in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan spread to Kyrgyzstan and served as a catalyst to the events there. In 2000, a radical Muslim group attacked Batken, a town in the valley on the border with Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz border checkpoint in Batken was also damaged during the 2006 attacks by these groups, known for their transnational terrorist activities. The Tajik government outlawed a number of religious groups in the country due to their extremism. These groups include Hizb ut-Tahrir, Turkestan Islamic Party, Harakati Tablighot, Sozmoni Tablighot, Free Tajikistan, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Turkestan.
The enclave villages in all three states of the valley are especially important in the movement routes of these groups. Thus, in the city of Batken, i.e., in the Kyrgyz part of the valley, there are the villages of Shahimardan, Soh and Kalah Dzhangail, Uzbek enclaves, and the villages of Voruh and Zapadnaya (West) Kolacha, Tajik enclaves. Similarly, in the city of Fergana, in the Uzbek part of the valley, there is the village of Barak, a Kyrgyz enclave, and the village of Sarvak, a Tajik enclave. The local population, who had no problems passing between these enclaves during the Soviet era, are now citizens of three different independent states, facing certain administrative problems. For example, there are always tensions between the Tajik village of Voruh in the Kyrgyz part of the valley and the Kyrgyz village of Ak Say for various reasons. This adds to the region’s transport and security problems. Kyrgyzstan, in particular, has banned other countries from grazing cattle on its pastures. Laws passed in 1999 and 2002 restricted the use of pastures for rent, while the 2009 law completely banned foreign citizens from doing so. The ban at times caused tensions between Kyrgyz citizens and citizens of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
For example, in 2004, Tajik villagers planted apricot trees in an area claimed by the Kyrgyzs, and Kyrgyz villagers uprooted them, which resulted in what became known as the “Apricot War.” The construction of the highway between Batken (Kyrgyzstan) and Sughd (Tajikistan) in 2014 led to an armed confrontation between the border guards of the two countries, injuring eight people. In the clashes in April of the same year, 4 people were injured and 1 was killed. The most recent of these tensions occurred in May 2020 in the area between Batken and Sughd because of the use of pastures for grazing, resulting in one injury.
Besides, the behavior of Uzbekistan, who has planted landmines on its borders, using illegal border crossing by radical religious groups as a pretext, has exacerbated transport problems in the region. For example, the shortest and most convenient route from Khujand in the Tajik part of the Fergana Valley to the country’s capital, Dushanbe, is through the Uzbek part of the valley. However, since Uzbekistan closed the road, the population is forced to use mountain passes, which are difficult to cross and closed for half a year due to snowfall. Uzbekistan harms itself with this behavior. Thus, the safest route from the Uzbek city of Andijan in the valley to the capital Tashkent is through the Tajik city of Khujand. However, because the roads are closed, people have to use long and dangerous roads. This, in turn, creates economic problems for the people of the region.
One of the main issues on which the countries of the region cannot come to an agreement is the water issue. When the borders were drawn, the widest and greenest part of the valley ended up in Uzbekistan, the water-rich and mountainous lands in Kyrgyzstan, and the economically and strategically vital area in Tajikistan. Thus, although Tajikistan is able to control the flow of water in some upstream areas of the Syr Darya River, the region’s main water supply (especially the Naryn River) is under Kyrgyz control. Although the countries of the region used the water of these rivers freely during the Soviet period, problems began to arise between the countries after they gained independence. The first problem was the use of the Kyrgyz-owned Toktogul Reservoir and hydropower plant on the Naryn River in the 1990s. Other downstream states accused Kyrgyzstan of misusing water and harming the surrounding area out of self-interest.
As gas-rich countries in the region raised gas prices for Kyrgyzstan in the post-Soviet era, the country has been experiencing gas shortages in the winter months. Kyrgyzstan uses reservoirs more intensively to generate more electricity during the cold winter months, which results in a shortage of water in the lower reaches during the spring and summer months (especially during the planting period from late April to early June). However, as Kyrgyzstan opens the dam in the winter months, some of the downstream areas become flooded. Thus, the downstream countries, especially Uzbekistan, are constantly complaining about Kyrgyzstan damaging their crops. Kyrgyzstan also wants $15-25 million in financial assistance from countries in the region to repair and maintain its hydropower plants. The countries of the region won’t pay this amount. They did not provide any assistance to Kyrgyzstan until 2002.
Thus, the border problem, which includes issues related to water, agriculture, livestock, transport, security and economic development and political stability in general, regularly causes tensions and conflicts between the countries of the region. Significant steps have been taken by the new governments in these countries to address this unresolved issue. For example, the activities of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power in Uzbekistan after Islam Karimov’s death in 2016, and Sadyr Japarov, who came to power in Kyrgyzstan in 2021, are commendable in this regard. In March 2021, the presidents of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan met, and Japarov said that “the border issue will be resolved within three months.” Interestingly, no such statement has been made about Tajikistan. Kamchybek Tashiev, Chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Committee, announced in March that the Tajiks would be given 12,000 hectares of land elsewhere in exchange for the village of Voruh. The announcement re-ignited tensions between the two countries. Then, on April 4, 2021, it was reported that the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon will visit Voruh, but an official representative from Tajikistan was sent to the village instead. Former Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi wrote on his Facebook page that his country would never give up its land.
Apparently, although the problems between the Turkic states of the region are gradually being resolved (for example, the issue of hydrocarbons fields between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan was recently resolved by an agreement on the division of the Caspian seabed, and projects related to the Trans-Caspian Corridor were revived), the problem of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is still far from being over. However, drawing parallels between all these issues and the Nagorno-Karabakh problem is nothing but a deliberate exaggeration. It is impossible for the problems between the Central Asian countries to reach the level of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. If they escalate to the point of war on the Nagorno-Karabakh scale, it will probably serve the interests of some global powers. But peace and stability are essential for the unity of the Turkic World, and the Turkish Council is willing to do its best for this.
Restrictive measures taken by the countries of the region against each other and the local population are adversely affecting the economies of all three countries. If the countries of the region realize their responsibilities and work for a common market and mutual benefit, they can solve the existing problems. The Uzbek part of the valley is rich in oil, coal, natural gas, iron, mercury, silver and other natural resources, the Kyrgyz part has mercury, antimony and water resources, the Tajik part contains the world’s second richest silver deposits, as well as gold, iron, molybdenum, etc. There are many industrial facilities in the Fergana Valley. It is possible to attract a lot of foreign investment by resolving the border disputes and related security and other issues in the region. The recent steps taken by the leaders of the respective countries to resolve border issues are aimed at this. Against this background, the initiatives of the Turkish Council to increase cooperation in the region and the emergence of investment projects do not seem coincidental. Thus, whether the region will be a center of peace and stability, economic development and attraction in the next decade will depend on the relationship between these states. I hope that the interests of the forces pursuing their own agenda in the region and therefore all too willing to add fuel to every flame will not prevail.