Trials & Tribulations of Central Asia

Pepe Escobar reports on the pros and cons of being the “Heartland” in the 21st century.

Central downtown of Nur-Sultan, capital of Kazakhstan. (Ninara, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Pepe Escobar
in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
The Asia Times  

Crossing Tajikistan from west to northeast – Dushanbe to the Tajik-Kyrgyz border – and then Kyrgyzstan from south to north all the way to Bishkek via Osh, is one of the most extraordinary road trips on earth. Not only is this prime Ancient Silk Road territory but now it is being propelled as a significant stretch of the 21st century New Silk Roads.

In addition to its cultural, historical and anthropological pull, this road trip also lays bare some of the key issues related to the development of Central Asia. It was particularly enlightening to hit the road as previously, at the 5th Astana Club meeting in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, I had had the pleasure of moderating a panel titled“Central Asia at the Intersection of Global Interests: Pros and Cons of Being a Heartland.”

The Heartland in the 21st century could not but be a major draw. Any serious analyst knows that Central Asia is the privileged corridor for both Europe and Asia at the heart of the New Silk Roads, as the Chinese-led BRI converges with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

And yet, less than 10 percent of trade in Central Asia happens within the region, while 60 percent is directed to the EU. Idiosyncratic practices among the five former Soviet “Stans” still somewhat prevail. At the same time, there’s a consensus that measures such as a proposed, online, unified Silk Visa plan are bound to boost tourism and trade connectivity.

Banking experts such as Jacob Frenkel, chairman of JP Morgan Chase International, insist that the path towards inclusive growth in Central Asia entails access for financial services and financial tech; Nur-Sultan, incidentally, happens to be the only financial center within a 3,000-mile radius. Only a few years ago it was basically a potato field.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president of Kazakhstan. (, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

So, it will be up to Kazakhs to capitalize on the financial ramifications of their independent, multi-vector foreign policy. After all, aware that his young nation was a “child of complicated history,” First President Nursultan Nazarbayev from the beginning, in the early 1990s, wanted to prevent a Balkans scenario in Central Asia – as proposed as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy by Zbigniew Brzezinski in “The Grand Chessboard.”Recently Kazakhstan mediated quite successfully between Turkey and Russia. And then there’s the Kazakh hosting of the Astana process, which quickly evolved as the privileged road map for the pacification of Syria.

Link or a Bridge?

Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, made a crucial point in the sidelines of our debate: the UN recently passed a unanimous resolution recognizing Central Asia as a world region. And yet, there is no structure for cooperation inside Central Asia. Tricky national border issues between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers may have been solved. There are very few pending questions between, for instance, the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz. Most “Stans” are SCO members, some are EAEU members and all want to profit from BRI.

But as I later saw for myself on the road as I crossed Tajikistan and then Kyrgyzstan, tariff barriers still apply. Industrial cooperation is developing very slowly. Corruption is rife. Distrust of “foreigners” is inbred. And on top of it, the fallout of the U.S.-China trade war affects mostly developing nations – such as the Central Asians. A solution, Starr argues, would be to boost the work of an established commission, and aim towards setting up a single market by 2025.

At the Nur-Sultan debate, my friend Bruno Macaes, former minister for Europe in Portugal and author of the excellent “The Dawn of Eurasia,” argued that the thrust for the New Silk Roads remains sea transportation and investment in ports. As Central Asia is landlocked, the emphasis should be on soft infrastructure. Kazakhstan is uniquely positioned to understand differences between trading blocs. Macaes argues that Nur-Sultan should aim to replicate the role of Singapore as a bridge.

Peter Burian, the EU special representative for Central Asia, chose to stress the positives: how Central Asia has managed to survive its new Heartland incarnation without conflict, and how it’s engaged in institutional building from scratch. The Baltics should be taken as an example. Burian insists the EU does not want to impose ready-made concepts, and would rather work as a link, not as a bridge. More EU economic presence in Central Asia means, in practice, an investment commitment of $1.2 billion in seven years, which may not amount to much but targets very specific, practical-minded projects.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, portion of the Chu River, which runs through to Kazakhstan.  (Ninara/Flickr)

Evgeny Vinokurov, chief economist of the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development, touched on a real success story: the 15 day-only transportation/connectivity rail between China’s central provinces, Central Asia and the EU – now running at 400,000 cargo containers a year, and rising, and used by anyone from BMW to all manner of Chinese manufacturers. Over 10 million tons of merchandise a year is already moving West while 6 million tons are moving East. Vinokurov is adamant that the next step for Central Asia is to build industrial parks.

Svante Cornell, from the Institute for Security and Development Policy, emphasized a voluntary process, possibly with six nations (Afghanistan also included), and well-coordinated in practice (way beyond mere political integration). Models should be result-oriented ASEAN and Mercosur (presumably before Bolsonaro’s disruptive practices). Key issues involve facilitating smoother border crossings and for Central Asia to position itself as not just a corridor.

Essentially, Central Asia should think eastwards – in an SCO/ASEAN symbiosis, keeping in mind the role Singapore developed for itself as a global hub.

What About Tech Transfer?

As I saw for myself days later, when for instance, visiting the University of Central Asia in Khorog, in the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, set up by the Aga Khan foundation, there is a serious drive across Central Asia to invest in universities and techno centers. In terms of Chinese investment, for instance, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is financing hydropower in Kyrgyzstan. The EU is engaged in what it defines as a “trilateral project” – supporting education for Afghan women and universities in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

This may all be discussed and deepened in an upcoming, first-ever summit of Central Asian presidents. Not bad as a first step.

Arguably the most intriguing intervention in the debate in Nur-Sultan was by former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev. He remarked that the GDP of four “Stans,” excluding Kazakhstan, is still smaller than Singapore’s. He insisted the road map ahead is to unite – mostly geoeconomically. He emphasized that both Russia and China “are officially complementary” and that’s “great for us.” Now it’s time to invest in human capital and thus generate more demand.

But once again, the inescapable factor is always China. Otorbaev, referring to BRI, insisted, “you must offer to us the highest technological solutions.” I asked him point-blank whether he could name a project with inbuilt, top technological transfer to Kyrgyzstan. He answered, “I didn’t see any added value so far.” Beijing better go back to the drawing board – seriously.

Pepe Escobar, a veteran Brazilian journalist, is the correspondent-at-large for Hong Kong-based Asia Times. His latest book is 2030.” Follow him on Facebook.

This article is from The Asia Times.

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5 comments for “Trials & Tribulations of Central Asia

  1. CitizenOne
    December 5, 2019 at 22:44

    Face it. If the USA is not a dangerous actor in international affairs then all of the other dangerous actors in international affairs will win in the globalization of everything. China is a dangerous actor. Russia is certainly a dangerous actor. As you state:
    – invest in next-gen infrastructure will not do a thing to prevent foreign nations from out competing the US with its heavy reliance fostered by decades of outsourcing. Next-gen infrastructure looks like we will lose this race unless perhaps we believe in hyperloops and Elon Musk which I doubt you subscribe.
    – rebuild/update worn-out FDR-era everything sound very ambiguous like retiring Social Security or supporting ending every federal agency created since FDR based on the Commerce Clause in the US Constitution. Sure you are not a member of the Federalist Society? Want an FDA agency that ensures you won’t be poisoned by tainted food? Lots of people would disagree.
    – new Green Energy & Transportation. Worthy but not essential at all. A big loser in the public’s mind.
    – clean water for all. Just a fringe issue and also ignorant that most poor people buy water at exorbitant prices.
    – fast internet everywhere (like New Deal Rural Electrification) The speedier that garbage can be transmitted must be a good thing right? It is not the be all and end all that speedy delivery of junk which is what 99.999% of the internet serves up will do anything including what you want to accomplish like new Green Energy &Transportation.
    – national Health Care or Insurance, like civilized countries have. We won’t have this and Nancy Pelosi was the person that killed single payer back in the day when Obama was on his heady day arguing for it before he didn’t argue for it .
    – Continental integration: This is the biggest pipe dream ever. There will never be a cause to integrate continents. We can barely escape the dissolution of our 50 states let alone hope to integrate nations based on what?
    – a new, Good NAFTA, designed for the People of North America, not the Corps: NAFTA was designed from the beginning as a free trade act among corporations. It never had anything to do with people nor do people have any way to alter the course of NAFTA. They are powerless.
    – break the alliance between CIA & Wall Street: That is like breaking the mutual commercial alliances between nations and the alliances between international corporations or busting up monopolies. As corporate power grows and national intelligence agencies are morphed into Covert Industrial Assistance (CIA) we should feel lucky that the CIA is engaged in support of industry and are not taking up the banner “Control Individual Actions” as they send out the goons to sweep up the dissenters like other countries.
    – no more Pinochets, etc.: I agree with this. There can be no excuses that the CIA overthrow of Chile resulted in the deaths of many.
    – retrench (“right-size”) US Military: Unfortunately we are on course to expand our military as are China and Russia. An arms race has begun and it will not stop unless all sides come to the table and agree to limit their armaments. Currently the likelihood of this is slim to none.
    – close lotsa overseas bases (but keep most Navy bases?): Ain’t gonna happen. We won WWII and the US has been aggressively building bases ever since. The likelihood that we will abruptly end our expansionist goals is not only misguided hope but ignores what our major competing superpower nations have been up to.

    Sorry to say that we are in the arms race period between major wars. These periods lead up to actual wars and a global conflict between the USA and China allied with Russia has only been exacerbated recently by the chaos generated by our current administration.

  2. December 5, 2019 at 09:58

    Interesting article, and on Citizen One’s thoughts, the US has no interest in cooperation but competition only. Hegemony and hubris go together, and hopefully before a fall sooner rather than later. You would think they might come into the century, but those old foggy bottom fogies can’t get with it and won’t listen.

  3. Bob Van Noy
    December 5, 2019 at 09:08

    I have often been intrigued by the exotic tales of the Silk Road from Marco Polo until now. The fundamental changes to both Asian culture and European culture by that trade route was and is, stunning. Yet we here in the West with our concentration of History focused on “The History of Western Civilization” have never been properly introduced to an Eastern point of view…

    As always, thank you Pepe Escobar and CN.

  4. CitizenOne
    December 4, 2019 at 22:55

    Good article but where is the role of the US in development of the new Silk Roads? Many decades of US foreign policy have focused on bringing Ukraine into the western hemisphere. To pry Ukraine away from former Soviet and later Russian control was always seen as a key gateway to middle or central Asia as envisioned by Zbigniew Brzezinski in “The Grand Chessboard”. Brzezinski after a long career of steering presidencies from Carter through the Obama and Bush Jr. years was “deeply troubled” by the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and worried over the future. Two days after the election, on November 10, 2016, Brzezinski warned of “coming turmoil in the nation and the world” in a brief speech after he was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Public Service from the Department of Defense. On May 4, 2017, he sent out his final Tweet, saying, “Sophisticated US leadership is the sine qua non of a stable world order. However, we lack the former while the latter is getting worse.”
    He would be rolling over in his grave given the turmoil and political maneuvering in full public view as the republicans and democrats dig their trenches and launch expose after expose like mortar rounds over the roles of various politicians and political operatives all second guessing the motives of each party as treasonous to the national interests to influence a domestic election and losing all sight of the larger national strategy which was once a more unified vision starting with Carter and ending with Obama.
    Today we have political parties willing to cast off all hopes of winning the long game in Central Asia by exposing the mechanisms of US foreign policies for decades all to prop up their political careers and their tenuous control of the government; which by the way is funded today by corporations that can’t think beyond their quarterly financial statements they have to present to Wall Street showing they are “winning” share holder value by any means. It is pure chaos in Washington with politicians being led by the nose by special interests.
    Once upon a time America had a plan for global economic advancement but that has now devolved into politicians fighting over the rights to expose the plans and fight over them in full public view for pure political advantage.
    We cannot hope to experience long term growth and global influence facing fierce competition from strong nations as long as our government picks fights with itself all for the support of a political war waged by by ephemeral politicians more concerned with their careers than the long game of American interests.

    It is just disgusting.

    • elkern
      December 5, 2019 at 11:31

      Brzezinski’s plans are as relevant now as Teddy Roosevelt’s White Navy. USA needs to give up on Global Hegemony and focus closer to home:

      – invest in next-gen infrastructure
      – rebuild/update worn-out FDR-era everything
      – new Green Energy & Transportation
      – clean water for all
      – fast internet everywhere (like New Deal Rural Electrification)
      – national Health Care or Insurance, like civilized countries have
      – Continental integration
      – a new, Good NAFTA, designed for the People of North America, not the Corps
      – break the alliance between CIA & Wall Street
      – no more Pinochets, etc
      – retrench (“right-size”) US Military
      – close lotsa overseas bases (but keep most Navy bases?)

      Face it, the USA has become a dangerous actor in international affairs.

Comments are closed.