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Frederick Starr: For Central Asian States the Regional Cooperation is Important, But Not Integration and Loss of Sovereignty

«The history of last 28 years was dominated by the consolidation of sovereignty in every country in Central Asia including Afghanistan. This was very difficult at first and problematic but it has been successful – all the states survived their difficult first years. They are developing at different rates today but none of them is stagnant», – states Frederick Starr – American geopolitical scientist, advisor to three US presidents on Russia/Eurasia, founder of the Institute of Central Asia and the Caucasus, in the interview for CABAR.asia

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CABAR.asia: There is an opinion that on the international level, discussions about the Central Asia have an excessive focus on geopolitics. Most likely this is the desire of the region to appear more relevant, especially in front of the West and to draw away attention from the domestic and social-economic problems. So here comes the fundamental question: why should the United States care about what happens in the Central Asia?

Very simple. It is the center of Eurasia – of Europe and Asia, it is where everything comes together. It’s a stability and development in this broad region. It will prevent, discourage conflict at every direction. This is the only place in the world virtually surrounded by nuclear powers. Either you create stability from the outside, which is never worked or you promote stability and development from within and that is what Central Asian states are trying to do today. I believe all outside powers should support this but to stay out. 

I think that history of last 28 years was dominated by the consolidation of sovereignty in every country in Central Asia including Afghanistan. This was very difficult at first and problematic but it has been successful – all the states survived their difficult first years. They are developing at different rates today but none of them is stagnant. If you were to look at Central Asia five years ago or ten years ago, you would ask “well, what is its future?”. Today it very clear: Central Asia’s future is national development on the basis of sovereignty, combined with regional development on the basis of cooperation. This process everybody should support but stay out. Why should they do so? Because every outside power whether it is China or Russia or Europe, the United States, India – they all say they want to prevent terrorism, they want to reduce corruption, drug trafficking. These are exactly the things which are the cooperation within the region, the new regionalism of Central Asia can address. Central Asians themselves can address this better than any outside power can do. Therefore, the outside powers, all of them, should hold back, stay out and with the Central Asian success in this important project. 

During the last couple years, the entire region has entered a period of dynamic and fundamental changes, which is still gaining momentum today. Talking about these changes, it is impossible to pass by the reforms that are taking place in Uzbekistan and how they influence the region. What are the positive reforms you can observe in this country? What are the spheres where little attention is paid to reforms?

We have published a book entitled “Uzbekistan’s New Face” which discuss in detail the various reforms that have been made in Uzbekistan. Of course these are only legislative acts and presidential decrees. The real challenge now is implementation and that is never simple in any country. I think we should expect that it will be a complex process extending over many years. We should be patient and supportive. 

Frederick Starr at the presentation of his book “Uzbekistan’s New Face” in Tashkent, 2018. Photo: review.uz

There are issues that are sensitive in the US, for example, human rights problems in other countries. This plays a significant role in US foreign policy. For Central Asian countries, sovereignty and security issues play the same role. What should be the new approach to soften the sharp corners for both sides? On what issues countries can find a common contact?

This is an important question. My colleague Svante Cornell and I discussed this in detail in our book “The Long Game on the Silk Road: US and EU Strategy for Central Asia and the Caucasus“. We do not see any conflict between these two. The desire for sovereignty and development is exactly what the United States experienced after it claimed its Independence from Britain. It is absolutely normal and healthy desire of all the Central Asian states which of course includes Afghanistan. On the other side, human rights and the more open political system – these two are normal. The question for the West is very simple: do you work WITH the states of Central Asia to address problems of rights and participation or do you work ON them. It is the important distinction; I think there is a shift now to working WITH the Central Asian government to improve those situations rather than ON them. Now on the side of the Central Asians, their desire for the sovereignty and development is healthy and I believe reforms taking in Uzbekistan and also beginning in Kazakhstan and elsewhere will promote both sovereignty and development. The main engine for protecting sovereignty in Central Asia today is regionalism – cooperation within the region. Not integration, not loss of sovereignty but cooperation among sovereign states so that the whole of Central Asia is greater than some of its part.

Frederick Starr at the meeting with the present of Kyrgyzstan Sooronbay Jeenbekov, where Starr presented his book “Lost Enlightenment. Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane”. Photo: president.kg

There is an opinion that the United States should consider Afghanistan as a part of the Central Asian region. First step in this direction can be the transformation of Washington’s existing “C5 Plus 1” initiative into a “C6 Plus 1.” Why should the United States promote Afghanistan as part of Central Asia?

Because the Central Asians themselves have promoted Afghanistan as part of Central Asia. Not as inconvenient neighbor but as an integral part of the region. Every president has acknowledged this and supported this so the United States is not initiating this, it is supporting it. I strongly agree that C5 plus 1 should be transformed into C6 plus 1. I think the countries themselves will bring that about. However, this expansion of Central Asia to include Afghanistan is being strongly promoted by the countries themselves. Every one of them is expanding their trade, their investments, their interaction, the educational ties, even security discussions with Afghanistan. This is healthy, benefits everyone, it is not against anyone. 

Russia and China are now active in Afghanistan. The presence of these countries has not been noticed or planned until recently. For example, Russia’s desire to mediate a dialogue between the Taliban and official Kabul. Are there any concerns in America that China and Russia have declared their geopolitical interests in Afghanistan?

Well, the Central Asians, with American and European backing, organized a process of dialogue with the government of Afghanistan and Taliban. They were pursuing this successfully. When Mr. Lavrov decided that he wanted to organize it, when he made the announcement that this would be organized from Moscow, the Central Asians objected and Mr. Gani from Afghanistan called Moscow: Thank you! This is a Central Asian business. We are dealing with it; we appreciate your support but please do not attempt to take over our project. Other than that, Russia has done rather little. There is an evidence that Russia has supported some of the radical groups in Afghanistan, supported them against the government. Russia is building the cultural center in Kabul, but people in Afghanistan have long memory, and they remember very well the invasion of 1979.

How should the United States treat Turkmenistan? Should the West help Turkmenistan in times of crisis? What is the role of Turkmenistan in the geopolitical interests of the United States in the region?  

I think all countries, including the United States, should have bilateral relations with each country in Central Asia including Afghanistan. But they should also maintain regional relations and regional policy. Turkmenistan after all is doing very active development work in Afghanistan with the TAPI pipeline. It is also expanding its rail links through Uzbekistan to Tajikistan and to Afghanistan. These are all positive developments that are not isolationist. It is playing a role in the region. Of course, it has declared it neutrality and it will not align itself with any outside group but participating as a part of Central Asia is natural and normal for Turkmenistan, and I am sure they will become active and constructive partners in regional affairs.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.