US Expert Says Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan Drive Central Asia’s Global Positioning

LONDON – The shifting geopolitical landscape is increasing the significance of Central Asia. Kazakhstan, with its abundant resources and advanced infrastructure, is emerging as a frontrunner in reshaping public perception and knowledge about the region, said Michael Rossi, a professor at Rutgers University in the United States, in an interview with The Astana Times.

Michael Rossi.

“As the strongest and most developed country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is well positioned to take a leading role in the region’s emerging international agenda. I feel that Kazakhstan is pursuing its international initiatives by branding itself – the country and its capital – as a center for business, finance, and education,” said Rossi, who is also a visiting professor at Webster University Tashkent and a former director of the international relations program at Long Island University Brooklyn.  

In his opinion, Kazakhstan has two major advantages in forming a Central Asian geopolitical unit. 

The first one is the nation’s abundant oil and gas deposits, which make it an important partner for Russia, China and India. 

The second is the country’s openness and accessibility to foreign engagement, particularly to the United States and Europe, which continue to open up new opportunities. This policy was formed due to Kazakhstan “being more comparatively developed during the Soviet period, which gave the fledgling country an advantage in engaging with global markets much earlier than its other former Soviet neighbors.” 

Reflecting on an international dimension of the Astana International Forum (AIF), the first one of which took place on June 8-9, Rossi noted that AIF “serves as an indicator that Central Asia is a region that is coming into its own, and it is using the money generated from its raw materials to invest in a capital that will, in turn, serve to develop human resources.”

“With the relocation of Kazakhstan’s capital, the renamed city of Astana underwent enormous building projects to be transformed into a modern 21st-century city. Without the history that Almaty has, Kazakhstan’s new capital basically benefits as tabula rasa [a clean slate in Latin] that can adopt an image like that of Singapore or Dubai,” said Rossi. 

“Aside from Astana potentially serving as a regional Davos [city in Switzerland where the World Economic Forum holds its annual meeting], the Kazakh city of Almaty has retained its modern and cosmopolitan character that is welcoming to international investors and tourists,” he added.   

According to Rossi, the growing attention towards Central Asia is driven by its newly positioned geographical importance in an emerging multipolar world, surrounded by Russia, China, India and Iran.

“The days of seeing Central Asia as a collection of obscure ‘-stan’ countries with little knowledge beyond stereotypes is coming to an end. People who travel to the region and spend time in Astana, Almaty, Tashkent, Samarkand, or Bishkek, are surprised to find cities that are similar to what one can find in Europe,” he said.  

As the region is opening up to wider global attention, Rossi said Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have the potential to showcase Central Asia as a dynamic region characterized by a growing population of intellectuals and entrepreneurs who are keen on investing within their own countries instead of seeking opportunities abroad.

 “With international organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Central Asian countries, particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, stand to benefit enormously from being part of free trade zones,” he said.  

In his opinion, Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is shaped by its strategic partnerships with Russia and China, largely due to close economic ties.

“This isn’t because these other two countries are more powerful, but as part of both the SCO and the EAEU, Kazakhstan’s primary focus of economic development and cooperation lies with these other two member states. Strengthening ties with the West is not prohibited, but there is a limit to how far that can go before conflicts with more established and entrenched economic relations are seen,” he explained. 

When asked about the prospects of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), also known as the Middle Corridor, Rossi highlighted three critical aspects in terms of foreseeable regionalization.  

“The first is the enormous infrastructural projects that are being designed in what is basically a transnational roadway project. This means modern roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, railways, and pipelines that modernize the countries’ infrastructures, but offer jobs in construction and engineering to populations that otherwise seek these professions abroad,” said Rossi.  

The second aspect, according to him, is the connectivity between Central Asian countries and other major economic hubs in China, Russia, India, Türkiye and Iran. 

“Like the Silk Road networks in history, cities and people in Central Asia will benefit enormously as trading hubs, which will transform key cities into centers of learning and industry,” he said. 

Beyond economics, Central Asia can also benefit from travel and tourism, student exchange, and improvements in standards of living as a result of greater cooperation.

“As a good example, just in the last seven years since the death of Uzbekistan’s former president Islam Karimov and accession to power by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the country has opened itself up after more than 20 years of isolation and obscurity. Within this short period of time, cities like Tashkent, Samarkand, Andijan and Bukhara have experienced a renaissance in construction, modernization, conservation and restoration of historical sites, and an explosion of new internationally sponsored colleges and universities that are training a new generation of young adults to participate in the region’s emerging economic, diplomatic, and cultural importance,” said Rossi.   

According to the expert, step-by-step implementation of the transport and logistics projects will give Central Asia a solid place on the map, providing more opportunities for multilateral cooperation, while Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy will keep maintaining critically important relations with global powers. 

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