Central Asian Expert Forum Sets Regional Cooperation Priorities

ASTANA — Astana hosted the seventh Central Asian Expert Forum, titled the Gravity of Trust, on June 14. The event brought together experts from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The forum aimed to set mutual development priorities, enhance regional cooperation channels, and strengthen Central Asia’s transit and transport potential. 

VII Central Asian Expert Forum, “Central Asia: The Gravity of Trust”. Photo credit: The Astana Times

Organized by the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies (KazISS), the UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the forum precedes the sixth Consultative Meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia, scheduled for Aug. 9 in Astana. Experts proposed practical recommendations for this upcoming meeting on regional development. 

Strengthening regional ties

Javlon Vakhabov, managing director of the International Institute for Central Asia, emphasized the unique opportunity to discuss regionalization, especially with Kazakhstan chairing several international and regional organizations this year. He identified key priorities such as mutual trade expansion, investment cooperation, transport communications, and humanitarian exchanges.

During the forum, KazISS and the International Institute for Central Asia signed the cooperation program action plan for 2024-2025. 

Javlon Vakhabov, Managing Director of the International Institute for Central Asia. Photo credit: The Astana Times

“We aim to strengthen ties between the International Institute for Central Asia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The signed plan includes international conferences, round tables and discussion platforms to develop practical initiatives for regional cooperation,” said Vakhabov.

“This year, the host country of today’s forum chairs several international organizations, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Islamic Food Security Organization (IOFS), and the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS),” said Kaha Imnadze, special representative and head of the UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA), noting Kazakhstan’s contribution to Central Asia’s global image. 

Addressing regional issues 

Yerkin Tukumov, KazISS director, emphasized the importance of interregional cooperation and growing regional friendship and trade. He noted that intra-bilateral trade has increased 2.5 times over the past decade to $11 billion, with potential for significant growth, considering Kazakhstan’s trade turnover with other countries exceeds $140 billion. 

Tukumov addressed common regional issues such as water, energy, transport, and relations with Afghanistan. 

During the forum, Yerkin Tukumov, Director of KazISS and Javlon Vakhabov, Managing Director of the International Institute for Central Asia signed the Cooperation Program action plan for 2024-2025. Photo credit: The Astana Times

He stressed the necessity of engaging with Afghanistan despite the challenges, noting the importance of collaborative solutions for issues such as the Qosh Tepa Canal, which diverts water from the Amu Darya river shared by the region, and the Central Asian transport corridor, which is the shortest route through Afghanistan. 

When asked about regional water management issues, Vakhabov emphasized that reflecting on the progress the region has made in the last seven years, there has been a significant increase in joint efforts. One example he suggested is the signed agreement on the construction of the Kambarata-1 Hydro Power Plant by Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan on June 11. 

Practical recommendations and future directions 

During the panel session, Tukumov proposed creating a secretariat to commence industrialization discussions and suggested establishing an analytical center with CIS participation to develop expert solutions and formulate a Central Asian strategy for Afghanistan. He also recommended conducting sociological research to understand Central Asian youth’s perspectives on further integration and cooperation. 

“Perhaps some kind of joint fund is needed. I do not know if the UN will support it, but let such an initiative be voiced, and you will consider it,” he said.

Speakers of the VII Central Asian Expert Forum, adressing mutual development priorities. Photo credit: The Astana Times

Imnadze highlighted the UN center’s efforts in establishing close ties and fruitful cooperation with all strategic studies institutes in Central Asia. 

“The increased pace of interaction between the countries of the region can become a catalyst for the gradual formation of the region as an integral political entity,” he said, adding that such a trend could eventually promote the interest of the entire region on the international stage. 

Global context and integration efforts

Alexander Wolters, country director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), discussed the significance of regional integration globally. He emphasized that Central Asian countries are demonstrating their desire to revitalize relations and practical cooperation across political, economic, and humanitarian fields, gaining support from many global experts and partners. 

“The theme of the forum aligns perfectly with the current external challenges facing Central Asia, portraying the region as promising, stable, and open to communication with the outside world,” said Wolters. 

The plenary session featured practical suggestions and extensive reports on the first five years of the Consultative Meeting of Central Asian Heads of State and the priorities of the new stage of regional cooperation. 

Experts discussed institutionalizing regional cooperation, expanding cooperation channels, strengthening transit and transport potential, and developing regional food clusters. 

Additionally, they addressed issues of water, energy, and environmental safety, as well as social and cultural development trends, such as the Gen-Z generation in Central Asia, regional identity, the labor market, and opportunities for expanding cooperation in the scientific field.

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