Central Asia is the region that isn’t exactly a region. The republics trade globally, but relatively little with one another. Their border and customs policies remain highly dysfunctional despite well‐meaning international aid programs. And much of the new infrastructure in the region has developed to serve national territory, rather than to better connect states to one another. Central Asia’s status as a nonregion persists at a time when policymakers in the US and abroad need the republics to become more engaged and supportive of neighboring Afghanistan. The New Silk Route vision is appealing in its desire to better integrate the great region, but it faces a series of impediments—international, national and local.
What new thinking and approaches are needed if Central Asia is to become a more dynamic region? What can be done to encourage the Central Asian republics to play a more supportive role in Afghanistan? Do Central Asian entrepreneurs and civil society actors want regional integration, and if so, how could such a vision be achieved?
To address these and other questions, the Hollings Center convened a three‐day Regional Policy Dialogue entitled, “Central Asia’s Regional Challenges.” Held in Istanbul, Turkey from October 3‐6, 2013, the dialogue brought together scholars, entrepreneurs, civil society members, policy makers, journalists and development workers to discuss Central Asia and its prospects for regional integration. The dialogue presented a unique opportunity for citizens of Central Asian states to interact with each other and with counterparts in the international community.
Through the dialogue, the participants came to the following conclusions:
- Central Asia exists as a region only in concept, not reality. To achieve meaningful, cooperative interaction, better attention should be paid to specific challenges that each state faces. Doing so would create a more positive environment for economic integration.
- Action by the international community has become an ideological zero‐sum game that is contradictory to the stated goals of regional integration.
- Successful examples of economic interaction and development exist at the micro, hyper‐local level, specifically in border regions.
- Central Asian peoples are displaying remarkable resilience and entrepreneurial spirit. Support is needed, however, to help successful small businesses transition to medium and large enterprises.
- Developing human capital in Central Asia is a pressing need, which can be achieved through investments in education. Such contributions could be the most valuable investments made by foreign governments. It would also support the development of civil society.
- The barriers to trade created by the Central Asian borders are both physical and psychological. Psychological barriers will be more difficult to overcome, especially in the case of Afghanistan.