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15 September 2022, Gateway House

SCO seeks cooperation amid conflict

The upcoming SCO Summit led by Uzbekistan seeks to ignite a ‘Samarkand Spirit’ where nations are indivisible and not fragmented, and connected by trade and investment. This is a welcome positive note in the backdrop of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, where Central Asia is now being impacted by diminishing essential commodities, depreciation of local currencies, and reduced remittances from its migrant workers in Russia.

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The 22nd Meeting of the Council of Heads of the State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on 15 – 16 September will be the first in-person Summit after two virtual meetings of leaders in the wake of the Covid pandemic. The Summit takes place amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, westward expansion of the SCO, calls for a new international order, and domestic turmoil in some of the Central Asian countries.

The prolonged Russia-Ukraine conflict has had political and economic repercussions in the region including for the Central Asian countries. The close connection of the economies of Central Asia and Russia has led to the former being impacted by the conflict, including supplies of essential commodities, depreciation of local currencies, and reduced remittances from Central Asian workers in Russia. In the weeks following the conflict, Russia had imposed restrictions on export of wheat and sugar to countries of the Eurasian Economic Union which includes Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In his State of the Nation address in March 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan stated that his country was facing unprecedented financial and economic difficulties in its modern history due to the ‘escalation of the geopolitical situation’, and blamed ‘harsh sanctions’ by the western countries on Russia for imposing serious costs not only on individual countries but also the entire global economy. The political developments after the January 2022 when protests over rising fuel prices turned violent, were already affecting the economy and investments in Kazakhstan.

Remittances from Russia for some of the Central Asian countries constituted a significant proportion of their GDPs, some like Tajikistan, being as high as 30 per cent. An estimated 9 million Central Asians work in Russia, mainly from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan[1]. In the first nine months of 2021, 1.6 million Tajik workers travelled to Russia for work. Russia also recognises the role of Central Asian workers, and President Vladimir Putin on a visit to Tajikistan in June 2022 stated that Tajik migrant workers “make a significant contribution to the development of the economy of our country” and are “a bridge of friendship between Russia and Tajikistan.”[2] A few hundred thousand Central Asian workers are reported to have returned home, but most have stayed on in Russia, because of the shared Soviet past, some fluency in the Russian language and lack of significant opportunities elsewhere..

The long-term impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict can only be guessed, but a realignment of international relations is certain which may strain the multi-vectoral foreign policy the Central Asian states have so far followed. As President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan stated on 12th September as he was readying to host the SCO Samarkand Summit, “Uzbekistan’s Chairmanship in the SCO has fallen on a dynamic period, fraught with various events and trends – the period of the ‘historical rifts’, when one era comes to an end and another begins – thus far unpredictable and unknown.”[3] Mirziyoyev pointed out that the deep crisis of trust at the global level provokes a geopolitical confrontation and the risk of reviving the bloc thinking stereotypes. The SCO continues to be non-military in its orientation even though it does conduct counter-terrorism exercises involving the militaries of member countries. The expansion of SCO is taking place in the backdrop of US and NATO expansion and increasing assertiveness in the region.

The host city of Samarkand (Afrosiyab in older times) has been the melting pot of civilisations through millennia, being at the crossroads of ancient trade and travel routes from India and China to Europe and the Arab world. The ‘Samarkand Spirit’ which, President Mirziyoyev described as seeing the world as “single and indivisible rather than fragmented”[4] will hopefully permeate the structures of the SCO to bring the member nations and their peoples closer. The inclusion of Iran as a full member, and some of the Arab countries as Dialogue Partners, will complete the centuries old map of trade and cultural interaction in the region. The new dialogue partners – Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – with Bahrain and Maldives also expected to be accorded dialogue partner status, will bring more depth and opportunity to the organisation. The westward expansion of the SCO provides a framework to discuss enhanced regional maritime and land connectivity, including infrastructure and customs cooperation. In the long term, this will benefit Central Asia through diversification and expansion of trade and investment.

The SCO has now become the largest regional organisation in the world representing over 3.5 billion people.  Its multi-sectoral and multi-layered structure with several annual political level meetings including at the Head of Government and Head of State level, give the organisation a remarkable dynamism. Uzbek President Mirziyoyev has urged the SCO members to plan for the development of intraregional trade, which will include measures to eliminate trade barriers, align technical regulations and digitalize customs procedures.

India is currently the chair of SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (SCO-RATS) based in Tashkent, since October 2021 for a one-year period, and will take over the Chair of SCO from Uzbekistan at the Samarkand Summit. Iran’s membership of the SCO is expected to be approved at the Summit to be hosted by India next year. Several new dialogue partners from the Arab world will also participate in the 2023 Summit. An SCO Delhi Declaration can actualise the ambitious road map for this increasingly important regional organisation.

Vinod Kumar is a former Ambassador of India to Uzbekistan and Permanent Representative of India to SCO-RATS.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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