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Akram Umarov

Central Asia: construction of the new regional security complex?

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Central Asia (CA) faces an important stage of its develop-ment. Over 25 years have passed since the independ-ence of the regional states. The election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the President of Uzbekistan in 2016 became a focal point in the contemporary situation in the region and contributed to the intensification of Tashkent’s for-eign policy. The latter has demonstrated increasing cooperation with neighbouring countries, strengthening trade and economic relations, as well as in seeking compromise solutions on the most pressing issues in CA, including borders and water usage, among others. Such position of Uzbekistan that keeps special role in the region due to its strategic location, economic and demographic potential, rich history and culture has marked a trend towards the growth of regional cooperation in CA.

Despite the extremely pessimistic forecasts of some experts on the possibility of destabilising the situation in CA, regional coun-tries managed to take place as sovereign states and prevent armed conflicts after the end of the civil war in Tajikistan in 1997. Resort-ing to systematic and comparative methods of analysis, and to the regional security complex (RSC) theory of Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, we put forward the argument of the formation of a new independent RSC in CA, for the last more than 25 years after the acquisition of sovereignty by five regional countries. At the same time, by looking at Afghanistan through the lens of an ‘insulator’, we identify a country that has a significant impact on the security processes in the region and participates in the RSC of CA.


1In the contemporary Political Science, the term “Central Asian region” is used not only to denote the territorial community of the five independent republics that emerged after the collapse of the USSR, but also the historical, economic, political and cultural past of these states. Five countries have formed along the borders of the former union republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They occupy the centre of Eurasia and border on the great world civilizational centres. The notion of the “Central Asian region” is beginning to include Afghanistan, as it has a geographic community with the countries of the region, the historical and cultural past and also influences the strategic balance of the entire region. Traditionally, the events in Afghanistan and the impact of the intra-Afghan conflict on the regional security of Central Asia (CA) are explored using the concepts of the balance of forces inherent in realist and neo-realist International Relations (IR) theories, as well as military power, the state of the armed forces, rational choice. However, in my opinion, this narrows the subject of the study, reducing it to certain aspects of the Afghan conflict and its impact on the Central Asian countries. Such reductionist approach cannot provide a full picture of what is happening without considering the root causes of the high concern of the countries of the region with the processes in Afghanistan.

2Drawing upon the regional security complex (RSC) theory of Barry Buzan and Ole Waever and testing its evaluation of CA as a week subcomplex of the post-Soviet RSC, the present contribution puts forward the argument of the formation of a new independent RSC in CA, for the last more than 25 years after the acquisition of sovereignty by five regional countries. At the same time, by looking at Afghanistan, we identify a country that has a significant impact on the security processes in the region and participates in the RSC of CA.

3The present contribution is structured as follows. The first section examines Barry Buzan and Ole Waever’s evaluation of the Central Asian regional security processes and their inclusion of the region in post-Soviet RSC. The second section, then, presents the existing perspectives on security relationship between CA and Afghanistan. The third section explores arguments of the evolution of the CA to form the independent RSC and the fourth section analyses the level of Afghanistan’s participation in the Central Asian RSC.

Regional Security Complex Theory

4Few works conceptually explain regional security processes in CA. For example, I. Bobokulov (2010, pp. 25-26), investigating the problems of international legal aspects of ensuring regional security in CA, mentions the theory of regional security complex. He argues that the relations of the states of the region determine the content of regional security, but these relations can be both friendly and hostile. He defines regional security as “the regional states’ recognition of the unity of their destinies – the community of existing threats, problems and interests”, which is close to the Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT) postulates. G. Yuldasheva (2006, p. 346) argues that certain theories can be operated on different levels of analysis, theories are able to explain various dependent variables. In this context, she considers important theories of realism (neo-realism), liberalism (neo-liberalism), Marxism (neo-Marxism) and constructivism in the studies of international relations. She considers that the structural approach is fundamental to understanding the specifics of the interaction and interdependence of the various elements of Central Asian geopolitics.

5The influence of the situation in Afghanistan on regional security in CA can be explained with the help of the theory of a regional security com-plex (Buzan, 1983). The concept of a regional security complex (RSC) was subsequently finalised with the participation of O. Waever and acquired modern outlines (Buzan and Wæver, 2003).

6Initially, the definition given to regional security complex by B. Buzan was as follows - a group of states whose main security concerns connect them so closely that their national security cannot be considered in isola-tion from each other (Buzan, 1983, p. 106). However, in 1998, B. Buzan and O. Waever made corrections in the definition of the theory of the RSC, in order to avoid the state centred and military-political orienta-tion of the previous version and allowing for the possibility of taking into account various actors and security sectors – a set of units whose main securitisation, desecuritisation visions are similar, or they are both so in-terconnected that their security problems cannot be reasonably analysed or resolved separately from each other (Buzan and Wæver, 1998, p. 201). As S. Walt also emphasizes, physical proximity tends to generate closer interaction on security issues between neighbours than among states lo-cated in different regions (Walt, 1987, pp. 276-277).

7An integral part of the theory of the RSC was the “theory of securitisa-tion”, which was presented in the joint work of O. Waever, B. Buzan and J. Wilde in 1998 (Buzan, Wæver and Wilde, 1998). In their view, security should be seen as a speech act, where the main issue is not whether the threat is real or not, but in ways how a particular problem can be socially constructed as a threat. Hence, the problem is declared a threat, because it is perceived and publicly declared by the state as such.

8Let us consider this theory’s application to the region of CA.

9B. Buzan and O. Waever (2003, pp. 397-436) believe that there is a post-Soviet RSC, centring on Russia; the core of this complex is the Russian Federation, which links the subcomplexes of the Baltic region (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), the Western group of states (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine), CA (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia). The authors classify CA as a weak subcomplex, in which internal dynamics are only being formed, and Russia’s involvement is strong. For most countries in CA and the Caucasus, internal security is a top priority. The state system in some countries is so weak that security threats can cause a general crisis of political order and in some cases a civil war (Buzan and Wæver, 2003, p. 423).

10According to B. Buzan and O. Waever (2003, p. 426), security problems in CA, as a rule, are more transnational in character than interstate, if we exclude traditional suspicions and competition for regional leader-ship between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, no model of friendliness or enmity among regional states was formed. Part of the explanation for the lack of regional security dynamics can be the weak armed forces that the countries of the region have (with the exception of Uzbekistan). Thus, the countries of CA contain elements of unstructured type: the states have not yet fully taken place, and the region is relatively open for the penetration of external forces.

11B. Buzan and O. Waever (2003, p. 41) are convinced that most often the borders between regions are geographically defined by weak interaction zones or insulators (Turkey, Burma, Afghanistan), which are turned in both directions, but not strong enough to unite the two regions into one whole. The concept of ‘an insulator’ is important for the theory of the RSC, it should not be confused with the traditional buffer state, whose function is at the centre of a strong securitisation system, and not at its edge.

12In the course of regional security processes in South Asia and the Middle East, Afghanistan has always remained an insulator that attracted its neighbours on all grounds, but at the same time kept them away from each other, rather than uniting them. According to scientists, despite even the West’s sustained involvement in Afghanistan as a result of the outbreak of the war in 2001, this basic characteristic is unlikely to change (Buzan and Wæver, 2003, pp. 110-111).

Afghan influence on the regional security in Central Asia: academic perspectives

13A number of scholars conducted research on the current state of the post-Soviet RSC and analysed the influence of Afghanistan on security processes in this region.

14A. Lukin expressed the opinion that CA continues to be a part of the post-Soviet space, since Russia still remains the dominant player here. However, the presence of China has increased significantly, and this is due not only to the oil and gas reserves of CA, but also to the transna-tional threats of Uighur separatism and Islamic extremism. In addition, Beijing is trying to prevent a scenario in which CA can be used by its rivals (primarily the US) to create threats in the rear of the PRC. Increased interest in the countries of Central Asia is also shown by India and Japan. All this allows A. Lukin (2011, pp. 17-18) to assert that the Central Asian countries can already be regarded to some extent as part of the Asian su-percomplex of security, although for them membership in this supercom-plex is still secondary, less significant in comparison with the post-Soviet, Russian-centric regional security.

15Some researchers even believe that we can talk about the formation of a unified RSC in Asia. A. Voskresensky (2006, p. 26) calls it “Great East Asia”, including Central, South, North-East and South-East Asia in its composition. About strengthening of tendencies to formation of the uniform Asian complex including East, South and Central Asia, the con-tribution of E. Feigenbaum (2011, pp. 25-43) is of special importance.

16A. Priego (2008, pp. 63-83) considers that Afghanistan, which had been previously performing the functions of the isolator, separating the oppos-ing forces, suddenly became the centre of the new RSC that can be called “South and Central Asia”. E. Klimenko (2011, p. 10) believes: “Although it is impossible to say whether these five ‘stans’ will remain together even in the near future, many common threats and security problems give grounds for considering the region as the RSC”. I. Bobokulov (2012, p. 126) emphasizes that CA is a full-fledged and independent regional security complex. Sh. Tadjbakhsh (2012, pp. 3-4) also views the CA as a separate RSC.

17At the same time, according to K. Nurzhanov (2009, p. 86), for many centuries CA has evolved as a deeply integrated geopolitical space. The troubled decade of the 1990s undoubtedly showed that modern CA is an independent RSC.

Central Asia – independent Regional Security Complex

18such a separate RSC appeared over the past 25 years after the independ-ence of the Central Asian states as a result of the internal transformation of the subcomplex. General historical, ethno-religious, economic and cultural ties and geographical proximity predetermined the emergence of this complex. The countries of the region have significantly strength-ened their political and economic independence in comparison with the period after the collapse of the USSR when, under the influence of the Soviet economic complex and close contacts, CA could be viewed as a subcomplex of a wider RSC under Russia.

19It is difficult to imagine common important security threats for the coun-tries of Central Asia and the Baltic States, which is certainly important for them within the framework of one RSC, therefore, security ties between the Western group of states and CA also decreased significantly. For ex-ample, it is difficult to talk about some serious threats to the security of CA as a result of domestic political upheaval in Moldova in recent years. At the same time, any internal problems of the regional state cause great interest and attract the attention of its neighbourhood in CA. Even the connection with the Caucasian subcomplex is not so pronounced; the main link between the security of the Caucasus and CA remains the Caspian Sea and the interaction of the Caspian countries, but this issue directly affects only two countries from the five countries in the region (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan with access to this reservoir).

20Russia’s continued significant participation in regional security process-es can be explained by its status as a great power in accordance with the theory of the RSC, which does not obey the factor of geography and neighbourhood in security matters. If earlier Russia was the main exter-nal player in the region, in our time this role is leveled by China, which attaches increasing importance to CA in its foreign policy, as well as the United States, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the EU, Iran, Turkey and others.

21The Central Asian region has all the qualities that shape security:

  • the common border of the region, which is determined by the state borders of the countries of CA - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan;

  • an anarchic structure that includes two or more autonomous units (states) – the RSC includes five CA states.

  • polarity: due to economic potential, demographic and territorial factors, the possession of significant reserves of natural resources in the region stand out two states – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan; Turkmenistan, although it has significant energy resources, does not have a great demographic potential; Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, tak-ing into account the smaller number of people, the limited nature of natural resources and the complex mountainous landscape, are just entering the path of sustainable development.

  • a social construction that encompasses amity and enmity between countries: in the region it is not easy to clearly distinguish between the models of friendliness or enmity; among the states of CA there are more often models of distrust, rivalry and limited pragmatic cooperation. There are no institutionalised region-wide mechanisms (apart from IFAS and the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination), which include regulation of important issues for all countries. It can be explained by the lack of the necessary level of interaction between states and their leaders; a model of contention is traced in the attempts of some countries to promote their energy projects without due regard for the interests of their neighbors. This situation is improving under the influence of new Uzbek President Sh. Mirziyoyev, but it will take some time to solve very sensitive issues of regional politics.

22All the leaders of the region note the special role of neighbouring regional states in their foreign policy. In the Concept of Foreign Policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2014-2020 (MFA of Kazakhstan, 2017) stated: “Kazakhstan is interested in the politically stable, economically sustainable and safe development of Central Asia. Realising its responsibility and role in the region, Kazakhstan will make all-round efforts to ensure regional stability and security, counter new challenges and threats, including those originating from adjacent territories”.

23In Kyrgyzstan, after coming to power, A. Atambayev and S. Jeenbekov have not yet adopted a conceptual document on the foreign policy guidelines of the country. The media reported on its development, but so far it has not been officially approved. Until now, the Concept has been in effect since 2007, where the term “Central Asia” is not even mentioned, but the special role of the regional state is noted (Ministry of Justice of Kyrgyzstan, 2017): “The common borders with the Republic of Kazakhstan, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Tajikistan and the Republic of Uzbekistan have historically determined close political, economic and cultural-humanitarian ties. The formation of a friendly environment and the strengthening of good-neighbourliness on the principles of respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and general security is of key importance in the foreign policy of Kyrgyzstan”.

24The Foreign Policy Concept of Tajikistan (MFA of Tajikistan, 2015) states: “In the system of interstate relations of the Republic of Tajikistan, the neighboring states of the region take priority positions. Tajikistan supports the further expansion of the positive, centuries-old and creative experi-ence of the friendly coexistence of the peoples of CA”. Turkmenistan in its Foreign Policy Concept for 2013-2017 mentions (Turkmenistan State News Agency, 2013) the importance of: “building harmonious and stable interstate relations in the regions of Central Asia and the Caspian basin, creating strong mechanisms for maintaining regional peace and security”.

25Uzbekistan as the main priority of foreign policy in the Foreign Policy Concept calls for cooperation with the countries of CA, with which its vital interests are linked. Uzbekistan’s foreign policy efforts in CA include ensuring peace and stability in the region, resolving key issues through peaceful diplomatic means, including facilitating the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan, ensuring the equitable and rational use of the water resources of the transboundary rivers in CA and the environmental sustainability of the region, completing the delimitation and demarca-tion processes borders, the adoption of effective measures to combat new threats, the establishment of a close, mutually beneficial and constructive cooperation with neighbouring countries (MFA of Uzbekistan, 2017).

26To be securitised in a high degree problems can be attributed to terrorism and religious extremism, the fair and rational use of the region’s water resources, the conflict in Afghanistan, energy and transport problems (Faizullaev, 2014, p. 20). At the same time, a number of serious problems of regional security remain not highly securitised. For example, the economic and technological backwardness from the advanced economies of the world, the problems of ecology (with the exception of water issues), etc.

The role of the Afghan conflict in Central Asian RSC

27Leaders of regional countries often argue that the conflict over the last 40 years in Afghanistan has a negative impact on virtually all political and economic processes in CA and is potentially one of the main destabilising factors in the region.

28In Kazakhstan’s concept of foreign policy Afghanistan is included in the list of priorities (MFA of Kazakhstan, 2014): “Kazakhstan will continue to support the joint efforts of the international community in the issues of national reconciliation and political settlement in Afghanistan, partici-pate in the socio-economic development of this state, eliminate threats to regional and global security”.

29The head of Kyrgyzstan, S. Jeenbekov assesses (24kg, 2018) the importance of Afghanistan in the regional security system. In his opinion, “Kyrgyzstan could not indifferently watch the situation in Afghanistan. One must not allow terrorism and extremism to penetrate into the territory of Central Asia”.

30President of Tajikistan E. Rakhmon repeatedly stated that the situation in Afghanistan creates a threat to the southern borders of Tajikistan and the CSTO member countries (Sputnik, 2016). Turkmen President G. Berdymukhammedov stated (Turkmenistan State News Agency, 2015) that “Turkmenistan is a supporter of peace, security and sustainable development in Afghanistan, initiating an exclusively peaceful solution of the issues existing in the neighbouring country and advocating the active involvement of new, long-term political and diplomatic methods”.

31Uzbekistan’s Concept of foreign policy activity emphasizes (MFA of Uzbekistan, 2017) that “Uzbekistan’s policy in Central Asia is aimed at ensuring peace and stability in the region, solving key problems of regional security, including facilitating the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan”.

32Afghanistan is seen as a threat to regional security not only by leaders, the political establishment and the expert community for each country, but also the entire region of CA. Afghanistan was named the main threat to the security of Central Asian countries in opinion polls in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (51 and 16% respectively) the respondents expressed concern about the possibility of conflict spillover (Esipova and Ray, 2016). In Kyrgyzstan, 54% of respondents named Afghanistan as the biggest threat to their country (M-Vector, 2012), and in Tajikistan, 22% of the poll participants in Tajikistan (M-Vector, 2013) called the Afghan conflict a source of threats and dangers to themselves.

33For a long time people lived on both sides of the Amu Darya, who had similar customs, traditions and culture. The modern territory of northern Afghanistan and the adjacent regions of southern Uzbekistan were, for a certain period of history, a common cultural, civilizational and economic space. Afghanistan and CA were parts of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Kushan Empire, Ghaznavid Empire. Later, during the Temurids and the Baburids, contemporary Afghan territory was part of a regional security complex stretching from the northern regions of modern Kazakhstan (the Golden Horde) to the coastal regions of modern India. The function of the isolator Afghanistan carried out after the agreements of the Russian Empire with the Great Britain on the delimitation of spheres of influence and the establishment of a “buffer zone” on the Afghan territory.

34However, the destruction of the colonial system after the Second World War, the emergence of Pakistan and India, as well as the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan in 1979 led to the cancellation of the Russian-British agreement on this region. The security relationship between Central Asia and South Africa has increased through Afghanistan. During the Civil War, armed formations of the armed opposition appeared in Tajikistan. Radical extremist movements from Central Asian countries were based in Afghanistan in 1990s. Their attempts to infiltrate into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the late 1990s were stopped. However, Afghanistan has become a source of security threats, which actualises the return to the historical structure of the regional security complex.

35The urgency of the creation of the RSC is due to the involvement in the zone of the Taliban’s and Daesh’s activity of the northern and north-west-ern provinces of Afghanistan, bordering with the Central Asian countries and previously served as a buffer zone between the unstable southern and central Afghan provinces and CA states. Contradictions between po-litical leaders representing different provinces of the country threaten its unity. Afghanistan’s internal problems also affect its external contacts. The provinces of Afghanistan are increasingly establishing closer relations in the economic and security spheres with the bordering states than with other Afghan regions. The regional security complex of CA is subject to strong influence of the northern provinces of the IRA in comparison with the western and southern regions of the country. At the same time, the southern and eastern regions Afghanistan have close ties in almost all spheres with Pakistan and with the South Asian RSC.

36Despite the fact that the theory of the RSC does not imply a line of delineation between the two RSCs within the territory of one country, as well as the simultaneous participation of one country in the two RSCs, in the case of Afghanistan, its specificity should be highlighted. the peculiar border between the RSC of Central Asia and South Asia passes through the central provinces of Afghanistan, while the northern and north-west-ern provinces of the country are closer to the RSC of CA, and the southern and eastern provinces to the RSC of South Asia.

37The situation in the Afghan provinces of Herat, Badghis, Faryab, Jawzjan, Balkh, Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan, which share borders with the Central Asian states, is the determining factor in the perception of threats from Afghanistan by regional countries. All these provinces have established close economic cooperation with the Central Asian countries and actively cooperated with them. A significant proportion of the participation of regional states in the construction of socio-economic infrastructure and the provision of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan falls on these Afghan provinces and these regions are predominantly inhabited by ethnic groups with close ties to countries of CA. The natural geographic separator of northern Afghanistan from the rest of the country is the mountain system of Hindukush, which stretches practically through the whole of the central part of the IRA.


38Central Asia formed independent RSC during its evolution in the post-Soviet period. Existing regional issues, external challenges and threats facilitated the shaping of the regional cooperation and even confrontation on such sensitive issues as the use of water resources, delimitation of borders, transit transport corridors. Conflict in Afghanistan and its perception as the major regional security threat by CA states was one of the main stimulating sources of the RSC’s formation in CA. However, it is not yet possible to assert about the complete loss of the function of the insulator by Afghanistan and the completion of its entry into the RSCs of Central and South Asia. Given the serious internal conflict in the country and the significant influence of many external forces in intra-Afghan processes, it is difficult to view Afghanistan as a fully independent consolidated force capable of defining consensual internal and external priorities.

39At the same time, these tendencies in the region go hand in hand with the highly controversial and difficult-to-predict processes in Europe, caused by the uncertainty of the overall development path in the region, the migrant crisis, terrorist activity, and the concomitant growth of na-tionalist and protectionist political forces in the West. The escalation of tensions in US-Russian relations, internal political turmoil in the United States, the misunderstanding between the traditional EU-US allies on a number of issues of global and regional development, the conflict in the Middle East, the increase in terrorist activity in the developed countries of the world, along with the growing activity of China in the international arena under the brand “Belt and Road”, which causes India’s concern, can have a serious impact on sustainable development and the dynamics of economic growth in CA.

40There arises to a certain extent an unclear picture of the prospects for the development of the Central Asian region. Along with the visible increase in the activity of several countries in CA, in the general context there is a slight decrease in interest to the region and its transfer to the periphery of the priority areas of international political, trade and economic relations. This circumstance can have a tangible impact on the prospects of attract-ing new investments and technologies vital for sustainable development of the region.

41After the completion of the stage of strengthening statehood in the re-gion, the countries of CA desperately need external developed partners ready to assist in achieving the regional states’ ambitious goals of com-prehensive development. The external participants in the processes in CA should unite their efforts without getting involved in the zero sum game in the region in order to establish their spheres of influence. Stability and sustainable development of CA will benefit all neighbouring regions and the international community as a whole.


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To cite this article

Akram Umarov, «Central Asia: construction of the new regional security complex?», The Journal of Cross-Regional Dialogues/La Revue de dialogues inter-régionaux [En ligne], 2020 Special Issue, 69-82 URL :

About: Akram Umarov

Senior Research Fellow, University of World Economy and Diplomacy (Tashkent, Uzbekistan). The author can be reached by email at
The work described here was funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund COMPASS project (Grant number ES/P010849/1) led by the University of Kent.
The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to the anonymous referees for their helpful comments that have helped to improve the quality of the article.