Eurasian Connectivity Comes One Step Closer at the 2024 CAMCA Forum in Bishkek

The wider Eurasia region took another step towards cooperation and connectivity last week, as the 10th annual CAMCA Regional Forum was held in Bishkek.

CAMCA – standing for Central Asia, Mongolia, the Caucasus and Afghanistan – is an initiative to accelerate dialogue between governments, private enterprises and media figures from these ten nations. Organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Rumsfeld Foundation, this year’s Forum – the first such event to take place in Kyrgyzstan – featured over 300 delegates across its two days, and presented insights from over 70 speakers. Attendees came from 25 countries in total.

Professor Frederick Starr, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s chairman, used his opening address to call on the countries of the region to start preparing for a future within a cohesive international bloc. Dr Starr reasoned that Russia and China, imperial powers that have traditionally had a controlling presence in Central Asia, may see their global influence wane in the coming decade. This would give the countries of Central Asia, and their neighbors, more space to create projects that serve their economies directly. A leading CAMCA regional project is the ‘Middle Corridor’ trade route, which bypasses Russia to transport goods more efficiently between Europe and China. Discussions are also taking place concerning the creation of single business and tourist visas for the whole Central Asia region. The importance of collaboration between countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia to mitigate the impact of climate change has never been so great.

Addresses by senior members of the Kyrgyz government highlighted the progress that Kyrgyzstan has made since the administration of president Sadyr Japarov began its work in 2021. The country’s deputy prime minister Edil Baisalov reported that Kyrgyzstan is on track to double its GDP to $30 billion by 2030, while the minister for digital development, Nuria Kutnaeva, spoke about the rapid digitalization of the country’s government services. 

In a noticeably warm and collaborative atmosphere, the event nonetheless highlighted the barriers that prevent the ten countries from forming a tangible ‘CAMCA’ space in the present. A key goal is the harmonization of their legislation and policy directions; however, no delegates from Tajikistan could travel to Bishkek for the Forum, as otherwise solid relations between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are still strained by a dispute over their common border. Likewise, Armenian voices were also absent this time, in light of several of the sessions featuring Azerbaijani speakers and talking points. The event featured only one guest from Turkmenistan. 

Even in these conflicts, however, Central Asian diplomacy is at work. The conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, mainly in Tajikistan’s Vorukh district, is being resolved through negotiations between the two countries’ governments, which would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is acting as a mediator between Baku and Yerevan in the aftermath of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Other topics on the agenda included security priorities for Central Asia, digital innovation in business, cooperation with Afghanistan, transitions in global energy markets, and infrastructure projects in the Caspian region.

The Forum concluded with a session on new media and regional voices in the CAMCA region, with input from journalists from The Diplomat, the Georgian agency OC Media, and The Times of Central Asia. While intended to showcase positive new trends in Central Asian media, what followed was more an open criticism of some Eurasian governments’ hostility towards independent reporting. As restrictive, Russian-inspired “foreign agent” laws come into force in some of the region’s countries, Kyrgyz and Georgian journalists on the panel spoke about the realities of government pressure on media outlets, and the increasing need for self-censorship to avoid closure. 

The CAMCA Regional Forum is a unique platform for Eurasia’s issues to be addressed. It will be interesting to see what progress will be made before next year’s gathering in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.