GIF-MAKAIAS-ICAF Expedition to Central Asia, September-October 2013

In a global milieu where traditional interstate diplomacy is often forced to underplay critical dynamics such as the role of culture, education, entrepreneurship, tourism et cetera in bilateral ties, there is a greater need to establish other channels of communication and interaction between states. Such lines of interaction are not seen as alternatives but as supplementary modules for enhancing cooperation between states. India Central Asia Foundation’s Expedition in collaboration with Global India Foundation and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, supported and facilitated by the Ministry of External Affairs, India and ONGC Videsh Ltd along the Old Silk Route covering the three countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan qualifies as a worthy endeavour premised on this principle of Track II diplomacy.


Astana The expedition started in the Kazakh capital of  Astana - a city whose stark imagery was representative of the country’s very conscious choice of acquiring a profile befitting a Eurasian state, as opposed to its traditional identity of the Central Asian Orient. Astana spoke a million tales of what a concerted effort towards building a capital city in a short period of time can look like. Massive, apparently unending, constructions dot the city and indicate a rushed effort at industrialization. For a Delegation from the populated presence of Indian cities, Astana appeared – at least, at night time – a deserted town without the noise of a vast populace. The strategic decision of shifting the Kazakh capital away from Almaty to the mineral rich and Russian majority northern region of Astana, elucidated in no small measure, the easy dexterity that a small population allows a nation.

The engagements of the Delegation at Astana encompassed both a ceremonial element as well as the professional and academic ones, with the official flag off of the expedition at the Baiterek Monument and the Roundtables in the Eurasian National University and the Institute of Military Research.

Temirtav, The stay in Karaganda brought two indelible imprints, apart from the first leg of the rally itself, which saw the Delegation driving down towards Central Kazakhstan through the fascination Central Asian Steppes. One, is the identity that Steel Tycoon Lakshmi Mittal’s Arcelor Mittal Industry has established for the once nondescript town of Temirtav, and the second, the possibility that India could fruitfully engage with the Central Asian space through visionary entrepreneurship. The visit to and detailed presentations at the Arcelor Mittal factory at Temirtav. The contribution that an integrated steel plant like the Arcelor Mittal enterprise can bring to the local economy was abundantly clear to the Delegation at this seemingly sleepy town. One could be accused of a misplaced sense of national pride in considering Temirtav a case of Indian success in Kazakhstan, given the fact that Mittal’s presence and approach has been far more European than Indian and also the fact that barring the top rung of the Plant it is essentially a success story crafted by the presence of nearly 26 other nationalities, yet the Delegation left Temirtav with a palpable sense of upbeat optimism in the potential of Indian presence in Kazakhstan.


Balkhash and Taldiquorgan, Beyond Temirtav and Karaganda, the Expedition continued along to the town that has developed along Lake Balkhash and then Taldiquorgan. To the Indian Delegation, the value of Balkhash town stemmed from the vast deposits of Uranium that the region is known to possess – an interest that is being actively pursued by the energy diplomacy of the Indian State itself; the other identity of this sleepy town was its erstwhile fame as a bustling town that grew around the massive lake. However, there was a different quiet around this town. It may not be too far-fetched to suggest that it was the solemn silence of a town that had both, failed to capitalize on its value as a tourist locale and had also not managed to diversify its identity and economy in time.
 This southward foray brought the realities of a road trip of this nature to the fore with the Delegation’s first substantively long travel of about 800km.

Khorgos, The next stopover, at Khorgos the International Border construct between Kazakhstan and the People’s Republic of China (Khitai, as the Central Asians recognize PRC), was an overwhelming lesson in what foresight and a pragmatic appraisal of the demand-supply dynamics between two countries can achieve, as also a supremely impressive education in border trade and dynamics between two countries. Khorgos has developed as an International Zone of Border trade between the two countries. The twin constructions of a gas-pipeline and a cement factory outside the gates of the International Centre turned out to be an extraordinarily modest precursor to the nearly awe-inspiring story that the PRC is scripting beyond the checkpost. The Delegation entered the Xinjiang Province of China briefly to the showcase of the massive leaps of development that the International Cross Border Cooperation Initiative between PRC and Kazakhstan has been making in this very ambitious project whose completed version, in 2018, is expected to encompass what can only be described as an international space built through the single minded pursuit of business opportunity by the two countries. 

Almaty, the final stop in the Kazakh leg of the expedition was in the bustling cosmopolitan presence of the old capital of Almaty. It appeared to be a city which has retained much of its organic character of having been a capital while now having the luxury of pursuing its own innate ‘internationalness’ upon being freed from the obligatory staid character that the responsibility of being a capital city imposes upon a place.

The three official engagements in Almaty were a study in contrasts in many ways.


The first, at the Kazakh Institute of Strategic Studies (KAZiss) was an introduction to the pragmatic conduct of foreign policy which prizes the values of realpolitik and contemporary economic and strategic realities over the dimension of traditional affinities and historical orientations. The very succinct enumeration by the President of the KAZiSSquakified in no uncertain terms that New Delhi’s lack of a cogent and sustained policy in dealing with Kazakhstan in the real figures of FDI had all but lost the match for India as a participant in the Kazakh economy. A detailed comparison with China’s trade figures with Kazakhstan made India’s poor show in the region’s calculus, abundantly clear. The advice, warranted or unwarranted, was exemplary in its clarity – India need no longer waste its resources in attempting to break into the Kazakh hydrocarbon sector. It is a game that New Delhi has lost in no uncertain terms. The IT Sector (information technology as a broader discipline) and the service industry are the two sectors in which India may still enjoy an advantage and should invest more immediately and sufficiently in.


The second and third, at the Oriental Institute of History and the Al-Farabi University carried a different tenor than the experience at KAZiSS. The focus on India studies, the cultural and social aspects was far more pronounced in these two institutes and that explained the implicitly differing approach to the Delegation’s visit.


Kyrgyz Republic

The expedition’s transfer to the Kyrgyz Republic brought along with it an immediate change in the socio-economic and demographic milieu that the Delegation could discern in the resource rich, Russia-PRC affiliation straddling and Eurasian hinging SCO mainstay of Kazakhstan.

Cauvery Ganapathy, Fellow, GIF, presenting at a Round-Table in the Diplomatic Academy, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan Chaired by Indian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan H.E. Ambassador J.Khobragade

Discussions at the Diplomatic Academy proved effective in establishing India’s goodwill in the Kyrgyz Republic. The role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the viability of CASSA1000’s extension to India and the creation of a trans-national transmission grid formed the mainstay of the discussions at the Academy. The presence of academics and practitioners of foreign policy – both, serving and former – added comprehensiveness to the discussions at Bishkek. The takeaway from the Round-Table which the Indian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Mr.JayantKhobragade chaired was that the Kyrgyz Republic, contradistinguished to the impression given by Kazakhstan about its expectations, looks forward to India’s active involvement in the country’s attempted growth trajectory. Questions raised by the Indian delegation regarding the possibility of CASA 1000 being extended eastwards to include India and offering the advantages of transmitted power from Central Asia were met with reasonable optimism and led to invitations for a more concerted effort towards the cause. The Kyrgyz Republic has an explicit interest in the creation of job opportunities for its large youth population. India‘s expertise in skill development, language training and the service sector were specifically sought out in the interactions with the Delegation.  Bishkek also appeared far more receptive to having India partake actively in the proposed revival of the country’s industrial health.

A visit to the Osh State University reiterated once more the deep sustaining ties that India and the Kyrgyz Republic share through the strands of historical sinews of culture and literature. The need for a greater interest in the translation of Kyrgyz literature into Indian languages, as also the need for a more concerted effort in the sharing of recent additions to the literary portfolio of India was conveyed. The visit to the University and the gracious attention that the Head of the Institute to answering the query of the Delegation, on matters varying from the Kyrgyz Republic’s strategic orientation to the implicit and explicit differences between the capital and the rest of the country, offered valuable insights into the internal dynamics and international ambitions of the country. The unambiguous position of the Institute’s faculty in saying that the Kyrgyz Republic is not a Eurasian state but a Central Asian one, was a significant building block to developing an understanding of the county’s world view.


Importantly, the difference in the perception that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have, at least in their avowed positions, about China’s influence and involvement is an area that substantive academic and policy research needs to concern itself with.  



There was apprehension about the crossing of the border into Uzbekistan since the very start of the Expedition. However, when it finally did happen there were no glitches and it was once again an instance of the idea of exotic-old-friend-Hindustan working in favour of the Delegation. The tandem of history and the legacy of a shared cultural heritage with India is taken very seriously by Uzbekistan. The goodwill for India and the idea of the Indian civilization is almost overwhelming right through Andijon, where the final leg of this expedition commenced, to Tashkent, where the expedition concluded.

While discussions at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy did focus primarily on the days of yore that the two countries share in common and the connect through Babur and Mughal dynasty, there were substantive discussions about Uzbekistan’ regional role as a large state and the threat to its stability in the face of rising concerns about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. The naturally expected concerns that stem from the withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan in 2014, formed an important area of discussions at the Round Table. Significantly, despite the substantial amounts of goodwill exuded by the general populace and even members of the academia and the policy community towards India, in an exposition about Uzbekistan’s foreign policy priorities both in terms of potentials and problems, India did not find a place.

Indian Delegation with the Indian Ambassador to Uzbekistan H.E.Ambassador Sarma at a Round-Table in the University of World economy and Diplomacy, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

A visit to the South Asian Study Center and the Mahatma Gandhi Indology Center was overwhelming in terms of the interest shown in the study of India and Indian languages. The faculty, while speaking of the great fondness for all things Indian, did lament the lack of a proactive involvement of New Delhi in the furtherance of Indology. It would perhaps not be misplaced to suggest that it was a feeling of negligence that led the very gracious faculty at the Center to draw a comparison with the kind of involvement and grants the Chinese government was consistently making towards the study of their country in Uzbekistan.


Discussions with the local community and academics indicates an openness in involving India in the sectors of agriculture, pharmaceutical, tourism, water system sciences, the service sector and skill development. It is an opportunity that India can no longer afford to whittle away. 


There is much interest among the Central Asian countries in the sector of knowledge transfer and the cultivation of scholarly exchanges with India. Organisations like Global India Foundation enjoy a natural advantage in bridging the gaps of policy-academia interface and could carry this expertise into forging ties with institutes in Central Asia. Furthermore, the Foundation’s academic inquiry on the area, has greatly benefited from the insights this Track II initiative offered regarding the specific relevance of Central Asia to India’s future development.

The Foundation was represented in the Expedition’s Delegation by Ms.Cauvery Ganapathy.