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Is CAMCA a Region?

What Makes a Region? And is CAMCA - an acronym for a collective of Central Asian and the Caucasus states (Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) with the addition of Mongolia - a cohesive region?

In social sciences, a region is “a cohesive area that is homogeneous in selected defining criteria and is distinguished from neighboring areas or regions by those criteria” (1). In IR it is “a geographically clustered subsystem of states that is sufficiently distinctive in terms of its internal structure and process to be meaningfully differentiated from a wider international system” (2).

Hence regions are mental constructs aimed to simplify the understanding of territories based on shared criteria. With this in mind, are there common criteria that we can apply to better understand CAMCA as a single entity?

Geographically speaking, CAMCA as a unified region is somewhat of a stretch. Out of 10 countries, not one borders all others. Uzbekistan comes first bordering five Central Asian countries, and Kazakhstan second bordering three and connected with Azerbaijan and the region’s west through the Caspian Sea, while neighboring Georgia secures access to the Black Sea ports. Mongolia in turn borders neither Central Asia nor the Caucasus, but has a long border with CAMCA’s two major trade partners - China and Russia.

From a historical perspective, the territory fell under the reign of a succession of Hellenistic empires, nomadic tribes, Persians, Arabs, and Mongols. The Mongol descendants formed the powerful Mughal Empire and moved East, where the dynasty ruled India for over three centuries. West to the Caspian sea the Ottoman Empire ruled for another four. After a bitter centuries-long contest between the Ottoman, Russian, and British empires, culminating in WWI, most countries (with the exception of Afghanistan and Mongolia) became part of the Soviet Union where they acquired their current borders.

The historical trajectory created a rich and complex tapestry of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and languages. While most of today's CAMCA countries are predominantly Muslim, two countries in the region (Armenia and Georgia) are among the oldest Christian states in existence, and most Mongolians practice Tibetan Buddhism. The people of the region speak more than 15 distinct major languages (on top of a few dozen local languages), use five different alphabets, and represent over 80 ethnic groups.

From the economic standpoint, most CAMCA countries are developing market economies with varying degrees of state ownership. Some possess vast mineral and energy resources and are among the global leaders in oil & gas, gold, coal, and uranium production. Others rely on agricultural produce, re-export, and remittances from labor migrants. While countries depend upon each other for access to trade routes with the largest partners - China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran - the region’s core of Central Asia remains one of the least connected regions in the world (3). China’s massive Belt and Road initiative and the Middle Corridor (officially Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, or TITR) may enhance the connectivity for most of those, but CAMCA countries face not only ‘hard’ infrastructural bottlenecks, but also “soft barriers” including institutional development, government policies, technical and legal procedures, and tariffs (4).

Politically, the region is a combination of presidential and parliamentary republics with varying degrees of political freedoms (sometimes barely available at all), with Afghanistan being a full-fledged theocracy not recognized by most of the world (5). Their foreign policy is equally diverse. Six out of eight post-Soviet countries joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), four are members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty (CSTO), and three are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Four countries are current members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), two are the SCO dialogue partners, two became the founding members of GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, and one country joined and then left both CSTO and GUAM.

Notwithstanding efforts to pull countries in the area into the various geopolitical blocks and connect them through massive infrastructure projects, any formal criteria of ‘region’ would likely fall short at CAMCA. Yet the acronym is now widely used by the media, academy, NGOs, and public sector organizations. More so, the regional integration efforts are already evident in the infrastructure sector, as well as in telecom, finance, education, and many others. With Georgian bank owning one of the biggest payment systems in Uzbekistan, Kazakh crude oil flowing through Azerbaijan and Georgia through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, Mongolia and Central Asian entrepreneurs expanding trade in agriculture, refined petroleum from Armenia going to Kyrgyzstan, and fertilizers from Turkmenistan being used by Tajik farmers, the economic self-interest continues to bring CAMCA countries closer to each other.

Thus the single unifying factor of CAMCA may be the understanding of the countries that some challenges can only be solved collectively. Export-driven economic growth can only be possible with uninterrupted access to major land and maritime trade routes. Energy security can only be achieved by expanding and developing pipelines and energy grids. Agricultural potential can only be fully realized by resolving the question of accessing major water sources and building logistics and storage capacities. The transit potential of the region, as the thousands-years trade hub, can be fully reasserted only by interlocking the region with hard infrastructure and soft ties between the countries and their neighbors.

The drive is there - the rest depends on institutions, commercial entities, and, most importantly, people themselves.


(1) Encyclopedia Britannica. s.v. "Region" https://www.britannica.com/science/region-geography
(2) Buzan, Barry. (2012). How regions were made, and the legacies for world politics: An English School reconnaissance. In T. Paul (Ed.), International Relations Theory and Regional Transformation . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(3) Vakulchuk, Roman and Indra Overland (2019) “China’s Belt and Road Initiative through the Lens of Central Asia", in Fanny M. Cheung and Ying-yi Hong (eds) Regional Connection under the Belt and Road Initiative. The Prospects for Economic and Financial Cooperation. London: Routledge.
(4) Karymshakov, Kamalbek and Burulcha Sulaimanova, “Trade Facilitation, Infrastructure, and International Trade in Central Asian Countries”. ADB East Asia Working Paper Series, 58, February 2023.
(5) Democracy Index 2022, Economist Intelligence Unit. https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2022/