Central Asian countries are getting back on their feet
The Central Asian countries are rich in extractives and renewable energy sources. Sustainable and responsible use of these resources is one of the key factors determining the future of these countries, according to Ilkka Räisänen, Finland’s Roving Ambassador for Central Asia.
How would you describe the current situation and the biggest challenges in the Central Asian countries?
The inland countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have been independent only about thirty years. It means that democracy, the rule of law and the market economy are fairly young and nascent in these former Soviet Union countries. Ecologically, too, the Soviet heritage is a heavy burden. The greatest environmental catastrophes caused by the Soviet Union include the shrinking of the Aral Sea and radioactive contamination from nuclear testing.
The countries are rich in natural resources, but the resources are located inland far away from the world market and major shipping routes. These mountainous countries are seeing their glaciers melting because of climate change, exposing them to increasingly severe water shortages and extreme weather events.
To strengthen their economies, the countries must create better business conditions for the country’s private sector to develop, and they must reduce the involvement of the central government in business and industry. While progress has been made in implementing relevant reforms, the countries have not succeeded in raising the share of foreign investment as planned. The scarcity of jobs has driven a significant proportion of the young and rapidly increasing population abroad to work in Russia in most cases, but even in Türkiye, in the Persian Gulf countries and in Europe. What makes things worse is that the countries do not offer education that would meet the demand of higher technologies.
How is Finland supporting Central Asian countries?
Finland cooperates with Central Asian countries both bilaterally and as part of the EU. Finland started cooperation in the region soon after the countries gained independence. Today, Finland's bilateral cooperation in Central Asia focuses on the region's poorest countries, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In 2021–2024, the focus of cooperation is on strengthening the rule of law, creating sustainable economic growth and improving the management of natural resources. The budget for this cooperation totals EUR 25 million over four years.
Ongoing cooperation includes a project by the Finnish Meteorological Institute for developing the use of water resources in the region, a project by the Geological Survey of Finland for strengthening the management of natural resources, and a project by the Finnish Meteorological Institute for improving weather observation and forecasting services. Finland supports better availability of legal services, job creation and the competitiveness of small-scale entrepreneurs together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The countries have a lot of young people, and they want to get support in developing their education and training systems. As a response, the Finnish National Agency for Education is in the process of starting a cooperation that aims to support the improvement of curricula, the professional development of teachers and the development of inclusive education and training.
How do you see the future of the Central Asian countries?
Much depends on the educational and job opportunities available to young people and on their possibilities to take part in decision-making in society. If things go well, the countries can create opportunities for increasing diversity in innovation and creativity and creating specialised skills, which will boost social development and market growth. Otherwise, there is a risk that young people become marginalised and the most talented individuals leave the country. Another risk is that violent extremist movements create instability in the region.
The region is rich in renewable energy sources – it gets hydropower from the mountains, wind power from the steppe and solar power from the sun that often shines in the dry continental climate. It has plenty of the metals needed for the green transition. All these can generate revenue for the states if they manage to mobilise enough investments that allow them to get their processed products to the world market without any negative environmental impacts.
What has uplifted you personally in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and what can we learn from the locals?
It has been fascinating to visit ancient Silk Road cities and to witness how age-old intercultural interaction is. I am amazed how astonishingly well some of the locals know Finland, and how they respect each other, how friendly and accommodating and how overwhelmingly welcoming they are.
One local observation especially has stuck in my mind: the power of a bird is in the wings, the power of a person in their friends.
In this series of articles, Finland’s ambassadors tell news from countries that are key partners of Finland’s development cooperation.
Text: Milma Kettunen