The State of Physical Infrastructure in Central Asia: Developments in Transport, Water, Energy, and Telecommunications

The State of Physical Infrastructure in Central Asia
Developments in Transport, Water, Energy, and Telecommunications

by Erica Johnson and Justin Odum
December 1, 2004

Erica Johnson and Justin Odum contribute an essay on the physical infrastructure of Central Asia that, while sobering, also points to some recent successes in international efforts to address problems of decay in the region’s transport, energy, water, and telecommunications systems.

Well over a decade since the collapse of the USSR, the challenges of coping with the legacy of Soviet planning continue to bedevil efforts to modernize the water, transport, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure of the five Central Asian states. The continuing physical decay of much of the region’s road network, the dependence of regional elites on revenues from environmentally destructive cotton production, and new border conflicts that separate entire local communities from their kin and natural trading partners are all serious problems hampering efforts at regional cooperation on infrastructure issues.

Efforts by foreign governments and international financial institutions (IFIs) to provide loans and aid to support Central Asian infrastructure development—despite the often–uncooperative policies of the Uzbek leadership—have borne some fruit over the past decade. Small–scale water projects as well as the construction of new roads and the rehabilitation of existing roads through remote regions have had a concrete, positive impact on local populations. Future transport, energy, and communications links with China may play an especially significant role in the revitalization of the Central Asian economic zone. Finally, renewed economic growth, particularly in energy–rich Kazakhstan, has led to significant infrastructure upgrades in recent years. Infrastructure disputes per se are unlikely to be the cause of major regional conflicts in the coming decade, unless these disputes become intertwined with religious, ethnic, or nationalist political ideologies. However, the emphasis of most IFIs and foreign governments on inter–regional cooperation on Central Asian infrastructure development is still often perceived as interfering with the recently gained sovereignty of the newly independent states of the region. Indeed, at times this emphasis may be counterproductive, since infrastructure development within each country is an important part of consolidating these new states’ independence, and efforts to build links among peoples within a given state may in some cases make more sense than trying to rebuild inherited Soviet infrastructure.

Overview of Regional Infrastructure

Provision of physical infrastructure is one of the crucial ways that states establish the boundaries of their sovereign borders, project authority throughout their territories, and contribute to growth and development through the provision of public goods, such as roads and railways, water and power supplies, and telecommunications. [1] Since independence in 1991, demonstration of these infrastructural components of state capacity has been an important means for the transitioning Soviet successor states in Central Asia to assert their independence from Russia and from each other. [2]

Because the Soviet–era…

[1] Two important indicators of state capacity are infrastructural power and despotic, or coercive, power (Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986; Joel S. Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). Indeed, these two components were critical to Vladimir Lenin’s first expositions on what communism would accomplish, as evidence in the equation: Communism equals soviet power plus electrification of the whole country. Jeffrey Herbst (2001) explores the relationship between infrastructure development and state strength in sub-Saharan Africa. Peter Evans discusses the Brazilian state’s move from traditional infrastructural provision to dependent development. See Peter Evans, Dependent Development: The Alliance of Multinational, State, and Local Capital in Brazil, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979 and Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[2] The importance of this goal varies along a spectrum ranging from extremely important to Uzbekistan to less urgent for Kazakhstan, which shares a border with Russia and has maintained good political and trade ties with its northern neighbor.