Central Asia (made up of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) has historically been a dominant player on the world’s economic stage.  Its role as the heart of the legendary Silk Road (the main land corridor between Europe and Asia) and the USSR’s mining powerhouse in the 20th century rightfully earned these countries the nickname ‘the Snow Leopards’.  However, the USSR’s collapse in 1991 has left the region at risk of falling into the same economic crevasse which hold many of its Third World counterparts captive.  To avoid this fate, Central Asia could follow a seven-point economic plan which reforms its bureaucracies, combats terrorism, prepares for natural disasters, deepens regional ties, courts global superpowers, reduces unemployment, and embraces privatisation.

Central Asia’s autocrats tend to rig elections and exile political opponents, and thus there is no legal mechanism to guarantee that state resources are being used appropriately.  Dictators have often exploited this privilege; in Turkmenistan, former ruler Saparmyrat Niyazov squandered public finances on vanity projects, including a city made of marble and gilded sculptures of himself.  Other times, despots spend on unnecessary projects; many invest heavily in surveillance technology in hopes of tracking down dissidents, an extremely expensive undertaking since each piece of equipment is worth several thousand US dollars.  Moreover, this has led to rampant corruption in Central Asian countries; on average, officials embezzle more than those from 75% of other nations.  Ministers illegally force companies to pay millions of dollars to operate in their markets, such as VimpelCom (a telecommunications giant) in Uzbekistan.  Such practices scare off foreign enterprises, thus diminishing the outputs of the firms that choose to remain since they now have less dry powder to develop, manufacture, and distribute their products.  Although these problems could be solved by embracing democracy, it is unrealistic that the region’s despots would willingly surrender their power.  However, it is worth noting that they still care about economic growth because a strong economy boosts their ego, even if it is not their main priority.  Internal protests cannot force the government to make any concessions either, since the public is too afraid of a brutal crackdown.  For example, the civil unrest in Kazakhstan in 2022 petered out after soldiers were ordered to ‘shoot [protesters] without warning’.  Instead, dissidents could ask the international community for help, like activists from other repressive regimes have, such as Nathan Law from Hong Kong and Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, resulting in many countries condemning and punishing the guilty regime.  Moreover, they could persuade the World Bank to make aid to Central Asia contingent on it providing transparent public financial records.  They could also advocate for the imposition of Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions on ministers who are guilty of wrongdoing, including freezing their offshore assets and imposing travel bans.  

Additionally, Islamic terrorism poses a severe economic challenge to the Snow Leopards.  Islamic State’s return to Central Asia has exacerbated this threat; following America’s withdrawal of its counterterrorist forces from neighbouring Afghanistan in 2021, the country has become a launching ground for terrorist attacks inside the region.  Although these do not cause significant material damage (terrorists find it easier to spread their message through isolated murders, instead of large-scale bombings), despots worry that these terrorists will overthrow them, and thus spend more on internal security, further straining public budgets.  More importantly, it bolsters the world’s perception that Central Asia is unsafe, which harms the tourism industry and decreases foreign investments even more.  To combat this issue, the Snow Leopards could relax censorship of extremist ideas online, since this only drives discussion of radical Islam onto fringe forums, where dangerous conspiracy theories are less likely to be challenged by mainstream thinking.  Furthermore, Central Asian governments could stop discriminating against minority populations, because this only fuels resentment against the state among devout communities (particularly Shiite Muslims), thus leading to more terrorism.  The Snow Leopards could also relocate police forces to currently neglected areas, notably the Afghan-Tajik border and the Fergana Valley between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, since they have become hotspots for terrorism and other criminal activities, including drug and human trafficking.   

Conversely, not all threats to Central Asia are man-made, but are created by Mother Nature herself.  The earthquakes, landslides, and droughts which ravage the region annually cost a staggering $10bn in infrastructure damage, medical treatment for casualties, and labour displacement.  To mitigate these impacts, the Snow Leopards could request for more grants from global organisations, especially the United Nations Development Program, to develop their disaster relief mechanisms.  These are usually starved of funding; each year, Kyrgyzstan’s initiative only receives $2.8m, despite natural disasters incurring $270m in losses.  Central Asia could make critical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, more resilient to accelerate the delivery of humanitarian aid and to ensure that goods can be transported in the long run.  It could also introduce public first aid classes, ameliorate search and rescue departments, and carry out evacuation drills; the 2015 Chilean earthquake, which measured 8.4 on the Richter scale, could have taken thousands more lives had similar measures not been implemented.  Some of these calamities, including heat waves and avalanches, are aggravated by the Snow Leopards’ carbon dioxide emissions (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are the 12th and 14th largest emitters per capita), since greenhouse gases drastically raise the region’s temperature.  Moreover, this pollution can cause various respiratory diseases, thereby lowering labour productivity.  It can also harm crop yields, a devastating prospect given that agriculture comprises 25% of Central Asia’s GDP.  As a result, the Snow Leopards could provide handouts to encourage consumer expenditure on renewable energy rather than fossil-fuels.  This scheme could be implemented on a broad scale since it would not require significant government spending, given that green energy is already marginally cheaper than the alternative, at $0.07kWh and $0.1kWh respectively.  Furthermore, they should attract renewable energy firms by relaxing regulation and offering them tax breaks or subsidies, so that they will outcompete fossil-fuel extraction companies.  This would be especially profitable since Central Asia’s green energy potential is vast; it possesses 5% of the world’s natural capacity for solar and wind capture and has eight major rivers to obtain hydroelectric power from.

A fourth barrier to Central Asia’s economic development is the lack of regional interconnectivity.  Relations between the Snow Leopards have been strained by the fallout from territorial disputes, protectionist policies and assassination attempts.  Therefore, their borders remain studded with checkpoints, which limits bilateral commerce and reduces their potential to become instrumental in the Eurasian railway freight transit system; transport companies currently opt to use other networks, notably the Trans-Siberian Railway.  This also limits the number of trading partners that these countries have, which decreases their bargaining power and puts them at a disadvantage when negotiating prices for imports and exports.  Hence, the Snow Leopards could increase funding for the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation program, which has only received a paltry $41bn since its inception in 2001.  This would also harmonise business regulations, making it easier for corporations based in one Central Asian country to launch operations in the others.  In addition, they could normalise regional conferences, which would reduce tensions by encouraging open discussion of issues, instead of ignoring one another, as they had done up until 2018.  They could persuade Turkmenistan to come to the table as well, as it often chooses to distance itself from the other states.  

Additionally, Central Asia could enhance diplomatic relations with global superpowers by communicating more frequently with their ministers and sending more diplomats to their embassies.  This is especially because Russia, its traditional protector, has lost its economic heft due to being battered by the costs of the Russo-Ukrainian war and Western sanctions.  The Snow Leopards can also afford to distance themselves from the Kremlin because they do not lose much from shunning discounted Russian oil; fossil fuels are the commodities which three of them produce the most themselves.  They could remind the EU at international summits that they have already distanced themselves from Vladimir Putin, the bloc’s nemesis, by openly rebuking his invasion and welcoming Russians fleeing conscription.  This would bolster ties with the bloc and lead to more trade; Central Asia desperately needs the EU’s machinery exports, which make up over half of its total exports to the region, to bolster its floundering primary and secondary industries.  In addition, the Snow Leopards could prioritise deepening ties with China, who is its largest provider of economic assistance.  For example, China is supporting the Snow Leopards’ transitions to service-based economies by providing numerous scholarships for their students at Chinese universities, and has invested $970m in Central Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative.  To obtain more of this aid, the Snow Leopards need to overcome their fear that the program is a debt-trap; China has been forced to promise more debt forgiveness to save the initiative’s reputation, and international regulators have imposed stricter measures to prevent it from carrying out predatory lending.  Finally, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan could negotiate more actively with the World Trade Organisation to gain accession, which would grant them greater access to all 164 member states’ markets.

Unemployment is also commonplace in Central Asia; although the region’s official unemployment rate is only 0.1% above the global average, some Central Asian leaders alter government data to improve their country’s reputation, and thus the true figure could be much higher.  Joblessness primarily occurs because placements are concentrated in urban areas, which remain inaccessible to many since the cost of living in these cities (relative to income) is enormous; it is higher than that in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Sydney.  Not only is this because of housing shortages, which drive up home prices, but also extreme poverty; in Tajikistan, an appalling 26.3% of people live on less than $1.90 a day, and lower-income individuals are typically the ones who need these jobs in the first place.  Consequently, people need to turn to crime to survive, and some companies are less productive than they could be as they struggle to fill their job vacancies.  Hence, governments could encourage business expansion into rural areas, streamline the work permit application procedure, and provide more welfare benefits for people who cannot afford to commute to work.

Finally, the ubiquitous state-owned enterprises in Central Asia (which generate half of Kazakhstan’s GDP, for example) stifle the private sector since they receive preferential treatment from the government, notably easier access to state-bank loans.  This creates two glaring obstacles to economic growth.  Firstly, the lack of alternatives diminishes competition, which leads to higher consumer prices and less innovation.  This is due to Central Asian authorities having a smaller incentive to develop their businesses, because they cannot be replaced by popular vote, compared to the private corporations who want to make the largest profit possible.  In addition, workers have less negotiating power to demand better working conditions and may emigrate, resulting in a brain drain.  Moreover, management of state-owned enterprises draws the governments’ attention away from crucial tasks, such as tax collection and devising policy.  Central Asian authorities could therefore hand these firms over to private owners, except for those that serve vital purposes such as defence and emergency services, since reform would not be sufficient to address such severe issues.  These sales would also provide leaders with much-needed revenue, which could be maximised through an auctioning process, similar to the Czech Republic’s in the 1990s.

It would be an understatement to say that the road ahead of the Snow Leopards is difficult, since many of the problems they face have been entrenched in the regional economic order for decades.  However, the proposed seven-pronged policymaking and international aid will not only ensure that Central Asia can put the days of envying the EU or the Asian economic titans behind them, but they will also restore its former glory as a respected predator in the global economic food chain.