It was all smiles and laughter during this week’s visit to Uzbekistan by Kyrgyzstan’s newly elected president, Soronbai Jeenbekov.
Jeenbekov’s two-day trip to Tashkent, where he met with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on December 13, had been prefaced by months of notable breakthrough improvements in bilateral relations.
At a joint address to the media, the two leaders gushed with mutual praise. Mirziyoyev was in especially good humor, laughing volubly throughout an official tete-a-tete broadcast live on national television.
Jeenbekov paid tribute his predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev, who stepped aside last month, having ended his six-year presidential term, for the role he played in negotiating a long-elusive agreement on properly delineating the two countries’ shared border.
"We managed to do this last year, something that has not been possible to resolve for the last quarter of a century,” Jeenbekov said.
The real galvanizer of the sudden bonhomie has come from Mirziyoyev, whose good neighbor foreign policy is in stark contrast with the spoiler strategy pursed by his late predecessor, Islam Karimov, who died last year.
One of the main results to come out of the visit was a pledge to get started on work to complete a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway. This project has been a stop-and-start affair so far, but the improvement in relations may help things along.
The two governments also agreed on developing road links and establishing regular transportation connections. Kyrgyz Economy Minister Artyom Novikov proposed creating a direct air link between Tashkent and Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, Osh, which is home to a large ethnic Uzbek community. Many Uzbek people in Osh have relatives in various parts of Uzbekistan, but visiting them has long been a logistical headache.
During their Tashkent talks, the two leaders also glowed with satisfaction about the boom in trade registered over the past year or so. In the hope of building on that, the countries have agreed to create border trading zone and lift hurdles and restrictions on conducting banking and financial operations.
Trade turnover between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan reached $167.5 million in 2016. That has spiked since.
“We have never seen anything like it in the history of Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations. Trade turnover between our countries has this year amounted to $250 million. And this figure may reach $280 million by the end of the year. We eventually want to bring trade turnover up to $500 million dollars,” Mirziyoyev said. “We want to remove all existing obstacles. The border between the two states is crossed by about 10,000-15,000 people every day. The time will come when there will be no borders.”
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