Uzbekistan’s president sent a signal in March when he decided to make his second official visit abroad since coming to power to neighboring Kazakhstan — only weeks after visiting another neighbor, Turkmenistan.
Only five weeks later, on April 29, in a remarkable development, Shavkat Mirziyoyev dropped in for yet another visit. For Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, to make trips abroad was unusual — to visit the same country twice in a month was beyond the realm of imagination.
This time, Mirziyoyev traveled to Saryagash, a little town just across the border and around half an hour’s drive away from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
Kazakhstan’s state-run English language newspaper Astana Times cited political analyst Yerlan Karin as saying the repeat visit was heartening.
“Such a frequency is a positive sign of the intensification of regional cooperation. Indeed, it is encouraging that regional leaders demonstrate serious intentions in building up bilateral contacts,” he was cited as writing on his Facebook account.
One firm development to come out of the meeting will be that two border crossings that have been closed for the last 11 years will finally be reopened to passenger vehicles, although not yet for commercial traffic.
The intent of the reopening is for now not so much to facilitate trade as to ease movement between the Uzbek cities of Tashkent and Samarkand by allowing transit through Kazakhstan’s Maktaaral district. After the crossings were closed in 2006, it added around one hour onto the trip. Uzbek citizens wishing to get to the other part of their own country will be allowed through under an expedited system. Travelers will not be required to submit customs declarations — a headache for anybody ever crossing an Uzbek border.
All that said, increasing cross-border flow is very clearly at the top of the bilateral agenda.
In March, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan reached an agreement on creating a high-speed passenger train link between Almaty and Tashkent.
And Nazarbayev noted in this latest meeting that interaction between the two nations had intensified even as recently as Mirziyoyev’s last visit.
“In the first quarter of this year, there has been an increase in business relations in a variety of economic sectors. It is worth highlighting the transportation-logistics sphere and auto-manufacturing, and also to mention regional cooperation in a broad spectrum of issues. Trade turnover in the first three months of 2017 increased by 37 percent,” he said.
At the risk of jinxing things, these feel like golden times for regional cooperation.