When Uzbekistan’s acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed a joint session of parliament earlier this month, he made a point of saying that his foreign policy priority was to boost relations with regional neighbors.
"We always remain committed to adopting an open, friendly and pragmatic position toward our immediate neighbors — Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan," Mirziyoyev said.
Since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaders in Central Asia have been paying lip service to the notion of fostering fraternal ties in the region, but Mirziyoyev has tentatively lived up to his word in small if meaningful ways so far.
In an apparent start at trying to mend fences, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov on September 29 visited Tajikistan, where he met with President Emomali Rahmon.
Discussions were confined to what might sound like meaningless generalities anywhere else. For these two countries, however, talk of positive trends in relations, increased trade, revitalized dialogue on trade and economic cooperation and “the importance of maintaining regular political consultations and dialogue at the highest levels” are more than noteworthy.
Rahmon and Karimov’s relationship was fraught by personal enmity, making reaching state-level agreement on a number of thorny sticking points — of which there are many — all the more difficult.
The biggest source of bilateral unease lies in Dushanbe’s determination to build the giant Roghun hydropower plant, which Tashkent has loudly complained will pose a potentially existential risk to its agricultural sector by stemming the flow of a major river.
A hugely understated line at the end of a statement from Rahmon’s office makes it clear that and much else was discussed during Komilov’s visit.
“Water and energy, and transport and logistics, as well as issues the mutual [cross-border movement] of citizens were identified as areas requiring active constructive cooperation,” the statement read.
There is a lot to unpack there and it may not be worth doing so until specific progress is made on any single strand, but the expression of intent is telling.
With Kazakhstan too there have been shoots of promise.
Mirziyoyev met with Kazakhstan’s deputy prime minster Askar Mamin in Tashkent on September 22 to discuss implementation of recent agreements aimed at boosting bilateral trade. Talks on that occasion were intended as a swift follow-up to issues dwelled upon when Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Samarkand 10 days earlier.
So far, the talk is of opening up markets to one another and setting up joint trading houses to promote each other’s industrial goods, among other largely technical fixes.
Northward transit for Uzbek exports — namely fruit and vegetables — is possibly the most knotty bilateral issue of the moment, and judging by the dry official statements, the question seems to have been addressed.
Uzbekistan’s has in recent times taken drastic measures to try and stop Kazakhstan profiting unfairly — as it sees it — from the unfavorable tariffs barriers created by the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, of which Kazakhstan is a member. Under an arrangement that irked Tashkent, vegetable exporters have been compelled to rely on middlemen in Kazakhstan, who would, according to Uzbek officials, then sell it onward to Russia as Kazakhstan-labelled goods.
In what might have been intended as a confidence-building exercise, working groups from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan put their heads together in Almaty for a five-day conference starting September 21 to consider the settlement of outstanding border issues.
A week before that, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Uzbekistan spoke of both countries entering a new stage of development.
All this is just lofty rhetoric perhaps, but it is meaningful in itself that officials — in Astana as in Dushanbe — openly speak in terms suggestive of rupture rather than continuity.
Even the most troubled current relationship in Central Asia — between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — took a sudden sharp turn for the better following Karimov’s death.
In the middle of September, Uzbek police put an end to their weeks-long occupation of a Kyrgyz telecommunications tower on a disputed section of the border, thereby defusing tensions at a fell swoop. Tashkent then announced it had reopened a long-sealed border crossing with Kyrgyzstan to private citizens. It is not clear that this announcement was as generous (or true) as it initially sounded, but even the words made for a heartening change of background noise.
Champions of regional cooperation in Central Asia have long watched with dismay as each country has pursued self-reliance to the point of self-harm. And with the except of uber-hermit nation par excellence, Turkmenistan, none has nurtured isolation as intently as Uzbekistan.
The promise of integration and the risks of failing to achieve it were neatly described by Gregory Gleason in his 2001 paper “Inter-State Cooperation in Central Asia from the CIS to the Shanghai Forum,” which is worth quoting at length here.
“If the states succeed in establishing a new level of cooperation they will reinforce their own sovereignty. Paradoxically, perhaps, greater cooperation will enhance national independence and preserve autonomy. But if inter-state cooperation continues to prove elusive, the problems relating to border disputes, trade and payments, common infrastructure arrangements, trans-border natural resources, intra-regional migration, terrorism, and trafficking in people, drugs and weapons, will increasingly circumscribe the autonomy of the states,” Gleason wrote. “In the short tun it may be easier to withdraw into self-protection and self-reliance than to cooperate with neighbours, but in the long run only greater cooperation will solve Central Asia’s emerging regional problems.”
Some, if not all, of the ills forecast by Gleason remain current today. It would be foolhardy in the extreme to imagine Mirziyoyev or the elite around him are experiencing a major epiphany, but it is sometimes useful practice in Central Asia to mine optimism where it looks like it might be available.