On September 6 and 7, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov paid an official visit to Kazakhstan. Upon his arrival at the Astana airport, he was warmly greeted by his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev. Despite the geographic proximity of the two countries and the prominent role that each plays in Central Asia – Kazakhstan remains the most economically advanced Central Asian country, while Uzbekistan is the most populous and in many respects the strongest in military terms – Kazakh-Uzbek relations have traditionally been complicated. As both Astana and Tashkent consider themselves to be regional leaders in post-Soviet Central Asia, their bilateral relationship has been marked throughout the 1990s and 2000s by a scarcity of official contacts and a lack of long-term cooperation projects. The last time Karimov went to Kazakhstan on a bilateral visit was in April 2008, although he also attended the Astana Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2011.
Unlike in previous instances, this year’s visit of the Uzbek president to the Kazakh capital was celebrated on both sides as another step towards the strengthening of political, economic and cultural ties between the two nations. In his opening remarks, President Nazarbayev praised Uzbekistan as a “brotherly country, a friendly neighbor and a strategic partner in Central Asia.” Following an enlarged session of bilateral talks, the presidents signed a joint communiqué calling for the continuation of the strategic dialogue on various issues of mutual interest. Another agreement was signed between the Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan outlining their cooperation agenda up to 2014. In order to boost tourism on both sides of the border, sectoral ministries signed additional agreements on the transit of persons and reciprocal visits by Kazakh and Uzbek citizens.
Karimov’s visit to Kazakhstan also permitted to reach an agreement on the facilitation of border crossing procedures for Kazakh cargoes bound for Uzbekistan and vice versa. Earlier in August, the Kazakh media highlighted a major border incident involving over 140 transport vehicles moving goods from Kazakhstan over to Uzbekistan and beyond. The new Uzbek law amending the transport legislation entered into force on August 1 and imposed on all cross-border carriers a legal obligation to obtain a special permit in Tashkent in order to carry out the transit of goods across Uzbek territory. Because of such restrictions whose adoption had never been duly notified to Kazakh authorities, dozens of companies suffered serious economic losses and considerable delays in the supply of their goods.
Such incidents have been frequently blamed for the poor state of economic cooperation between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. As of 2011, the overall trade turnover equaled almost US$ 2 billion, which is 24 percent higher than in the previous year. Still, since both countries’ economies are mostly complementary, with Kazakhstan interested in importing Uzbek gas, cement or fertilizers and Uzbekistan buying heavy machinery and agricultural products from its northern neighbor, this figure is far from reflecting the real potential of economic cooperation between Astana and Tashkent. According to President Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will invest their joint efforts in this field with the aim to double trade turnover by 2016. The Kazakh leader also praised Uzbekistan’s decision to sign the Agreement on free trade in the CIS which was adopted in October 2011 upon Russia’s proposal (the two other countries that have not signed the Agreement are Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan).
In his lengthy speech, President Karimov emphatically stressed the importance of consolidating bilateral cooperation on security issues. According to the Uzbek leader, the situation in Central Asia is rapidly becoming fragile, as great powers continue to nurture clashing interests and NATO’s forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan is creating regional controversies and spurring fears. Karimov believes that major challenges to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan remain to be terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking. At a time when Uzbekistan is preparing to leave the CSTO (following the suspension of its membership, the issue of Uzbekistan’s participation in the Organization will be discussed later this year in Moscow), Tashkent is visibly seeking to strengthen its partnership with Kazakhstan in security matters.
Still, the biggest surprise of the Nazarbayev-Karimov meeting came with regard to Tajikistan’s Rogun Dam project aimed at solving the problem of energy deficits in Central Asia’s poorest country. Nazarbayev joined his Uzbek colleague in condemning the actions of upstream states supposedly neglecting their neighbors’ concerns over water-sharing issues. Karimov recalled that both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan should strictly stick to international norms, including those contained in the four UN conventions ratified so far. After accusing Dushanbe of “gigantomania” (the Rogun Dam is slated to become the highest in the world), he suggested conducting an international investigation on the feasibility of hydropower projects in Central Asia. At the same time, Tajikistan is preparing to increase funding for the Rogun site, allocating around US$ 208 million in 2013. rnment. However, most experts say that the political elite understands that another government dismissal will bring the country to a point of no return and will search for compromises to allow the government more room for maneuver, thus allowing it to function for a longer period of time. t no final decision was taken. Armenia will most likely retain the beneficial price this winter. This is a limited burden for Russia as the quantities used by Armenia only represents a fraction of Russian exports.