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Feuding Neighbours

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan treat each other like pariahs, despite having strong mutual interests
By Arslan Kasymov

For all their strong historic ties, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan preserve an icy mutual dislike - underlined recently by a public snub to Ashgabat's ambassador in Tashkent.


Antagonism between the two states was suppressed by Moscow in the days when they were Soviet republics, but after the collapse of the USSR, simmering disagreements over borders soon surfaced.


Turkmen nationalists revived their historic claims to the Khiva and Khoresm regions whose inhabitants, they argued, were of predominantly Turkmen descent. The Uzbeks, meanwhile, laid claim to the for the Tashauz and Chardjou regions, mostly populated by ethnic Uzbeks.


However, officials on both sides recognised the danger of the re-dividing their territories. And, in 2000, they signed an agreement to delimit the borders. But other disputes persisted, and on these the governments dug in their heels.


Relations sunk to a new low in 1995, when Tashkent resisted Turkmenistan's attempts to become a neutral country. At the same time, Ashgabat refused to recognize Uzbek ownership of industrial projects inside Turkmenistan. These projects included a large number of water-related and oil-producing concerns.


Ashgabat said that by constructing these facilities on land rented from Turkmenistan on long term lease, Uzbekistan was furthering its economic development at the expense of Turkmen interests..


After 1995, all inter-governmental and inter-departmental negotiations on these issues were suspended and a "cold peace" was established. Rail, air and bus links were cut, trade between the countries was suspended.


Not till January 1996, was the situation relieved through a meeting of the presidents of the two countries in Chardjou. Uzbekistan agreed to support Turkmenistan's neutrality in return for the right to own property on the Turkmen side of the border.


The Uzbek side made concessions on the rent and terms of the lease for the land on which their enterprises were built. Tashkent also agreed to pay Turkmenistan for part of the oil it extracted from this cross-border territory.


Hostility between the countries largely reflects the personalities of their two leaders whose mutual antipathy has slowed down the whole process of cooperation. Many observers view Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov and Turkenistan's Saparmurat Niazov as two sides of the same coin


Both run authoritarian regimes, intolerant of dissent and built on the cult of personality. Each leader has an obsessive dislike of the other. They try never to mention each other's names in public.


Governmental delegations sometimes meet but invariably run into insurmountable obstacles. Differences are profound, especially about the way each country perceives its role in the region. Turkmenistan does not consider itself a leader in Central Asia and has no wish to intervene in the troubles of other countries.


For this reason, Ashgabat has distanced itself from participation in the Central Asian Economic Forum and is in no hurry to further economic relations with Tashkent. Turkmenistan's policy is to seek self-sufficiency in economy and politics.


Trade between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is relatively low for Central Asia. In 1998, total turnover equalled US$ 51.5 million, of which Uzbek imports accounted for US$ 10.2 million. In 1999, Uzbekistan exported goods worth US$ 76.3 million to Turkmenistan while importing US$ 10.0 million's worth of goods.


Trading partnerships between the two are shaky. The Uzbek-Turkmen-Azeri-Georgian Intergovernmental Agreement on Transportation of Cargoes by Railroad, TRASECA, has run into problems after only a few months because Turkmenistan refused to provide an agreed 50 per cent discount for transit


Furthermore, it added 20 per cent VAT on Uzbek cargoes bringing a sharp fall in Uzbekistan's traffic along the trans-Caucasian route. After this both countries started increasing customs taxes.


Another barrier was the visa requirement imposed on Uzbek travellers by Ashgabat in 1998. Tashkent followed suit and soon the cross-border migration of labour started drying up. Residents along the border suffered badly from the visa system but their distress had little impact on the two governments.


In foreign affairs, Ashgabat looks to the Middle East and the Muslim world while Tashkent reaches out to industrially developed countries.


Given all the their differences and disagreement, it's not surprising that the two nations stay loftily apart.


Arslan Kasymov is an IWPR contributor