Kazaks and Uzbeks Seek to Smooth Relations

Latest row over Kazakstan’s “softness” on terror is part of wider-ranging regional rivalry.

Kazaks and Uzbeks Seek to Smooth Relations

Latest row over Kazakstan’s “softness” on terror is part of wider-ranging regional rivalry.

The leaders of Kazakstan and Uzbekistan seem to be trying to smooth relations following recent turbulence when Tashkent’s criticism of its neighbour threatened to cause a diplomatic row.

In a March 3 telephone conversation, Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov agreed to work together to fight terrorism and extremism in Central Asia, and also to build their economic relationship, in part through the creation of a free trade zone.

Just two days before, the Kazak president had attended a meeting between the director of Uzbekistan's National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov and the Kazak security chief Nartay Dutbaev. Once again, the talks gravitated towards security-agency cooperation on counter-terrorism and dealing with Islamic radicals.

It is unsurprising that the issue of how to tackle outlawed Islamic groups recurred at both sets of talks. Over the last couple of years, differing approaches to the issue has exacerbated the traditional rivalry between the two neighbours.

Since independence in 1991, the Uzbeks and Kazaks have both aspired to regional leadership in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has the bigger population and enjoys a central location in the region, while Kazakstan has a larger territory and a stronger economy thanks to its oil.

Tashkent has been critical of the Kazak government for not taking a tougher stance against groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and has suggested that this has hampered Uzbekistan’s domestic anti-terror efforts.

The latest wave of criticism was prompted by public remarks that President Karimov made in January during a speech to parliament and in an interview to the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Karimov’s comments suggested that in addition to what he sees as the Kazaks’ kid-glove handling of dangerous Islamists, he is irked by the suggestion that the main focus of Muslim radicalism in Central Asia is against the harsh policies he has adopted against such groups.

“A high-ranking representative of the Kazak security committee has said that all these shahids [suicide bombers] and extremists are acting not against Kazakstan, but Uzbekistan,” Karimov said in the newspaper interview in mid-January. “That’s because in Kazakstan they believe they’re observing freedom of religion and democratic standards, so the radicals have nothing against them.”

In his address to parliament at the end of January, Karimov went on to criticise Kazakstan for not taking counter-terrorism seriously enough. He said three of the suicide bombers who attacked targets in Tashkent last July held Kazakstan passports.

“Where do we go from here?” he said, clearly exasperated with Kazakstan’s failure to do what in his eyes is the right thing.

The president’s public tongue-lashing set the tone for a series of anti-Kazakstan articles in the state-controlled Uzbek media. One recent piece published in the government paper Pravda Vostoka on February 23 referred to Kazakstan as the “lion’s den”, and accused President Nazarbaev personally of spending time on grand international schemes while ignoring urgent regional concerns.

The article expressed indignation that Kazak police who detained Hizb-ut-Tahrir members earlier this year charged them only with offences such as tax evasion, and that supporters of the group who held a protest meeting in Almaty in January were released after paying a fine.

“That is the harsh reality of how Kazakstan is combating terrorists and their ideologists,” concluded the article’s author Ali Bahromov.

His views reflected the official position of his government, which takes a dim view of Islamic activism, seeing it as tantamount to subversion. As a result, thousands of people with real or alleged Islamic sympathies have received lengthy prison sentences in recent years.

The latest barrage of criticism may have been stronger than usual, but it might still have passed without comment from Kazak officials had it not been for some pointed suggestions that President Nazarbaev himself was at fault.

Kazakstan’s ambassador in Tashkent, Tleukhan Kabdrakhmanov, called a press conference on February 25 following leaked criticism of Nazarbaev emanating from the Uzbek government. The diplomatic move was in response to a Russian news agency report in which an anonymous source in the Uzbek foreign ministry described Nazarbaev’s latest plan – to create a union between Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to improve economic relations – as “without substance”.

Kabdrakhmanov insisted that every country had the right to take whatever measures it saw fit when it came to such matters as counter-terrorism. No state could impose its views on others, he said, adding that Kazakstan would act according to its own laws.

Analysts in Kazakstan think the latest round of criticism from Tashkent shows the old rivalry is alive and well, and that Uzbekistan is particularly angered by the perception that the Kazaks are forging ahead of them.

“The Uzbek leader is trying to strengthen his reputation - which has been stained because of his undemocratic rule - in the wake of the international war on terror,” said Maksut Sarsenov from the Association of Sociologists and Analysts.

“Liberal regimes in the region present a threat for authoritarian countries,” added Artyom Ustimenko of Kazakstan’s Institute for Strategic Studies. “Uzbekistan is in a less favourable position than Kazakstan due to the latter’s better economic prospects and internal stability.”

In Uzbekistan, the leader of the opposition party Ozod Dehkonlar (Free Farmers) Nigora Khidoyatova agreed that delayed economic reforms in Uzbekistan meant it would be hard for the country to catch up with Kazakstan.

Although the recent talks involving the two presidents may have smoothed over some of the rougher edges in their relationship, the deep roots of the regional rivalry means the road ahead is unlikely to be trouble-free.

For Nikolai Kuzmin, an analyst with the Kazak research centre Reputatsia, the latest friction highlights the lack of diplomatic mechanisms which could help regional states work out their differences while remaining on reasonable terms. “This kind of mechanism should be in place in our dealings with all countries, but all the more so when it comes to Uzbekistan.

“Although it’s our neighbour, the relationship is an uneasy one. But disagreements should not be resolved in public.”

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR country director in Uzbekistan. Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty. Said Khodjaev is a pseudonym for a journalist in Tashkent. Eduard Poletaev is IWPR country director in Kazakstan.

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