Kazakstan and Uzbekistan Make Up

Central Asia’s two major states are being nicer to one another these days – but their motives for making friends are very different.

Kazakstan and Uzbekistan Make Up

Central Asia’s two major states are being nicer to one another these days – but their motives for making friends are very different.

Kazakstan and Uzbekistan are showing signs of a rapprochement after years of frosty relations. But the two leaderships have different agendas - Tashkent wants political allies above all, while the Kazaks want to increase their economic presence in their southern neighbour.

Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev paid what officials called a “long-awaited” visit to the Uzbek capital on March 19-20, attending a forum titled “new business opportunities” as well as signing a series of agreements with his counterpart Islam Karimov.

Afterwards, Nazarbayev announced the creation of an “inter-state coordination council” to help bolster official ties, bringing together the prime ministers of the two countries, their ministers of foreign affairs, defence, finance and industry, and the heads of the security services.

Analysts say Karimov’s desire to improve relations with Kazakstan is motivated by his country’s increasing international isolation, especially in the wake of the May 2005 violence in Andijan, in which hundreds of demonstrators are believed to have been killed by government forces.

In the Nineties, Central Asia’s two big states developed along different routes. Kazakstan implemented economic reforms, allowed a degree of political freedom, and remained closely allied with Moscow while also inviting western engagement in its lucrative oil industry.

Uzbekistan attracted much less investment, not least because it chose to avoid political and economic reform. At the same time it grew apart from Russia, trying to position itself as the main regional player. When the United States-led coalition began the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, the Uzbeks seized the opportunity, offering the use of a military airbase and building closer relations with western powers.

But this strategic partnership came to an abrupt end last summer, when Tashkent responded to US demands for an investigation into Andijan by evicting the American military and turning away from the West.

According to an Uzbekistan-based analyst who asked not to be named, President Karimov took this radical step not because he could easily dispense with western economic assistance, but because “western democratic standards had become a danger to the continued existence of the extreme authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan”.

Facing international isolation, the Uzbek leadership began seeking new alliances among old friends who would be less critical of its human rights record.

“There are certain basic principles that western democracies won’t abandon, so Karimov is doomed to isolation from them,” said Sergey Savin, a Kazakstan-based sociologist. “In this situation, he naturally needs new partners. All the recent steps the Uzbek leadership has taken clearly show the direction Tashkent is going in.”

Moscow has used the changed situation to reassert its primacy on Central Asian security matters, and as a spin-off, Russian companies have been able to consider acquiring assets in a market that was formerly closed to them.

Now Moscow’s key ally Kazakstan appears to be following its lead, combining political with commercial interests.

“The advantages Uzbekistan gets from closer relations with its former Soviet brothers are clear,” said Dosym Satpaev, who heads the Almaty-based Risk Assessment Group. “First, relations with Washington became much worse after Andijan, and Uzbekistan was deprived of [loan] tranches from the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

“Second, the economic situation in Uzbekistan is so bad that Tashkent is now intensively seeking new funding sources. China and Russia fit the bill, and Kazakstan is also interested in investing.”

From a political perspective, Karimov was clearly shaken by the popular revolutions seen in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. “The president has a visceral fear of orange revolutions and this is driving him to look for real backing and alliances,” said the Uzbekistan-based analyst.

In this changing regional environment, Karimov’s need for some kind of recognition and legitimacy may have prompted him to swallow his pride and seek backing from Nazarbaev as well as Moscow.

“For 13 or 14 years, Karimov hurled abuse - sometimes publicly, more often privately - at Russia, Kazakstan and the other Central Asian states, and their leaders personally, and paid homage to the capitalist West,” said the same analyst. “Now the situation has been entirely reversed.”

Another analyst in Uzbekistan suggested that the Kazak president has a fair amount to offer as a role model, even if Karimov accepts this only grudgingly. Nazarbaev is still unchallenged 15 years after his country became independent, he has overseen a period of sustained growth and has built successful economic partnerships. That makes him popular even among Uzbeks - a fact that will be apparent to Karimov, who may have used the visit to re-create himself in “the new image of a president who supports [regional] integration”, said the analyst.

Significantly, during his visit Nazarbaev offered Karimov some backing on the Andijan issue. In remarks later shown on tightly-controlled Uzbek TV, he told his counterpart, “I know that in Andijan you were defending the peace for the 26 million people in Uzbekistan - and not only them but those in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.”

At a practical level, ordinary Uzbeks are likely to benefit from closer integration with Kazakstan - above all the thousands who work as seasonal workers in Kazakstan or trade across the border, whose lives are currently made difficult by frontier restrictions and bureacracy.

In Kazakstan, it is large business groups that stand to gain from trade and investment. Successful Kazak firms such as those in the financial sector have long been looking for ways to expand in the region, for example acquiring banks in Kyrgyzstan.

They may find moving into Uzbekistan easier now that the country has joined the Eurasian Economic Community, a regional body that aims to create a common market among Russia, Belarus, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Like other structures within the Commonwealth of Independent States, the community was previously shunned by Tashkent.

However, the path towards economic integration may not be smooth. Karimov may want political backing, but given his record of economic isolationism with a strong measure of state control, he is likely to be wary about key assets falling into the hands of his near neighbours.

“He will fear a stronger presence of Kazak capital in Uzbekistan, because that could lead to the emergence of forces that he is less able to control, and subsequently give rise to independent alternatives [to his own rule],” said one of the Uzbekistan-based analyst.

Satpaev agrees that although Karimov is being nicer to the Kazaks these days, his relationships with his neighbours will remain fraught with problems.

“Karimov is unlikely to give up his ambition to be regional leader,” said Satpaev. “That means that Tashkent will view all initiatives emanating from [the Kazak capital] Astana and the Eurasian Economic Community with either suspicion or indifference. This won’t make the decision-making mechanism within the [economic] organisation any more simple or effective.”

For their part, the Kazaks are likely to ensure that the engagement with their difficult southern neighbour is coordinated with Moscow all the way. As Satpaev noted, Nazarbaev’s talks in Moscow which immediately followed his Tashkent trip in all likelihood involved “comparing notes with the Kremlin”.

Daur Dosybiev is an independent journalist in Shymkent. IWPR’s office in Kyrgyzstan contributed additional reporting.

Support our journalists