Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Envoy Signals Uzbek-Turkmen Thaw

The arrival of a new Uzbek ambassador in Ashgabat after a two-year break marks the official end of estrangement between neighbours, but serious problems remain.
By IWPR staff

The appointment of a new Uzbek ambassador to Turkmenistan signals a thaw in relations between the neighbouring states, though many contentious issues remain.


Alisher Qodirov takes up his post in Ashgabat after a two-year diplomatic chill between the two countries, sparked by a November 2002 assassination attempt on Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov.


Niyazov, better known as Turkmenbashi, accused Uzbekistan of helping the assassins and promptly expelled the country’s ambassador. This prompted a deep freeze which only melted in November at a summit between the two presidents in the Uzbek city of Bukhara.


At the meeting, Niyazov and Karimov claimed that all disputed issues between the countries had been solved, particularly those relating to border crossing procedures. Afterwards, Niyazov even wrote a letter thanking his Uzbek counterpart.


“The decisions we have made will turn the border between our nations into a border of peace and friendship,” he wrote.


Observers say that despite such claims of success, the treaty on “friendship, confidence building and development of cooperation” has so far changed very little.


Particularly problematic remains the status of Uzbekistan nationals living in Turkmenistan.


In the Soviet era, Uzbekistan was given 18,000 hectares of Turkmen land to farm. It has now renounced claims to the land, giving the people who live there a stark choice: to return to Uzbekistan where they took up citizenship after the collapse of the USSR, or to remain but apply for Turkmenistan citizenship.


Moving across the border would mean leaving behind the lives they have built up and taking their chances in the difficult economic environment of northern Uzbekistan. Staying in Turkmenistan would make it difficult for them to travel to Uzbekistan, or anywhere else, because of a complicated visa regime. They would also have to accept the erosion of their cultural identity that is part of Turkmenbashi’s policy of homogeneity.


“Neither the Turkmen nor the Uzbek government has created, or has thought about creating, privileges for citizens displaced as a result of border demarcation to receive citizenship,” said a Turkmen interior ministry official who helped plan the presidential summit and spoke to IWPR on the condition on anonymity.


“I know that many Uzbek families really do not want to leave. There is no work for them in Uzbekistan, and they will have to abandon everything here. But their status is undetermined, and to receive Turkmen citizenship they will need one-and-a-half, two or even three years.”


Many Uzbeks and Turkmen living along the either side of the 1,621 kilometre border have kin on the other side. But residents of frontier areas regions say that since their leaders met it has become harder rather than easier to get across the border.


Zainab Shokhojaeva, from Talimarjan in Uzbekistan’s Kashkadarya region which borders on Turkmenistan, said that immediately after the summit Turkmenistan erected barbed wire along this portion of the border, leaving part of her farmland on the other side. “We have not seen any positive change,” Shokhojaeva told IWPR. “On the contrary, we are now sitting here and shaking with fear that our cow will cross the border, and we will not be able to get it back.”


In the past, local residents say, they could receive a visa allowing unrestricted visits for six US dollars, and visit any part of Turkmenistan for up to six days. Now visas are available only once a month and allow travel for three days, and only in border regions.


Abdurazzak Khudaiberdiev, the mayor of Talimarjan, told IWPR that to travel outside the border zones of Turkmenistan, Uzbeks must now obtain a general visa in Tashkent or Ashgabad.


A Turkmen businessman complained to IWPR that the new regulations are affecting his livelihood. “I need to cross the border at least once a week. But according to the new rules I can only do this once a month,” he said.


Because of the harsh visa system and other restrictions, many residents in border regions cross illegally, often laden with smuggled goods. To support Turkmenbashi’s regime, his government has kept the prices of many basic goods artificially low. In Ashgabat, 20 litres of petrol costs 8,000 manats (30 cents), compared with 13 to 16 dollars in Uzbek border towns. Meat, flour and vegetable oil costs twice as much in Uzbek border regions as in neighbouring Turkmenistan.


For many Uzbek residents, smuggling these items – particularly petrol - is their only source of income.


A Turkmen police officer said, “Smuggling across the Turkmen-Uzbek border has become a real threat. It always existed, but in 2004 it beat all the records. We regularly conduct raids, and every day we confiscate a few tonnes of petrol destined for Uzbekistan. But there are thousands of tonnes involved, not just a few.”


High unemployment drives many residents of border regions to desperate measures. Dozens of Uzbeks have been injured or killed by Turkmen border guards. Last year, 70 cases involving the use of firearms were officially registered on the Uzbek frontier, though shootings may be even more frequent.


“The Uzbek border is considered the most stressful in Turkmenistan,” said a serving Turkmen border guard. “Smugglers try to break through everywhere. People are not stopped by fear of criminal charges or being shot.”


Despite the problems, both Tashkent and Ashgabad appear keen for the current thaw to continue.


The long period of estrangement has been problematic for both countries. In particular, both countries have a vital common interest in the waters of the Amu Darya, which runs close to the border. Sections of canal and part of the Tuyamuyun reservoir are located inside Turkmenistan but serviced by Uzbek specialists.


Tulkin Karaev is an IWPR contributor in Karshi, Uzbekistan.


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