Turkmen, Uzbeks Edge Closer on Common Concerns

Troubled relations between Central Asia’s most authoritarian states will take time to repair.

Turkmen, Uzbeks Edge Closer on Common Concerns

Troubled relations between Central Asia’s most authoritarian states will take time to repair.

Monday, 2 March, 2009
Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov’s talks in Uzbekistan last week focused on seeking common ground on issues like water, energy and regional security. Although the last two years have seen a thaw in the difficult relationship between these two states, analysts say there is some way to go before they really open up to one another.

The Turkmen leader’s visit to Tashkent on February 24-25 was his second since he came to power two years ago. Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov has also visited Ashgabat.

Berdymuhammedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niazov, froze relations after accusing the Uzbeks of complicity in an assassination attempt against him in November 2002. In a sign of the improvement achieved over the last year or so, Berdymuhammedov attended the opening ceremony of a new Turkmen embassy building in Tashkent.

The formal outcome of the talks was a number of agreements to improve cooperation on border security, crime-fighting and extradition matters.

The two leaders also went out of their way to demonstrate their shared vision of two key issues – sharing the region’s water and promoting stability in their southern neighbour Afghanistan.

At a press conference at the end of the visit, the Uzbek president said he and his Turkmen counterpart had a similar outlook on how Central Asia’s water resources should be used. He warned that plans by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to build hydroelectric power stations on the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya, respectively, could create water shortages in the downstream states – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan.

“We share a common approach based on the need to take into account the views of all states located along transnational waterways, and the need to observe… international law when implementing hydroelectric projects on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers,” said Karimov, in remarks quoted by the Kazinform news agency.

For his part, Berdymuhammedov said Turkmenistan was against anything that might reduce the flow of transnational rivers and said proper assessments needed to be carried out first.

Uzbekistan has long been concerned about the Tajik and Kyrgyz plans to build more dams on the two rivers, fearing that this would starve it of vital irrigation water. The Uzbek economy depends on cotton, and the country is the world’s second-largest exporter.

Like its neighbour, Turkmenistan – a largely desert state – is dependent on water from the Amu Darya and earns significant export revenues from cotton.

There have been signs that the Uzbeks are considering a shift away from simple obstruction of Tajik and Kyrgyz energy projects. At a cabinet meeting in February, Karimov said his country would be prepared to invest in them if they could be proved to be both commercially feasible and environmentally sound.

On Afghanistan, Karimov and Berdymuhammedov announced publicly that they were prepared to offer logistical supply routes for NATO’s operations in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan is to allow freight of a non-military nature to cross its territory by two land routes – one by rail leading via Tajikistan to the Afghan border, and a direct road connection to the Uzbek frontier town of Termez. Turkmenistan is to allow NATO planes carrying cargo, again of a non-military nature, to fly through its airspace.

These arrangements appear to have been concluded when General David Petraeus, the head of the United States military’s Central Command, visited both countries earlier this year. The fact that the two presidents used their joint press conference to firm up some of the details suggest they wanted to demonstrate they were coordinating their support for the western effort in Afghanistan. (For a report on this issue, see Turkmen, Uzbeks to Help NATO’s Afghan Effort.)

Washington has been forced to look for alternative supply routes in Central Asia following the Kyrgyz government’s decision to close down the US military airbase in that country, at a time when the Americans plan to boost their presence in Afghanistan.

Although neither Berdymuhammedov nor Karimov made a statement on energy matters, analysts say they have also secured each other’s support to protect their interests in this area.

Currently, most of the Turkmen gas exported to Russia is transported by the Central Asia-Centre pipeline which passes through Uzbekistan. The Russians want to boost Turkmen export capacity in anticipation of rich new deposits coming on stream, while another pipeline taking Turkmen gas to China will also go through Uzbek territory.

A Tashkent-based economist told IWPR that the two countries needed to work closely together on their export strategies.

“There is an acute need to coordinate pricing policy both for the transit and sale of gas, so high-level meetings are essential,” he said.

A common approach would strengthen the individual positions of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in dealing with other Central Asian states and with Russia.

But while the Uzbek and Turkmen leaders are willing to negotiate on areas of mutual interest, commentators say there are still many underlying problems in the relationship.

One practical area where many issues remain unresolved concerns people on either side of the long Turkmen-Uzbek border who want to visit or trade with one another, some of whom are diaspora members who find themselves living on the “wrong” side of a rigidly controlled frontier.

“Visa requirements [for citizens of each country] are an obstacle to the development of relations,” said an observer based in northeastern Turkmenistan.

Attempts to simplify border procedures for people wishing to visit relatives in the other country for short periods have foundered, he added.

Ibadulla Narimov, a 60-year-old Uzbekistan national, said he had to pay the equivalent of six US dollars to visit Turkmenistan for three days.

“For us, that’s a lot of money,” he said.

Commentators say cross-border trade has yet to revive despite the diplomatic thaw.

“There is no border trade as such, as the frontier is closed,” said the observer in northeast Turkmenistan. “Agreements on promoting border trade and setting up free trade zones were signed during meetings between Niazov and Karimov, but nothing has come of it.”

He explained, “Each side is trying to protect its own economic interests by introducing stupid bans. For example, Uzbekistan bans Turkmen food [imports]. All foodstuffs such as bread, pasta, meat, wheat and cooking oil are confiscated by customs officials.”

For their part, the Turkmen authorities forbid exports of petroleum products to Uzbekistan, where these items can be sold for a mark-up.

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