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Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan: Summit Is A Sign Of Changing Times

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova --> Uzbek President Islam Karimov (file photo) (AFP) Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is to meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and other government officials for talks on a wide range of issues during a three-day state visit to Uzbekistan starting on March 19. It is Nazarbaev's first state visit since he was reelected in December and comes after Uzbekistan oriented its foreign policy toward Russia following Western criticism over the violent crackdown in Andijon last year.

PRAGUE, March 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- During his state visit, Karimov is expected to meet Nazarbaev at the Tashkent Airport as an orchestra plays the two countries' national anthems.

The men lead the two biggest Central Asian countries and have long been rivals, competing for regional hegemony, foreign investment, and the favor of the superpowers.

A History Of Animosity

"I believe their relations are noticeably cold," says Kamoliddin Rabbimov, a Tashkent-based independent political analyst. "Both leaders fight for the leadership of the Central Asian region. Each of them sees himself and his state as a hegemonic power in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has gained an upper hand in political, social, and economic competition so far. This undoubtedly irritates President Islam Karimov a great deal."

Murad Esenov, the editor in chief of the Sweden-based "Central Asia And The Caucasus" journal, says the personal rivalry has had a negative impact on the whole region.

"There have been loads of problems in the region," Esenov told RFE/RL. "They have existed only because Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have had differing positions on some issues, like [use of] water resources or [the fight against] religious extremism. The foreign-policy orientations of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been different too. It also resulted in a certain tension in the region."

Since gaining independence in 1991, both presidents have ruled their countries with an iron fist. But they chose different paths of economic development. Kazakhstan pursued reforms and has succeeded in privatization and in the development of its financial and banking sectors. It also has a flourishing energy sector.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan continued its administrative management of the economy, which gradually led to high unemployment and poverty that forced many Uzbeks to go to Kazakhstan as illegal labor migrants or to smuggle Kazakh goods to Uzbekistan.

Uneasy Relations

The two countries have signed some 90 agreements since 1991, including a treaty on "eternal friendship." Despite this, they pursued border demarcation while Uzbekistan put up obstacles to regional trade, punishing shuttle traders.

There have also been shooting incidents on the state border. The most recent one occurred last week, Kazakh television Channel 31 reported on 14 March. Also, Tashkent has regularly cuts gas supplies to southern Kazakhstan.

Lately, the flow of Uzbek refugees has been on the rise as political repression against dissent has intensified in Uzbekistan.

Marzhan Aspandiyarova, an activist from the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition coalition, says there has been little effort from either side to resolve these issues.

"They create an illusion of prosperity," Aspandiyarova says. "It suits everyone. Although there are loads of problems and they are getting more serious, both Astana and Tashkent apply a blind eye to them and deepen the myth about stability and good neighborly relations."

Getting Ready For The Summit

Kazinform reported that at least six documents are to be signed during Nazarbaev's visit to Tashkent. Agreements on trade and economics, culture, humanitarian cooperation, the border regime, and international highway service are among them.

KazTransGas official Serik Sultangaliyev announced on March 14 the two countries are also planning to sign an agreement on gas supplies at the price of $55 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Nazarbaev at his inauguration in January (TASS)

Bilateral trade stood at $497 million in 2005, and both countries' officials admit it has not reached its huge potential.

Ilyas Omarov of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL on March 17 that the two sides are still working on the documents that are to be signed.

Changing Times In Central Asia

Esenov is optimistic about the outcome of the summit. He tells RFE/RL that the major reason is that Uzbekistan has changed its foreign policy recently.

Uzbekistan used to be a close ally of the United States in the war on terrorism until its relations with the West soured over the Andijon violence.

The United States and the European Union heavily criticized Uzbekistan for use of force against the Andijon protesters in May 2005. Hundreds reportedly died in the events. Russian and China endorsed Karimov's actions.

Uzbekistan then joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Community, which seeks to establish a single economic zone comprising Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus.

"We know that [the Eurasian Economic Community] is Nazarbaev's 'child,'" Esenov says. "It was Nazarbaev who, since the early 1990s, conceived of and created this organization. Although Russia dominates the group, its driving force is Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev. By joining this organization, I think, Islam Karimov and other Uzbek officials knew Kazakhstan would become the leader of the region."

It is Nazarbaev's first state visit since he was reelected in the December presidential election. The invitation came from Karimov during Nazarbaev's inauguration.

Esenov says this is a sign that Karimov is ready to put his leadership ambitions aside and cooperate with Kazakhstan.

For his part, Nazarbaev also seems to be sending certain signals to Karimov.

Ahead of the visit, Kazakh authorities allowed the Uzbek president's prominent opponent to flee from Kazakhstan to Europe.

The Uzbek government has repeatedly asked official Astana to assist in catching and extraditing Uzbek dissident Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov -- accused of extremism and terrorism -- who has been hiding in Kazakhstan for eight years.

However, Nazarov was flown to an unknown country in Europe on March 15 after having been granted political asylum by the United Nations.

Taizhan Bolatkhan, a retired diplomat from Kazakhstan, tells RFE/RL that Astana's decision has likely angered Tashkent.

"I don't think this action was planned to make Nazarbaev's meeting with Karimov positive," Bolatkhan said.

The UN's refugee agency praised the Kazakh government for its cooperation in facilitating the relocation of Nazarov and his family.

(RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Oktambek Karimov contributed to this report.)

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