Now, what is arguably Central Asia’s worst bilateral relationship looks set to take a positive leap forward as Uzbek President Islam Karimov begins his first official visit to Turkmenistan in more than seven years. While it’s unclear where relations will go, any rapprochement will be followed closely in Moscow and Washington, as both Central Asian nations play key roles in producing and transporting energy resources, particularly gas.
Under Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December, Turkmenistan had become one of the world’s most repressive states, centered around a bizarre, Stalinist cult of the personality of the president who called himself “Turkmenbashi” -- the father of all Turkmen.
But Karimov’s arrival today in Ashgabat is the latest sign that Turkmenistan has embarked on a very different foreign policy under new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported that a newscast on Turkmen state television today spoke of hopes that the meeting "will deeply change the goal of bilateral cooperation,” adding: “It’s believed that a new stage of Turkmen-Uzbek relations started.”
The summit agenda itself remains unclear, but the fact that it is happening at all is remarkable. “It certainly would have been [unimaginable] a couple of years ago,” said John MacLeod, a regional expert and senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
In November 2002, relations hit a nadir. Turkmenistan accused Uzbekistan of complicity in an alleged attempt to assassinate Niyazov. Turkmen forces later raided Tashkent’s embassy in Ashgabat and expelled the Uzbek ambassador. Ashgabat also sent troops to the border with Uzbekistan and closed checkpoints there for almost a month.
Turkmen security forces eventually apprehended Boris Shikhmuradov, a former foreign minister who had defected to the opposition-in-exile the previous year. Turkmen authorities accused their former top diplomat of leading the assassination plot, and accused Tashkent of having helped Shikhmuradov to reenter the country across their shared border. Uzbek authorities denied any involvement.
The incident was a crushing blow to an already chilly relationship. "You had two authoritarian presidents with quite strong personalities and views on life and also on how regional affairs should be run,” MacLeod said. “They really didn't coincide in many matters. So you had a long period of fairly frosty relationship ... and all of these rather frosty relations culminated in the assassination attempt against President Niyazov.”
And yet, Niyazov and Karimov had much in common. They were both the leaders of their republics when the Soviet Union collapsed. And the internal security networks they set up to stay in power were highly efficient. Both were the source of numerous complaints from international human rights groups.
Nonetheless, relations were never good. Issues dogging them included the sharing of resources from the Amu-Darya River, which is a crucial source of water for both countries intensive cotton industries. Despite a 1996 deal on equitable water use, Uzbek concerns have been high given Turkmen moves to withdraw some water and build an artificial lake in the Karakum desert. Also of key importance to Uzbek trade is access to Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea ports.
Then there are minorities. Ethnic Uzbeks constitute approximately 10 percent of the population in Turkmenistan, while tensions remain high along the Uzbek-Turkmen border in Khorezm Oblast. Historically, that area in both countries has formed a single ethno-cultural region. But its current division is headache for residents of both states, particularly Uzbeks, who have had to pay a visa fee to visit relatives in Turkmenistan.
When Niyazov and Karimov last met in Bukhara, a city in western Uzbekistan chosen as the midway point between the two capitals, they agreed to make it easier and cheaper for citizens of both nations to visit the other. Yet those declarations were never really put in practice. Cross-border transit remains difficult.
Beyond these issues, there were problems on the personal level -- an intense dislike between the two longtime leaders evident from the early years of post-Soviet independence.
For example, shortly after statues of Niyazov began popping up across his country, Karimov had a law passed banning the erection of any statue in honor of a living person. That slight, however, was soon returned: when Karimov's new presidential jet was en route to an economic forum in the Turkmen capital in 1996, the Boeing was diverted to a much more modest Turkmen airport -- ostensibly so that preparations could be completed in Ashgabat ahead of the expected arrival of other dignitaries.
Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov (epa file photo)
But Niyazov’s sudden death appears to have thrown open a window to improving relations. The countries can now pursue matters that are in both their interests and are likely to dominate the official portion of Karimov’s two-day visit.
"You have a new president in Turkmenistan who is taking a fresh look at the outside world and who is genuinely interested in having some kind of diplomatic and economic relationship with all comers -- and that includes Uzbekistan,” McLeod said. “And to the Uzbeks, it's an opportunity to mend fences -- and they do have a very long border. There are common economic interests. Both countries are gas producers and will export northwards to Russia, principally. Obviously it makes sense for both countries to work together instead of against one another in making that happen."
Karimov and Berdymukhammedov met earlier this year but only at multilateral meetings, such as at a summit of Commonwealth of Independent States in Dushanbe and a Shanghai Cooperation Organization gathering in Bishkek.
Now, they meet one-on-one. Their biggest challenge, in moving relations forward, may simply be to leave the past behind.