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Qishloq Ovozi

Uzbekistan’s land link with Afghanistan is the Dustlik (Friendship) Bridge, built in 1982 across the Amu-Darya River. A railway track runs down the middle of the bridge.

It has been more than a month since the international community was confronted with the fact that the Taliban had seized control over almost all of Afghanistan.

Some countries are still cautious or vague about their positions on the Taliban-led government. But Uzbekistan, which shares a 160-kilometer border with Afghanistan, has shown it is ready to talk and do business with the Taliban.

Some view Uzbekistan’s willingness to engage with the Taliban as simply pragmatic. After all, there are security issues to consider.

There are citizens of Uzbekistan in Afghanistan who are members of various extremist groups, some allied with the Taliban, some not.

The Uzbek government would prefer these people never return to Uzbekistan. The Taliban has given its guarantee that they will not allow anyone to use Afghan territory to plot attacks on neighboring countries.

But the same security concerns exist for Tajikistan, and the Tajik government has not shown any inclination to talk with the Taliban.

In Uzbekistan’s case, it would be costly to sever relations with Afghanistan -- no matter who is in control. In fact, the ties that bind the two countries are much stronger than they were 20 years ago. And it is not only Uzbekistan and Afghanistan that benefit.

Ismatulla Irgashev, the Uzbek president’s special representative on Afghanistan, in Kabul in 2018.
Ismatulla Irgashev, the Uzbek president’s special representative on Afghanistan, in Kabul in 2018.

On September 20, the Uzbek president’s special representative on Afghanistan, Ismatulla Irgashev, said his government wants road and railway connections with Afghanistan to resume operation in order to help ship “food and medical supplies.”

Irgashev could have mentioned many other goods the Uzbek government would like to see crossing in and out of Afghanistan through Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan’s road and railway connections with Afghanistan have improved since late 2001 when the previous Taliban regime was driven from power.

Projects such the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) or China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have improved existing links between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. They’ve also created new transit routes that extend to China and Europe.

The Uzbek link was used as part of NATO’s Northern Distribution Network -- the route the alliance used to bring supplies from Europe into Afghanistan and return equipment back to Europe.

Uzbekistan’s land link with Afghanistan is the Dustlik (Friendship) Bridge, built in 1982 across the river that divides Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, the Amu-Darya. It was the “gateway” for the Soviet military to enter or exit Afghanistan. It is now a gateway for much of Europe and Asia to trade with Afghanistan.

The railway track runs down the middle of the Dustlik Bridge. But until 10 years ago, it stopped just inside Afghanistan at Hairaton.

Work started in 2010 to extend the line another 75 kilometers to Mazar-e Sharif, the biggest city in northern Afghanistan with decent road connections east, west and south.

The Dustlik (Friendship) Bridge is a gateway for much of Europe and Asia to trade with Afghanistan.
The Dustlik (Friendship) Bridge is a gateway for much of Europe and Asia to trade with Afghanistan.

Operation of the new railway started in 2011. The project cost some $170 million, of which the ADB covered $165 million. It was meant to increase the monthly volume of cargo from about 4,000 tons before the line was opened to 25,000-40,000 tons. But it has not reached those figures so far.

China’s BRI uses this railway line, and it remains the only line connecting China directly to Afghanistan. The first train carrying Chinese goods into Afghanistan arrived in September 2016. China has pledged to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Some of those shipments will probably be sent by rail through Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan also has been exporting wheat to Afghanistan through Uzbekistan. According to one report, up to two-thirds of the flour Kazakhstan exported in 2020 went to Afghanistan.

The rapid changes in Afghanistan and subsequent moves to freeze Afghan central bank reserves has left Kazakh grain producers scrambling to find new buyers for about 3 million tons of wheat.

Nevertheless, Kazakh Agriculture Minister Yerbol Karashukeev said on September 21 that Kazakhstan would continue exporting wheat and flour to Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan receives transit fees for such shipments into Afghanistan from China, Kazakhstan, and other places.

At the moment, Uzbekistan is the only country with such links.

Turkmenistan has two railways connecting it to towns not far from the border in Afghanistan. Both connect to the Lapis Lazuli Transport Corridor that links Turkey to Afghanistan through the Caucasus. But this route is new, having just opened in 2018. The Turkmen section is underdeveloped and unlikely to be developed further in the near future.

Tajikistan has only roads to Afghanistan through the mountains. Thus, Uzbekistan’s road and railway links are a much better option for trade with Afghanistan. And the traffic of goods through Uzbekistan could soon become even more active.

Uzbekistan signed a deal with Pakistan in February 2021 to construct a 573-kilometer railway extension that would run from Mazar-e Sharif to Kabul and on to Peshawar. It would connect Uzbekistan, and the rest of Central Asia -- not to mention China -- to ports on the Arabian Sea.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Tashkent in July to attend the Central Asia-South Asia connectivity forum. He arrived early to meet with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and discuss construction of the railway connecting their two countries via Afghanistan.

Khan brought up the proposed railway line again when he attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Dushanbe on September 17.

Given Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban, and Uzbekistan’s amicable engagement with the militant group, the Mazar-e Sharif-Peshawar railway might be more possible now than it had been in July when Khan visited Tashkent.

The Termez Cargo Center
The Termez Cargo Center

In 2016, Uzbekistan opened the Termez Cargo Center about 2 kilometers from the Afghan border. That complex covers about 40 square hectares. It was intended to service what Uzbek officials hoped would be an increased transit of trade with Afghanistan through Uzbekistan’s land routes. Operations at the sprawling center have reportedly slowed to a crawl since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan.

The Uzbek government has offered use of the cargo center to countries and organizations wishing to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. That should at least keep operations running until the resumption of normal trade across the border.

The United Nations’ World Food Program is already establishing a logistics hub at the Termez center.

Since 2001, when the previous Taliban regime was ousted from power, electricity has been exported to Afghanistan from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. But Uzbekistan’s energy exports have been the most by far.

An ADB report said Afghanistan imports 73 percent of its electricity. Of that, Uzbekistan supplies 57 percent, Iran 22 percent, Turkmenistan 17 percent, and Tajikistan 4 percent.

When a 500-kV transmission line from Uzbekistan to Kabul started operation in 2009, the ADB noted it was the first time there was “a steady supply of electricity” reaching the Afghan capital.

It cost about $93 million to construct the Guzor-Surkhon power line that Uzbekistan built to send its electricity to Afghanistan. Some of that cost was covered by loans from the Islamic Development Bank. Uzbek electricity is now essential to Afghanistan.

In 2018, construction began on a 260-kilometer section of a 500-kV power line from Surkhon in Uzbekistan to Pul-e Khumri, north of Kabul. With an estimated cost of about $150 million, Uzbekistan was to pay $32 million while the Afghan side funded the remainder using a $110 million loan from the ADB.

When finished, the power line from Surkhon to Pul-e-Khumri would boost Uzbek electricity exports to Afghanistan by about 70 percent. It is not clear how close the project is to being completed.

There are various estimates about how much Afghanistan has been paying for its electricity imports. But it appears to have been around $300 million per year -- with more than half of the payments going to Uzbekistan.

In August 2020, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan signed a new 10-year deal for electricity supplies. How the Taliban-led government would pay for all of this is a big question. It is not surprising that at September's SCO meeting in Dushanbe, Mirziyoev called for the unfreezing of Afghan central bank assets in foreign banks.

Were Uzbekistan to severe ties with the Taliban and stop or drastically decrease trade with Afghanistan, it would be a huge loss of time and money invested during the last 20 years -- funds meant to improve connectivity not only between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan but also as part of a much broader trade network for Asian countries.

While Uzbekistan would incur its own financial losses by suspending electricity exports to Afghanistan, other countries also would lose out from not being able to trade with Afghanistan through Uzbekistan.

State media have lavished attention on the president's son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, for several years.

There are some important events coming up this month in Turkmenistan, and they could all combine to become big news from the hermit kingdom.

Independence Day is September 27, and the Halk Maslahaty, the highest legislative body in a country where the legislative branch means little, will be meeting sometime around that date.

But before that, on September 22, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, the son of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, turns 40. That is the minimum age, under Turkmenistan’s oft-ignored constitution, for any citizen to occupy the post of president.

This convergence of events makes one wonder if something special is approaching.

Groomed

It has appeared obvious for some time now that Serdar was being groomed to take over for his dad.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov finished his university work in August 2014 and by November 2016 had won a seat in parliament in an unpublicized snap election to fill several vacant seats. The first news of the election was the announcement that Serdar had won a seat in parliament; it later emerged that the deputy whose seat Serdar won had asked to step down shortly before the election was held.

The younger Berdymukhammedov is still a member of parliament, but he is also now deputy prime minister in charge of economic and financial affairs; after that, it is difficult to keep track of how many state posts he has held since being reelected to parliament in 2018.

He has been deputy minister of foreign affairs, deputy governor, then later governor of the Ahal Province where the capital, Ashgabat, is located, minister of industry and construction, deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, chairman of the Supreme Control Chamber, and was in the State Security Council.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov is also the president of the Turkmen Alabai dog association and the Ahal Teke Horse Breeding Association, both animals such powerful symbols in Turkmenistan that statues have been erected to them.

State media have been lavishing attention over Serdar Berdymukhammedov for several years, and they recently reported that Turkmenistan is lucky to have him around. He led the Turkmen delegation to the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer and was the honorary trainer of the national team, which won the country's first-ever Olympic medal. Weightlifter Polina Guryeva won that silver medal, although somehow, according to state media, the positive effect of Serdar Berdymukhammedov seemed to help her. Back in Turkmenistan, the younger Berdymukhammedov was shown on state television presenting Guryeva with a new Lexus sports utility vehicle.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov has been all over state television lately, giving out awards to athletes and performers and visiting schools to talk with children.

News involving President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov once totally dominated state media; but his son has been receiving increasing coverage lately.

There has been no announcement that anything extraordinary is coming this Independence Day. There is only speculation so far, and that is founded on the persistent rumors that President Berdymukhammedov’s health is deteriorating.

Ill Health

Rumors of ill health have followed nearly every one of Central Asia’s leaders, and they are too often rooted in desperate hopes for deliverance from despotism. But Berdymukhammedov is a diabetic and his uncharacteristic disappearance from the public eye for a month in summer 2019 seemed the strongest indication yet that his physical condition might be deteriorating, despite repeated footage on state television of him bicycling or exercising.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov is clearly being fast-tracked for Turkmenistan’s top post; the only questions appear to be when and how it happens.

Which is why the Halk Maslahaty meeting sometime around Independence Day might draw more interest than normal.

Before reviewing the highlights, or lowlights, of the Halk Maslahaty, it is worth mentioning that September 27 is not really Turkmenistan’s Independence Day; or at least it wasn't until 2018.

The Turkmen president with his son in a picture published in a Turkmen daily newspaper on June 7.
The Turkmen president with his son in a picture published in a Turkmen daily newspaper on June 7.

September 27 marks the anniversary of the last day of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games international competition that Turkmenistan hosted in 2017. It was a 10-day event that the Turkmen government spent a lot of money on.

Independence Day was marked on October 27 from 1991 to 2017.

The Halk Maslahaty has no obligation to meet on Independence Day, so there is reason for suspense.

But when it is time to announce big decisions, that usually happens when the Halk Maslahaty convenes.

In September 1996, it was the Halk Maslahaty that called on then-President Saparmurat Niyazov to simply accept being declared president for life. Niyazov declined, so the Halk Maslahaty in December 1999 voted to make him head of state for life and gave him a white robe and a palm staff, symbols of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as a white-gold medal "For Great Love for Independent Turkmenistan."

In August 2002, the Halk Maslahaty assembled and approved Niyazov’s proposal to rename the days of the week and the months of the year.

The Halk Maslahaty repeatedly rejected Niyazov’s duplicitous requests to retire or conduct new presidential elections.

The Halk Maslahaty approved dismissing parliamentary speaker Ovezgeldy Ataev from his post in December 2006, right after Niyazov died, with Ataev constitutionally next in line for the presidency.

Berdymukhammedov disbanded the Halk Maslahaty in 2008, but he brought it back in 2017 and gave it the status of the highest legislative body in the country.

In 2018, the Halk Maslahaty approved changing Independence Day from October 27 to September 27 and voted to cancel free allotments of natural gas, electricity, and water that Turkmenistan’s citizens had been receiving since the early days of independence.

This year’s Independence Day has all the makings of Turkmen political theater.

Now we just need to wait until September 27 to find out. Or for those using the 2002 Turkmen calendar, Bash gyun, the "27th of Rukhnama."

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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