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Qishloq Ovozi

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev's new softer line toward its fellow Central Asian states might be a signal that Tashkent is willing to try the "carrot" rather resorting to the "stick," as it has for many years now.

Uzbekistan's new leader, Shavkat Mirziyaev, is already making a difference in regional politics in Central Asia. In less than one month, Mirziyaev has moved to improve ties with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and in so doing has sparked hopes for a new era of regional cooperation.

Under former President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was an obstacle to regional integration. Uzbekistan lies at the center of Central Asia, bordered by all the other Central Asian states and also sharing an approximately 160-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has proven to be a knot at the heart of the region.

Tashkent's relations with its immediate neighbors have ranged from bad to horrible. Ties with Turkmenistan warmed after the country's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in late 2006, and in the last decade Karimov seemed to finally find some common ground with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, which eased Uzbek-Kazakh relations.

But the Uzbek government has always been hard on eastern neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

When Mirziyaev took over as Uzbekistan's leader on September 8, Uzbek police had been occupying a hill in Kyrgyzstan, Ungar-Too, for more than two weeks. The Uzbek forces detained four Kyrgyz nationals who were working at the television relay station on Ungar-Too and refused to free them, angering Kyrgyz villagers in the area and the government in Bishkek.

Problems between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan include land, border demarcation, and, most importantly, water -- and the three things are often intertwined.

On September 9, Uzbek troops released the four Kyrgyz nationals.

Mirziyaev did not attend a CIS summit in Bishkek on September 16. Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov went instead and arrived one day early to meet with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev.

On September 20, the Uzbek police withdrew from Ungar-Too. The same day, the pro-government website reported that from September 14 to 20 a working group of officials from both countries had been reviewing questions of border demarcation in 23 disputed areas along the common frontier.

And then, on October 1, a government delegation from Kyrgyzstan made up largely of officials from Kyrgyzstan's Jalal-Abat, Osh, and Batken provinces, which border Uzbekistan, visited the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon to take part in events dedicated to Uzbek-Kyrgyz friendship.

Tajik Tensions Ease

Uzbek-Tajik ties have probably been the worst bilateral ties across Central Asia. All railway traffic bound for or leaving Tajikistan must transit Uzbek territory and Uzbek authorities have on occasion held up, and in cases turned back, shipments to Tajikistan -- particularly shipments of construction materials for Tajikistan's hydropower plants. Both countries have tried and convicted their own nationals on charges of spying for the other country.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon attended Karimov's funeral in Samarkand on September 3 and met with Mirziyaev. At the end of September, Tajik media enthusiastically reported on Uzbek Foreign Minister Komilov's September 23 speech at the UN General Assembly, which, for once, did not include any mention of Tajikistan's plans to build the Roghun hydropower plant. Roghun has been a major sticking point in relations between the two countries.

Komilov traveled to Tajikistan on September 29 and met with President Rahmon to discuss renewing the railway and air links, and economic ties in general, between the two countries. Flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe were suspended in 1992 and trade between the two countries was only some $10 million in 2015, which was actually an increase of more than 50 percent compared to 2014.

Komilov did mention he hoped the two countries could find a fair and mutually advantageous solution to water and energy problems. He also gave an interview to Tajik television, saying it was time to renew "long-interrupted" ties.

On September 30, the pro-government website reported a meeting of the Uzbek-Kazakh border demarcation took place from September 26 to 30 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. noted that a similar meeting took place in Almaty on February 18 to 27 this year, and that the process of demarcating the Uzbek-Kazakh border has been under way since 2003.

These are all hopeful signs that Uzbekistan under Mirziyaev, who seems certain to be elected president in the December 4 election, might come out of its regional isolation and become a productive regional partner.

Turkmenistan went a similar route when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov took over after Niyazov's death. Turkmenistan succeeded in improving relations with all its Central Asian neighbors, including Uzbekistan -- not an easy feat considering Niyazov had all but said publicly that Uzbek authorities were behind an assassination plot against him.

More 'Carrot,' Less 'Stick'

That said, there are possible reasons for this new Uzbek diplomacy.

In the case of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, water has always been one of Uzbekistan's key interests in relations. In the past, Uzbekistan cut off supplies to natural gas to its two eastern neighbors when Tashkent was displeased with moves in Bishkek or Dushanbe, as almost always happened when either country spoke about building large hydropower plants on the rivers that flowed into Uzbekistan. Tashkent has maintained that construction of those huge hydropower plants threatens the water supply to Uzbekistan's agricultural fields.

That form of pressure no longer works, since both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have turned to their abundant domestic supplies of coal to wean themselves off Uzbek gas. In Kyrgyzstan's case, Bishkek sold the state natural-gas company to Russia's Gazprom which uses gas from sites it has helped develop in Uzbekistan to serve the energy needs of Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan is still far from constructing the Kambar-Ata hydropower plant, the project that angered Karimov's government. Tajikistan might be closer to realizing the Roghun hydropower plant after the Italian firm Salinin Impregilo expressed interest in the project earlier this year.

So, Uzbekistan's new softer line toward its fellow Central Asian states might be a signal that Tashkent is willing to try the "carrot" rather resorting to the "stick," as it has for many years now.

Uzbekistan might also be considering the benefits of looser border controls, which could open the way for it to take advantage of its geographic position and become the main trade hub in Central Asia.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek services. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
While one commenter noted that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (right) may want to place loyalists in power after his term ends, it's not like Russia's Putin and Medvedev changing places.

Kyrgyzstan appears to be headed for a national referendum in December to vote on amendments to the constitution. Kyrgyzstan, since a 2010 referendum, is home to Central Asia's only parliamentary form of government but nearly all Kyrgyzstan's politicians concede the constitution could use some fine-tuning.

However, the timing of the upcoming referendum, approximately one year before the country holds its presidential election, has left many wondering if there isn't more to these amendments than just making adjustments to improve the parliamentary system of government.

To take a closer look at the referendum and the possible reasons for holding it this year, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss the issue. (This was prepared before Kyrgyzstan's parliament gave the third and final reading of the bill for making amendments to the constitution.)

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Bishkek, Tynchtykbek Chorotegin, professor at Kyrgyzstan's Jusup Balasagyn National University and also the former director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, participated. From Boston, Bakyt Beshimov, professor of international studies at Northeastern University and also a former deputy in Kyrgyzstan's parliament, joined the talk. And I had many questions about this referendum, so I joined in to see what I could learn about these amendments.

While many politicians in Kyrgyzstan agree there is a need to make some revisions in the constitution, Chorotegin pointed out that when the constitution was adopted in 2010 there was a stipulation that amendments could be made "only starting from September 2020."

Opponents of the referendum have noted this, questioning why it is so urgent to make amendments now rather than waiting until 2020.

Chorotegin said in the seeming haste to push through the referendum in parliament, many in Kyrgyzstan still have questions. "We had only a very short time to challenge this proposed draft and we didn't have another challenging draft constitution," which Chorotegin called "a bad thing because it repeats the previous mistakes in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, all the draft constitutions were proposed by the ruling parties and there was no option for another vision."

Atambaev's Legacy?

Opponents have other questions about the motives for conducting the referendum this year.

"The initiator of these amendments to the constitution is President Atambaev," Beshimov said, and voiced the concern some in Kyrgyzstan have now: "The question is why he has decided to initiate these amendments."

Almazbek Atambaev is constitutionally barred from seeking a second term after his six-year mandate expires in late 2017 and he has repeatedly said he will leave politics when he steps down as president.

Beshimov agreed that "these amendments seek more balance between the power of the president and prime minister and parliament," but he mentioned that "we know informal politics plays a huge role today in Kyrgyzstan."

Beshimov speculated that Atambaev might wish to continue playing a role in Kyrgyzstan's politics behind the scenes. But at the very least, Beshimov said, for "a president whose term is ending not to think about the future of his political legacy will be suicidal."

Therefore, "it would be ideal for him, for instance in the next presidential election to bring to power a president who will be completely loyal to him and having a prime minister who is very loyal to him and having a majority in the parliament," Beshimov added.

Chorotegin did not discount Atambaev's loyalists taking the reins of power but said Kyrgyzstan was unlikely to repeat a Russian scenario. "It is not like [President Vladimir] Putin and [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev changing each other after one term to another," Chorotegin said. "Kyrgyzstan is totally different, Mr. Atambaev said he will not seek another presidential term next year and at the same time he said he will not fight for his own person to follow him."

Still, Beshimov suggested that in a worst-case scenario, "If a future president will be strong enough and will decide to betray Atambaev and his influence over politics, he can initiate changes in the parliament and theoretically it is possible that our fractions in the parliament just will switch their allegiance and just join to the new president."

That would leave Atambaev vulnerable. "The opposition can bombard him with tons of 'kompromat' [compromising evidence of wrongdoing] against him and with no difficulties can undermine his reputation," Beshimov said and claimed there was such compromising material on many of Kyrgyzstan's politicians, not only Atambaev.

Atambaev's party, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won the most seats (38) in the October 2015 parliamentary elections, not enough for an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament but enough that the SDPK only needs alliances with two parties to form a coalition. Currently, five of the six parties in parliament are part of the ruling coalition, but the debate over the referendum has caused some cracks to appear in the coalition.

Chorotegin said, "Even if the coalition government will be divided it will not stop its activity, the process is going on, it will not be stopped."

So far the issue of the referendum has not aroused much public opposition. Chorotegin explained, "Usually people are not politicized until the real situation, the problem of amendments of the constitution is not clear for most of the people."

To prevent an outbreak of discontent over the referendum, Beshimov recommended that Atambaev "should give an these amendments and new version of the constitution that will be adopted on December 4 will serve for the true democratization of the Kyrgyz Republic."

The referendum will almost certainly be an issue during campaigning for next year's presidential election. There are many perennial problems the political opposition has used in the past to try to discredit those in power -- corruption, infrastructure problems, poverty, and others. Soon the opposition might have one more topic it can raise publicly. If opposition groups can show that somehow the new amendments work to the advantage of Atambaev or his party, and that this works to the disadvantage of Kyrgyzstan's people, it could create tensions quickly.

Chorotegin recalled the revolution of 2010 that chased then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev from power, however, and noted that when Kyrgyzstan's people do become politicized they have twice been able to oust presidents from office. "On April 7, 2010, people were much politicized, even though opposition leaders were arrested, people were coming out to the streets and fighting for Kyrgyz democracy."

The Majlis discussed these and other issues in detail. You can listen to the full podcast here:

Majlis Podcast: Kyrgyzstan To Amend Constitution
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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

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.



Majlis Podcast: The Backlash Against Art -- And Feminism -- In Kyrgyzstan
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Majlis Podcast: The Backlash Against Art -- And Feminism -- In Kyrgyzstan
Podcast: Majlis