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Central Asia: Uzbek, Turkmen Leaders Pursue Better Relations

Presidents Karimov, Vladimir Putin, and Berdymukhammedov (left to right) at a CIS summit in October (AFP) The presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are hailing their improved ties following a rare visit to Tashkent this week by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan.

In the latest sign that Central Asia's major gas suppliers are getting closer after a long period of tension, Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Berdymukhammedov concluded two days of talks on March 11 by signing a series of documents on improving bilateral relations. The meetings were watched closely in Moscow, Washington, and Beijing -- the powers competing for the energy resources of the two neighbors.

"I would like to stress my great satisfaction and gratitude to the president of Turkmenistan for the attention he has paid to his state visit," Karimov said after the meetings. His Turkmen counterpart added: "We have common roots and historic ties, and this visit will serve to further improve our bilateral co-operation."

It was a far cry from 2002. That's when bilateral ties collapsed completely after Ashgabat expelled the Uzbek ambassador for alleged links to a failed bid to assassinate former President Sapamurat Niyazov, who died in late 2006.

While little of substance has emerged from these latest talks, the symbolism is important: two former foes are working to improve relations, which has a direct bearing on regional security and economics. If they can resolve key disputes -- particularly over their border, which remains unclearly defined, harbors untapped gas deposits, and complicates day-to-day living of thousands of people -- the impact could be immense.

"Berdymukhammedov's first official visit to Uzbekistan opens a new stage in Turkmen-Uzbek relations," says Oguljamal Yazliyeva, director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "It is very important for Turkmenistan to cooperate with Uzbekistan to benefit from exporting its energy resources."

She adds that Ashgabat also wants to expand trade and economic cooperation, including exports of chemical, agricultural, and textile products to Uzbekistan. "Uzbek enterprises are using this new atmosphere of cooperation to open branches in Turkmenistan," Yazliyeva says.

But for now, people in both countries might be hoping that substance eventually follows form.

One Uzbek reporter present at the presidents' news conference in Tashkent on March 10 notes that Karimov appeared extremely friendly toward his Turkmen counterpart. "He was in a very good mood," the reporter says. "He praised and showed respect toward the Turkmen leader [and] he said that Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist, had become an honorary doctor of medicine at the Tashkent Academy of Medicine."

Sanobar Shermatova, a Moscow-based expert on Central Asia, says Berdymukhammedov and Karimov appear to have hit it off immediately. He says that while the vainglorious Uzbek leader "hated Niyazov," Karimov and Berdymukhammedov "found a common language" at their first meeting in Ashgabat in October.

The talks last fall were seen as landmark, with a five-year economic-cooperation deal agreed. In fact, the talks went so well that many observers had expected more substantial results from the Tashkent summit.

Official Uzbek media reported on the second day of the visit that the presidents discussed bilateral relations and signed six documents, including deals on cooperation in agriculture as well as a protocol on cooperation between their foreign ministries.

Russia's "Vremya Novostei" daily speculated that cooperation in the gas sphere "undoubtedly" topped the agenda of the private talks. The report said the issue of natural-gas deliveries from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan through Kazakhstan to Russia were likely to be discussed at a gathering of those four countries' leaders in May, during an expected tour of Central Asia by new Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev.

But in a possible sign of the potential economic leverage that their friendly cooperation can confer on Tashkent and Ashgabat, Russian gas giant Gazprom announced on March 11 that starting in 2009, it will cease to buy Central Asian gas at cut-rate prices and instead will begin purchasing it at higher European rates. The message is that if Ashgabat and Tashkent can coordinate on energy rather than undercut each other's prices, then they will profit all the more -- even if European consumers ultimately foot the bill.

Gazprom made the announcement in a statement following talks in Moscow between its chief executive officer, Aleksei Miller, and the heads of the national-gas companies of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile, the people who live along the Turkmen-Uzbek border -- those most affected by tense relations between their countries -- are hoping diplomacy can bring more concrete improvements to their own lives.

Turkmen and Uzbeks on either side of the border have intermarried for centuries. But a strict visa regime arose in response to the bilateral chill, making family visits and cross-border small business nearly impossible.

"We have relatives in Bukhara, Karakol, and other places [in Uzbekistan]," says Turkmen writer Hudayberdy Hallyev. "Our girls married guys in Uzbekistan, [and] Uzbek girls became the wives of our guys. So the relations between us are very good. I want with all my heart for relations to improve. All paths to each other should be open."

RFE/RL's Uzbek and Turkmen services contributed to this report