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Uzbekistan: Tashkent At The Center Of Regional Tensions

Relations in Central Asia are approaching an all-time low. The reasons for this are not difficult to see. Uzbekistan lies in the center of Central Asia, and the economic difficulties it is now experiencing have prompted border closures with its neighbors. More disturbingly, Turkmenistan has accused Uzbekistan of complicity in the late-November assassination attempt against the Turkmen president.

Prague, 27 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Relations between the five Central Asian states appear to be at an all-time postindependence low. At the geographic heart of the problem is Uzbekistan, whose economic woes have weakened ties with its neighbors, and which has found itself facing allegations of complicity in the November assassination attempt against Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Steve Sabol is a history professor at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Central Asia. He said relations between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were already poor, and have declined even more since the failed assassination plot. "I would suggest that [Turkmen-Uzbek relations] are probably at their lowest level, the worst they ever had. There have certainly been other assassination attempts -- against [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov, for example -- but that did not implicate other states in the way that this assassination attempt on Niyazov seems to have. So the level of cooperation over a lot of issues -- the war on terror, the Caspian Sea issue, the Aral Sea -- now are all put on the back burner with probably no chance to resolve any of them. So I would subscribe to the idea they are at the worst level since independence, following the assassination attempt," Sabol said.

Turkmenistan's investigation into the assassination attempt took a strange turn when Turkmen security forces raided Uzbekistan's embassy in Asghabat in mid-December. Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry protested loudly over the incident but went silent when the lead suspect in the assassination attempt admitted that Uzbek security forces had helped him enter the country, and that he had taken refuge in the Uzbek Embassy after the attempt on the Turkmen president's life failed.

Some observers have alleged the suspect was beaten and drugged into making his confession. But the accusations against Uzbekistan nonetheless succeeded in further souring an already bitter relationship between the two countries.

Alex Brideau is a CIS analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group, a consulting group for emerging markets. He explained the tense situation that has evolved along the Turkmen-Uzbek border as a result of the assassination allegations. "The issues between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan right now are a little ill-defined and have led to increased security measures on the borders, an increased number of checkpoints, as well as exercises on the part of the Uzbek security forces along the border," Brideau said.

The assassination controversy is reminiscent of a 1998 armed incursion into Tajikistan by a mutinous Tajik army colonel, who led a large group of armed men into northern Tajikistan near the border with Uzbekistan. The group was eventually routed, but Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov later accused Uzbekistan of aiding the renegade officer in his attempted coup d'etat.

Alex Vatanka is the editor of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security-assessment publication based in London. He pointed out that current poor relations between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan stem from the early 1990s, when Ashgabat refused to allow Tashkent to ship gas through its territory and across the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan itself is a supplier of natural gas and was therefore reluctant to help a rival exporter.

Turkmenistan is not Uzbekistan's only troublesome neighbor. Tashkent has also closed its borders with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Vatanka said the closures are a result of the ailing Uzbek economy. "You're confronted with the issue of the viability of these economies, and Uzbekistan has obviously shown that it does not see itself in a position where it wants to compete regionally on economic terms. It does not believe that it can compete with Kazakhstan at this moment in time."

Uzbek officials have justified the closure of the Kazakh border by citing concerns over the quality of food imported from that country. But analysts have raised the possibility that the move was more likely the result of capital flight from Uzbekistan or the inability of Uzbek border guards to keep traders from bringing in unreported and untaxed goods.

Brideau of the Eurasia Group dismissed Uzbekistan's stated reasons for closing the border. "Food quality does not appear to have been the problem. Certainly the authorities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have questioned those issues. I believe Uzbekistan also was saying that they were trying to combat an influenza outbreak. But the real reason here seems to be issues concerning Uzbek citizens crossing the border into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan recently to procure food and other items that are being subject to much stronger import duties in the last six months," Brideau said.

An unpopular tax introduced at bazaars last summer in Uzbekistan's northern Tashkent region, not far from the border with Kazakhstan -- as well as an increase in customs duties -- led to a large amount of smuggling, bartering, and unreported sales.

Vatanka of "Jane's Sentinel" says Kazakh merchants were literally reaping the profits from the Uzbek government's decision. "Kazakh traders have been able to provide goods at more competitive prices to their Uzbek customers who come over from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan to purchase these goods. Obviously that is an outflow of currency from the Uzbek perspective and that is something a centrally controlled economy, as Uzbekistan is, would not look at favorably."

But Vatanka said Uzbekistan's quick decision to close the border violated treaties signed with Kazakhstan that specify a prior notice of 72 hours before such a closure.

The decision to close the Kyrgyz border was likely the result of a similar problem with imported goods. The Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, like the Tajik-Uzbek border, is often closed, seemingly at the discretion of Uzbek border officials.

Vatanka said the Central Asian governments should be doing much more to promote, rather than block, regional trade. Looking at other economic blocs, he notes that in the European Union, for example, trade among member states amounts to 60 to 70 percent of an individual country's imports and exports. The situation in Central Asia is quite different, he said. "Trade would be a good way for these countries to establish and consolidate their ties. It would benefit the very needy in these societies and you find that a large proportion of the people in these five states are quite needy."

But as long as the Uzbek government is not interested in cooperating with its neighbors, such trade is impossible. Uzbekistan is at the center of Central Asia. It is the only country that borders all the other four states, and as long as Uzbekistan acts unilaterally -- and, in the case of Turkmenistan, elicits suspicion -- there is little chance relations in the region will improve.