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Central Asia: Kyrgyz President Returns From Astana With Wheat-Export Deal

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) held talks in Astana with visiting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev (official site) Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev has returned home after a two-day visit to Kazakhstan, where he held talks with President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Energy, water, food, and migrant labor topped the agenda of the talks.

Ties between the Central Asian neighbors have been strained since Bakiev came to power following political upheaval in 2005, and they faced further challenges in the wake of a recent Kazakh ban on wheat exports. But they now appear back on track.

Bakiev's hopes to renew the traditionally good ties between the two neighboring states appears to have achieved some success, at least according to Medet Sadyrkulov, the head of his presidential administration.

"The [official visit] was successful," Sadyrkulov says. "Now we have arrived in Bishkek. Our President Kurmanbek Salievich [Bakiev] is in his office now. All the questions planned for the agenda [of the visit] were discussed. The [main event] was the Interstate Council. All the issues which were planned to be discussed at the session of the Interstate Council have been resolved."

More specifically, Bakiev said after returning to Bishkek that Nazarbaev had assured him that Ashgabat's recently announced ban on wheat exports would not apply to Kyrgyzstan, which imports about 20 percent of its wheat from Kazakhstan.

Relations between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have long been close for many reasons. Their languages are similar, as are their traditions. But when former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev was chased from power in March 2005, Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations went through a difficult period. All of Central Asia watched the events with concern. None of the other regional leaders wanted anything similar happening on their territories.

Central Asia's 'El Dorado'

Kazakhstan never lost touch with its neighbor, however, and there are many reasons for the two countries to maintain close relations. Kazakhstan has become an El Dorado for the rest of Central Asia, a country with vast oil and natural gas resources. Laborers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan often find work there.

Bakiev indicated after meeting with his Kazakh counterpart that progress was made in addressing Kyrgyzstan's needs for energy supplies.

"We discussed the possibilities of Kazakhstan's participation in financing a second gas pipeline -- Tashkent-Bishkek-Almaty -- that would run through the territory of Kyrgyzstan," Bakiev said. "And we also looked at the possibility of including Kyrgyzstan in transnational projects for supplies of blue fuel [natural gas]."

The two presidents also agreed to hold a conference in Kazakhstan in 2009 to create a Central Asian economic union to focus on better distributing regional energy and water supplies among the five Central Asian states. Bakiev noted that some countries have been reluctant to commit to the union, which Nazarbaev first proposed several years ago.

Nazarbaev also reminded that it would be prudent for the Central Asian states to meet and formulate a common plan for dealing with Europe since the region has "resources" that Europe needs.

"By the way, I said the same at the European Union," Nazarbaev said. "I am convinced that Europe will absolutely need Asia because the resources of Asia -- human, material -- this resource base will be needed in Europe for its development."

Bakiev also noted progress in resolving the migrant-labor issue. In recent years, scores of Kyrgyz citizens have been deported from Kazakhstan for working there illegally. Nazarbaev, speaking ahead of his talks with Bakiev, said a special agreement for Kyrgyz laborers was close.

"There is a request submitted by the Kyrgyz side to create for Kyrgyz citizens a 90-day visa-free regime in Kazakhstan," Nazarbaev said. "We are going to meet on that, taking into consideration our agreement on partnership and when we meet we will decide this question."

Deal Reached

Following the meeting, Bakiev said a deal had been reached.

"I am certain that the agreement will provide the basis for labor migrants and the signing of the agreement answers the interests of both sides for simplifying procedural mechanisms and accepting labor resources from Kyrgyzstan for working on the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan," he said.

The two presidents also agreed to create a special investment fund for joint projects. Bakiev suggested the deal would be advantageous for Kyrgyzstan since its rich neighbor would contribute the lion's share of funds. According to Bakiev, "If Kyrgyzstan puts $5 million into the fund, Kazakhstan will put $25 million into it." Bakiev said the money would be used for "direct private investment in Kyrgyzstan's economy."

Nazarbaev also spoke about Kazakhstan's role in helping the economy of northern Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul resort area, where the Kyrgyz parliament recently approved a measure to lease Kazakhstan four hotels for 49 years.

"We personally thank you and your parliament for solving the problem of some Issyk-Kul-based resorts that belonged to Kazakhstan," he said. "After that, we will construct a highway from Uzyn-Agash to there. The road [to Lake Issyk-Kul] will be shortened by 250 kilometers. Most people who visit Issyk-Kul are Kazakhs. We believe that if we set the right conditions for them, if we develop Issyk-Kul's surroundings, it will help the Kyrgyz economy."

Nazarbaev also noted that his country is one of the main investors in Kyrgyzstan.

Erzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Director Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, and correspondent Meerim Sultangazy in Bishkek contributed to this report