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Tajikistan, Turkmenistan Refuse To Sign Friendship Treaty At Central Asian Summit

The presidents of Turkmenistan (left to right), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan pose at the Central Asian summit in Cholpon-Ata on July 21.
The presidents of Turkmenistan (left to right), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan pose at the Central Asian summit in Cholpon-Ata on July 21.

Hopes for greater cooperation among the five Central Asian countries in the foreseeable future were dashed when Tajikistan and Turkmenistan refused to sign a new agreement on friendship and cooperation at a key regional summit in Kyrgyzstan on July 21.

The two countries said they would first "complete all domestic procedures" before committing to the agreement on Friendship, Neighborliness, and Cooperation for the Development of Central Asia in the 21st Century, the most important document at the high-level meeting attended by all five Central Asian presidents.

But Tajik and Turkmen officials offered no time frame for when the "procedures" will be done or what exactly needs to be done.

Analysts dismissed it as an excuse, saying that in authoritarian countries like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all major political decisions rest with the presidents themselves, not with the people or the parliaments.

"For them, 'domestic procedures' don't play any role. If they were genuinely interested in this agreement, they would have signed it then and there," said Alisher Ilkhamov, an analyst at the British-based Central Asia Due Diligence.

Ilkhamov says he wasn't surprised by Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov's decision not to sign the document, as his country has often distanced itself from regional treaties and integration initiatives.

Turkmenistan is not a member of any of the major regional groupings, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union, or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon's refusal to sign the new agreement was linked by experts to a long-standing border dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that has included violent clashes on many occasions that have killed dozens, destroyed homes, and displaced thousands of people.

"Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have repeatedly said border issues will be resolved in a bilateral format," Tajik political analyst Sherali Rizoiyon said.

Rizoiyon described it as a "reasonable approach, as the two directly deal with each other without a third actor."

Some 35 percent of the countries' 970-kilometer border has yet to be demarcated in an ongoing process by Tajik and Kyrgyz officials.

Speaking at the summit, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev offered to assist the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments to find a peaceful solution to their border dispute and prevent further violence.

The main agreement in Cholpon-Ata was signed by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
The main agreement in Cholpon-Ata was signed by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

The full and final text of the treaty that was signed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan was not made immediately public.

According to official government websites, one of the main articles of the agreement states that the countries will refrain from using force -- or threatening to use force -- against each other, will work toward peace and security, and coordinate efforts to counter challenges and security threats.

Even before it began, the gathering of the five presidents in the resort town of Cholpon-Ata was seen by some experts as an opportunity for the Central Asian countries to set out a road map for more unity and cooperation without relying on powerful external players, such as Russia and China.

The summit took place as Russia, the region's historic strategic partner with whom it shares the Soviet experience, is waging a brutal war in Ukraine and facing severe Western sanctions because of it -- putting an enormous strain on Russia's economy and its military.

Despite Russia's apparent diminishing influence in Central Asia, experts warn that Moscow's continued leverage in the region -- especially over poorer countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- shouldn't be underestimated. Russia remains a major trade partner and investor in Central Asia, while the region also depends on Russia for transit and pipeline routes.

Moscow has limited Kazakhstan's access to the key Caspian Pipeline Consortium pipeline several times in recent months, a move widely seen as retaliation by the Kremlin after Nur-Sultan refused to recognize separatist-held territories in Ukraine as independent states.

Analyst Ilkhamov says Russia will continue to try to derail any potential integration initiatives in Central Asia and hamper any efforts to diversity trade and pipeline routes.

"Russia will begin to act behind the scenes to put pressure on each country -- both through bilateral relations and by means of the Moscow-led regional groupings CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union."

In Tajikistan, many believe that their country's social stability depends on Moscow, as hundreds of thousands of Tajik households depend on remittances from relatives working in Russia.

"Russia can find an alternative for labor force to replace Tajiks, but Tajiks don't have another alternative, another country, that would take in millions of migrant workers," said a political science professor at Khujand State University, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He added that he "wouldn't rule out that one reason Dushanbe's hesitance to sign the treaty in Cholpon-Ata was it didn't want to anger Moscow."

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