ASTANA -- Four Central Asian presidents met in Kazakhstan for the first regional summit in almost a decade, a sign of improving ties following the death of divisive Uzbek leader Islam Karimov in 2016.
The host, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, described what he called a new "mood" in the region ahead of the March 15 meeting with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.
The leaders resolved to seek equitable agreements on sharing precious water resources, boost regional trade, and hold a summit every year before the Norouz holiday, Nazarbaev said after the meeting.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov stayed away and the most isolated of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia was represented by Turkmenistan’s parliament chief, Akja Nurberdyeva.
At a meeting with Jeenbekov hours before the summit started, Nazarbaev said that the five nations were capable of resolving all regional issues themselves.
"There is no need to call an outsider to resolve issues of the Central Asian nations, we are able to resolve everything ourselves -- that is why we are meeting," Nazarbaev said.
Nazarbaev also held separate talks with Mirziyoev -- who succeeded Karimov after his death was announced in September 2016 -- ahead of the meeting.
"It's been just a year since you came to power and in that year we have done huge work, we have set up ties with our neighbors, resolved some issues that had remained unsolved for decades," Nazarbaev said.
"Our mood now is different than it was before.... Today we are meeting with our colleagues, brothers, " Nazarbaev said, adding that he is "sincerely happy that you came."
During the autocratic Karimov's 27-year rule in Central Asia's most populous nation, its relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan were strained by disputes over transit routes, border security, water resources, and other issues.
At the opening of the summit, Nazarbaev said that the gathering had been proposed by Mirziyoev, who has taken steps to improve his country's ties with its neighbors since he came to power.
"Kazakhstan has always wanted close economic cooperation with all our neighbors, especially Central Asian countries, with whom we share a common history, a common culture, a common understanding and vision of the world," he said.
"Uniting our countries' potentials is advantageous for all peoples living in the region," Nazarbaev said. "The development of regional trade is advantageous, strengthening regional security is important for us.".
The six other Central Asian summits convened since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 produced few results amid sometimes sharp differences among the leaders, including particularly tense relations between Karimov and Nazarbaev.
The most recent summit, in April 2009 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, focused solely on the problems of the shrinking Aral Sea.
Talks at the March 15 meeting touched on a wide range of issues including water rights, which experts say is a potential source of severe tension in the region.
"A major issue is problems around water sharing. Our countries have 70 million people living here around two major rivers -- the Amudarya and the Syrdarya -- and we agreed today that no political bargaining is acceptable in that matter," Nazarbaev said.
"We must resolve water issues in the interests of all our countries, including issues related to hydropower construction, water releases, and electricity sharing," he said
Nazarbaev also said that the presidents agreed to look into possibilities to increase the trading of goods and resources they produce rather than importing them from other countries.
He said that from now on, the Central Asian leaders would meet annually ahead of the Norouz (New Year) holiday, which is marked in Central Asia on the vernal equinox, which falls between March 20 and March 23.
Next year's summit will be held in Tashkent.