2012-10-23 by Richard Weitz
One way Uzbekistan is responding to the new Central Asian environment is by moving closer to Kazakhstan.
The two countries are the two most influential of the “stans,” having the largest land mass and population in Central Asia. Uzbekistan is also Kazakhstan’s major trading partner within Central Asia.
This September, in his first official bilateral visit to Kazakhstan since April 2008, President Islam Karimov and other senior Uzbekistani officials discussed a range of important bilateral, regional, and international issues with their Kazakhstani counterparts in Astana on September 6-7, 2012.
These topics included boosting two-way economic ties, discouraging other Central Asian countries from taking actions that threatened their water supplies, and discussing how to manage the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan. Karimov cited the ongoing withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan and other regional challenges as requiring that Tashkent and Astana to formulate joint policies aimed at “preserving and strengthening stability and general well-being in our region.”
Karimov and Nazarbayev accordingly pledged to coordinate their activities in regional and international organizations in areas of mutual interest. These include the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the United Nations. With respect to the SCO, the presidents agreed to work to expand the SCO’s capacities to effectively meet the contemporary challenges and threats. Their agreement presumably aims to overcome the problem that arose in June 2012, when Uzbekistan prohibited Kazakhstan’s troops and equipment from transiting through Uzbekistani territory to join a SCO exercise in Tajikistan, forcing the Kazakhstani troops and equipment to make a detour through the Kyrgyz Republic.
The two presidents expressed grave concern about the situation in Afghanistan and their support for resolving the conflict as soon as possible. They reaffirmed their commitment to contribute to the socio-economic reconstruction of Afghanistan. Yet, Uzbekistan has more interests at stake in the Afghanistan conflict than Kazakhstan. Not only do they share a common border as direct neighbors, but also many ethnic Uzbeks reside in Afghanistan. Even so, Kazakhstan has been assuming a leading role in offering young Afghans scholarships to study in Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan has helped construct Afghanistan’s infrastructure, including its Internet and incipient railway network.
This year the two countries, which both gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, have been marking the twentieth anniversary of their bilateral ties by hosting special cultural events that have seen artists from one country perform in the other.
Both presidents affirmed the strong community of interests and indivisibility of destinies of the two countries. They said they shared centuries of common history, common values, and similar native languages. Karimov observed that the leaders needed to meet more frequently. To this end, he invited Nazarbayev to visit Uzbekistan at a convenient time.
The interests of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan seem to overlap most on such national security issues, especially on regional water security issues and on countering threats from Muslim extremists.
On April 23, 2008, Nazarbayev affirmed the commitment of both countries to “combine efforts in the fight against extremism and drug trafficking from Afghanistan.”
During his March 2006 state visit to Uzbekistan, Nazarbayev told his hosts that they “defended the peace … not only of Uzbeks, but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks” by confronting “trained extremist groups” in Andijon the previous May. A few hours after Karimov concluded his 2008 visit to Kazakhstan, moreover, the Kazakhstani authorities arrested an asylum seeker whom the Uzbekistan government had accused of participating in the Andijan events.
Even so, Kazakhstan has not always followed Uzbekistan’s lead on these issues.
In March 2006, Kazakhstani authorities allowed one of Karimov’s fiercest domestic opponents, dissident Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov, to leave Kazakhstan for asylum in Europe a few days before Nazarbayev visited Uzbekistan rather than accede to Uzbek extradition requests.
The two countries’ economic ties are also strengthening. Kazakhstan has become Uzbekistan’s major trading partner in Central Asia.
Economic ties between the two countries are currently on the rebound. In 2011 bilateral trade exceeded 2.7 billion US dollars, a 47 percent increase over the same figures for 2010. During the first six months of 2012, bilateral trade reached $1.4 billion, an 18% increase over the first half of 2011. More than one half of Uzbekistan’s trade turnover with Central Asian countries is with Kazakhstan. They aim to double their trade within the next few years.
Furthermore, Kazakhstani and Uzbekistani investors have established hundreds of joint business ventures. According to Kazakhstani sources, more than seven hundred small and medium scale enterprises operate in Kazakhstan with some Uzbek investment. These joint ventures operate in such commercial sectors as food, pharmaceutics, construction, chemicals, and manufacturing. In Uzbekistan, Kazakhstani capital is concentrated in the cotton fiber, construction, and chemical industries. The two countries are engaged in various multinational projects that would increase the flow of gas from and through their territories to Russia, China, and other countries. Kazakhstani firms already use Uzbekistan’s territory as a transshipment route for some non-energy exports.
Since both countries became independent in 1991, their governments have signed more than one hundred bilateral agreements. The most important of these documents include the Program of the Economic Cooperation between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for 2006-2010 and the Strategy of the Economic Cooperation between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for 2007-2016. Nevertheless, many of their bilateral agreements have not been fully implemented. The similar economic profile of both countries, along with their excessive customs duties and border controls, unduly constrain their bilateral commerce.
Another earlier source of tension that has faded over time is that some Uzbek nationalists have asserted claims to territories in southern Kazakhstan that once belonged to medieval Uzbek Khanates.
In 2000, Uzbekistani border guards unilaterally moved border markers deep into Kazakhstan’s territory. Kazakhstan’s contentious and difficult border demarcations with Uzbekistan were finalized only in August 2002. Even so, in September 2003, the Kazakhstani Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that its border service had detected 1,127 border violations “by the Uzbek side” since the previous November. Another complication is the large number of illegal immigrants from Uzbekistan that work in Kazakhstan, especially at urban construction sites and in the cotton fields of southern Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstani leaders see establishing good ties with neighboring Uzbekistan as essential for advancing their regional integration agenda.
In March 2006, Nazarbayev observed, “The geopolitical situation in our region and the future of integration processes among our neighbors depends on Kazakh-Uzbek relations.”
Yet, Karimov has dismissed the Kazakhstani concept of a Central Asian Union as premature. Karimov’s pessimism regarding Nazarbayev Union of Central Asian States may reflect the difficulties the two countries experienced after they agreed to establish a bilateral customs union in 1994. Karimov recalled during his April 2008 trip to Astana that problems with this structure led the two governments to join additional regional economic structures (e.g., the Central Asian Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Community), which also proved largely ineffective. We’ve been through it already,” he remarked to journalists.
But Karimov’s opposition also reflects longstanding Uzbekistan’s aversion to Kazakhstani-led regional integration initiatives, which Uzbekistani leaders perceive as efforts to strengthen and legitimize Kazakhstan’s primacy in Central Asia.
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, along with their presidents, are commonly seen as perennial competitors for regional primacy. Uzbekistan has the largest population (some 30 million compared with Kazakhstan’s 16 million), but Kazakhstan has the richest natural resources (especially oil) and most successful economy (measured in terms of comparative growth rates and levels of foreign investment).
Now the challenge of responding to a resurgent Taliban threat may be inducing to set aside their historical rivalries to address these common challenges.