Uzbekistan is looking west, Turkmenistan east
Hurrah presidents Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov (Turkmenistan) and Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan)! Their meeting in Tashkent became an apotheosis of the famous Central Asian hospitality and a demonstration of constructive cooperation (or willingness to advance it). At the very least, this is how it looked to numerous photo and TV cameras.
Millions in both countries watched Karimov the amicable host and Berdymuhammedov the guest of honor singing each other hosannah and reassuring each other again and again of inviolability of their friendship and immense benefits of their partnership. The Russian language is too poor to express all flowery compliments and rhetoric.
When two-day exchange of amiabilities and protocol functions was finally over, Berdymuhammedov and Karimov boasted of having found ways and means to promote interaction and bilateral cooperation. Their firm handshake in front of official delegations flanked by TV cameras put an end to the so called Ice Age in the relations between two neighbor states that had begun in 2002 when official Ashkhabad accused Tashkent of covert support of Turkmen opposition.
Everything is forgotten and forgiven now. Commenting on the agreements signed, leaders of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were unbelievably eloquent. "We view this visit as a confirmation of the advancing Uzbek-Turkmen relations," Karimov said. "The documents we signed confirm commonalty of the determination of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to develop political dialogue and advance mutually beneficial cooperation based on friendship and mutual trust."
"This meeting here today is a logical continuation of the Ashkhabad summit that elevated the Turkmen-Uzbek relations to a wholly new level," Berdymuhammedov matched the host's high-flown style. "These constructive relations are based on friendship, mutual respect, and commonalty of interests." The presidents kept complimenting each other on "the reforms under way" in the counterpart's country, emphasizing their peace-loving policies, and wishing peoples of the two countries successes and accomplishments on the way of creation and prosperity.
There is actually more to the discord between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan than the quarrel between Saparmurat Niyazov and Karimov several years ago.
Two neighbors, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are still unable to reach an agreement on the joint use of the waters of the Amudarja. (The largest river in the Central Asian region, it runs through Turkmenistan.) The pumps installed in the Soviet era take water to the Uzbek irrigation system. The water-distribution problem always becomes pressing and tension mounts in summer when the fields in both countries require a great deal of water.
Transit is another stumbling stone in the bilateral relations. Last year, Uzbekistan was compelled to raise money from foreign sponsors to build a railroad in the mountains that connected the Surkhandarja region with the rest of Uzbekistan bypassing Turkmenistan. Transit via Turkmenistan before that had cost Tashkent over $400,000 every year.
The bilateral relations are also marred by gas fields on the territories both countries claim ownership to and by encroachment on the rights of ethnic Uzbeks in Turkmenistan and ethnic Turkmens in Uzbekistan. The Turkmenbashi's last meeting with Karimov in 2004 was a failure. Nothing indicated any forthcoming changes in the relations between the two countries even when Niyazov passed on and was replaced with Berdymuhammedov in early 2007.
The situation is changing. Geopolitical interest in the developments in Central Asia, in its economic prospects and strategic resources became a catalyst for official Ashkhabad. Turkmenistan's neutrality never prevented Berdymuhammedov from mounting an active foreign political campaign aimed to do away with isolation of his country. Tashkent was there to encourage this trend.
It turned out all of a sudden Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have a lot in common, beginning with the caution with which these countries are treated by the European Union and America who question the situation with democratic standards and human rights in these two countries. There are also environmental problems, availability of drinking water and water for irrigation, shortage of foodstuffs, write-ups, impoverishment, corruption, transfrontier crime, smuggling, trafficking, controlled Internet, and scorching summer heat. It turned out as well that each country desperately needs a reliable ally to promote its interests in Central Asia and beyond and to withstand political and economic pressure from other countries of the region.
Judge for yourselves. Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan need help to deal with the threats and challenges stemming from Afghanistan nearby - Islamic extremism, terrorism, trafficking. Each country needs economic cooperation with this highly unstable neighbor to try and minimize the level of tension on the borders.
Where energy is concerned, Ashkhabad and Tashkent both are involved in the joint project with Russia and Kazakhstan concerning construction of the Caspian Gas Pipeline, an element of the Central Asia - Center framework. Both capitals wouldn't mind diversifying gas export routes at the same time. Turkmenistan became the first country in Central Asia to do something about dependance on Russia as a transit country. An agreement with China was signed. Construction of a gas pipeline to this country is expected to be over in two years time. Part of this strategic pipeline will run across the Uzbek territory. This why Berdymuhamedov goes out of his way to please Karimov, Honorary Elder of the Turkmen people and the best friend of every Turkmen alive.
Uzbekistan itself, a country with substantial gas reserves on its territory, needs new transport routes and investments in its gas industry. Not necessarily Russian investments, that is. That is why is has been casting hopeful looks west, at Turkmenistan. The worsening global shortage of energy resources may make new joint oil and gas projects a reality in no time at all.
The European Union included Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan into the European Commission's new programs of cooperation (international and bilateral) with Central Asia, last summer. It is another basis for development of partnership and promotion of Ashkhabad's and Tashkent's interests in the West.
There are other aspects of cooperation that should be mentioned. Speaking of the agreements made in Tashkent, Berdymuhammedov emphasized "complete mutual understanding" on pressing regional and international issues including matters of peace, security, stability, and stable development.
The message got through. Karimov on behalf of Uzbekistan seconded Turkmenistan's foreign policy and complimented Ashkhabad on the recent opening of the UN Preventive Diplomacy Regional Center in it. Karimov said his country was happy to cooperate with this structure.
Drawing Turkmenistan into the orbit of its own political and economic interests, Tashkent solidifies its positions in the strategic contest for regional leadership against Kazakhstan. Keeping its plans to establish a Central Asian Union to itself for the time being, official Astana dangles before Ashkhabad the carrot of investments promised and mutually beneficial cooperation offered.
There is one other nuance to be taken into account. Being over 70, Karimov cannot help thinking of successors. He knows that he must leave the successor a country without problems at least in the western direction (discounting the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Afghani ones). Determined to revise and ameliorate relations with the rest of the world, Berdymuhammedov must have certainly found this intention on the Uzbek president's part to his liking.
* * *
Sergei Arbenin - independent analyst residing in Bishkek. This piece was written exclusively for Ferghana.Ru news agency