Staunton, November 23 – One of the many misfortunes of regions that are not at the center of constant attention by the international community is that they attract such attention only for stories that are either amusing or appalling, something that means that more important developments often pass unnoticed.
Thus, this week, many news outlets in Russia and elsewhere have been having fun with stories about Kazakhstan’s plan to rename its capital after its current president Nursultan Nazarbayev or featuring reports, as yet unconfirmed, about the death and possible murder of the late Uzbekistan president’s daughter.
But in doing so, these outlets have done a disservice not only to Central Asia but also to those who seek to understand what is taking place there or who are responsible for maintaining of developing relations with the five countries of the region, one that by virtue of its location and burgeoning population is becoming ever more important.
Among the trends that most have missed is a remarkable effort by the post-Karimov government in Tashkent to resolve some of the longstanding problems it has had with its neighbors over borders, water supply, and transportation links, problems that have limited the ability of the region to cooperate.
And to the extent that these conflicts are resolved, not only will Uzbekistan, the largest country in the region by population, be able to play a larger leadership role in Central Asia as a whole but it will also mean that the region will be more united, limiting the ability of Moscow or anyone else to play one country off against another.
A happy exception to this pattern of inattention to the most important is an article by Viktoriya Panfilova in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” which calls attention to this process, one that is even broader because it is not only about Uzbek-Tajik relations, always neuralgic, but also about the Uzbek-Kyrgyz ones as well (ng.ru/cis/2016-11-22/6_6865_blanklist.html).
Over the last few weeks, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have resolved more than 70 of the border disputes that had kept tensions between those two countries high. Now, as Panfilova reports, Tashkent appears ready not only to do the same with Tajikistan but also to restart rail and air links between the Uzbek and Tajik capitals.
This week, Panfilova reports, Uzbek officials met in Dushanbe with their Tajik opposite numbers to discuss renewing rail connections between the two countries. They had earlier agreed to restart air links in March 2017. And the sides indicated that negotiations are now intensifying over the delimitation of the border.
The issue of railroad links is especially difficult for the two sides. Tashkent earlier promised to restore a branch in Tajikistan but then backed out, citing technical problems. But Tajik officials believe, Panfilova says, that the Uzbeks did so because they feared such a line would help Dushanbe complete the Rogun dam and thus limit water flows to Uzbekistan.
Relations between the two countries have been difficult for much of the last 20 years. In the 1990s, with a civil war raging in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan ended air links between the two countries, introduced visa requirements, and mined the state border lest militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan enter the country from Tajikistan.
All that, the Moscow journalist says, led to “a freezing of relations” and to a decline in trade. Fifteen years ago, bilateral trade amounted to some 500 million US dollars a year. By 2015, it had fallen to 12 million. There are hopes that the new accords will quickly reverse that trend.
Hopes for improvement had begun in 2014 when Islam Karimov visited Emomali Rakhmon in Dushanbe. But that meeting did not lead to many negotiations. Now with Shavkat Mirziyoyev in office in Tashkent, things are moving ahead on the diplomatic front with ministerial and working group meetings taking place in both capitals.
According to Stanislav Pritchin, an expert on the region at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, there is likely to be a spate of accords announced after the December 4 Uzbek elections, including quite possibly one lifting the visa regime between the two countries.