Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 98

In an apparent bid to win acclaim by launching a regional integration initiative, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev used his February 2005 address to the nation to propose the creation of a union of Central Asian states on the basis of agreements on eternal friendship among Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Yet one year later, in his 2006 presidential address, Nazarbayev said not a word about the union, which had faded into oblivion before it was even properly conceptualized.

In an environment where the Central Asian states are moving further and further apart, Astana is increasingly finding it difficult to come to terms with regional rivalries that often culminate in open hostility. On April 19 Bauyrzhan Akhmetov, a 24-year-old resident of Saryagash district, South Kazakhstan, was beaten unconscious by Uzbek border guards and abducted to Uzbekistan where he was later hospitalized with life-threatening head injuries. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry issued a note of protest that described the behavior of the Uzbek border guards as “unacceptable [and] unlawful in legal and political terms.” The Foreign Ministry demanded Akhmetov’s immediate release. Further escalating tensions, Uzbekistan responded to the Kazakh accusations of border violations with a ban on exports of Uzbek vegetables and fruits to South Kazakhstan. Local government representatives from South Kazakhstan, who had planned to conduct talks with Uzbek counterparts on April 25, were told that the Uzbek side was not ready to receive the Kazakh delegation (Central Asia Monitor, April 28).

The border incident, which took place one month after the Tashkent meeting between Nazarbayev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, points to the lack of bilateral trust endemic to the region. Kazakhstan’s ties with other Central Asian countries do not reveal common goals. On a recent visit to Astana, for example, Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov promised deliveries of Tajik vegetables to the Kazakh market. The two sides discussed cooperation within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Community and the near-defunct Commonwealth of Independent States. Yet Astana is unhappy about the growing presence of Tajik labor migrants in Kazakhstan, which the Kazakh Embassy in Tajikistan estimates number 200,000. Many of them are illegal migrants (Central Asia Monitor, May 12). Astana is also wary of Tajikistan’s efforts to expand its energy ties with China. Analysts warn that the imminent competition among Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan for Chinese markets may escalate into fierce disputes.

Astana’s current relations of with Bishkek are not as warm as they were under the regime of former President Askar Akayev. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev will likely encounter a number of sticking points during his upcoming visit to Kazakhstan, scheduled for June 5-6. Although border agreements between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have been formally signed, they still await ratification. In many sections of the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border, control is so weak that the Kazakh border authorities are no longer in a position to stem the growing flow of illegal labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan. Obviously this issue will be at the top of the agenda for Nazarbayev’s talks with Bakiyev.

The armed skirmishes that took place on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border on May 12 remind that Kazakhstan’s southern borders are increasingly vulnerable to extremist attacks. However, Bishkek continues to resist, under various pretexts, Astana’s attempts to turn back the tide of labor migrants and would like to preserve the status quo on the border. Kyrgyz state secretary Adakhan Madumarov, visiting Astana on May 12, said that the Kyrgyz side had offered proposals on border regulations to the Kazakh authorities, and he predicted that some of the issues would be solved before the two presidents meet in Astana.

Another issue that may overshadow Bakiyev’s visit to Astana is the continuing dispute over energy and water resources. Kyrgyzstan has refused to supply South Kazakhstan with cheap electricity, explaining that no appropriate agreements have been signed between the governments. The problem is that the agreement signed in April by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan on joint use of the energy resources of the Toktogul hydroelectric power station in Kyrgyzstan has not been ratified. According to Madumarov, Uzbekistan has little interest in the agreement (Khabar TV, May 12).

Over the last two years, Astana has intensified its efforts to boost Kazakhstan’s international image, hosting high-profile policymakers from the United States and the European Union. Western diplomats invariably stress the “leading position” of Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Such assessments may have some ideological value for Astana, but in practical terms offer very little help in settling Astana’s deep-rooted differences with its neighbors. Moreover, some political scientists fear that the continuing competition among China, Russia, and the United States sows the seeds of disunity among Central Asian states, setting them against each other. Theoretically, it would be in the best interests of the three great powers to deal with a politically stable and economically prosperous union of independent states in the oil-rich Caspian region. But the chaotic nature of relations among the Central Asian countries and the lack of political will to form a viable economic and political alliance remain impediments to integrating the region into the global community of democratic states.