On October 18 Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov met with his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov for wide-ranging talks on international and regional issues. The summit was initially given only passing reference on Uzbek television, with reports mentioning the scheduled signing of cooperation documents (Uzbek TV First Channel, October 18). However, the summit cemented Turkmen-Uzbek ties and perhaps more significantly revealed a close personal bond between Karimov and Berdimukhamedov.
The Turkmen government press service particularly wanted to promote a positive view of the summit, suggesting it marked a “new era” in bilateral relations between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (Itar-Tass, October 18). Other media outlets soon picked up that theme, with reporting in both capitals that underscored a relationship that goes beyond just paper agreements.
Karimov spoke of the countries having a “joint future” likely to indicate Tashkent’s interests in forming a deep and durable partnership with Ashgabat. Karimov was presented with the Turkmen “Honored Elder” award, demonstrating, at least in symbolic terms, the level of seriousness Berdimukhamedov attaches to relations with Uzbekistan. “At talks that just ended, we thoroughly discussed all these issues of mutual interest. And I have to tell you today with great satisfaction that over almost all bilateral and multilateral issues that were discussed, we have common interests, common approaches, and common understanding,” Karimov said. Both leaders appeared to share common views on regional issues and agreed to step up economic cooperation, particularly in the energy sector. “We also share the same view in the fact that all-round development of economic cooperation on the basis of mutual respect, mutual advantage, and non-interference in each others’ internal affairs is the most effective way toward peace, stability of the people who live in this region,” Berdimukhamedov affirmed (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, October 18).
The common language, culture, and religion between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were actively promoted as a basis for expanding political ties, and overcoming obstacles. Energy will clearly dominate this partnership, but there are good prospects for bilateral security cooperation. “We are interested in multi-faceted, mutually-beneficial cooperation,” Karimov confirmed. “But there are realities to be reckoned with, which determine the future. Regional security is the number-one priority at the present stage” (Uzbek TV First Channel, October 18).
Karimov’s efforts to develop closer ties with Turkmenistan followed a major step in improving Tashkent’s relations with Europe. On October 15 the EU agreed to a partial lifting of sanctions against Uzbekistan, recognizing the deep economic interests of key players within the EU such as Germany. EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg agreed to lift the restriction on visas it had imposed on a number of Uzbek officials in the aftermath of the Andijan uprising two years ago (see EDM, October 19). They also decided to maintain the current EU arms embargo on Tashkent and to continue to press the regime to improve human rights, which will be reviewed in six months. Throughout this tense period, Berlin has maintained its military presence in Uzbekistan, using the “friendship bridge” at Termez to deliver humanitarian aid into Afghanistan (Kazakhstan Today, October 17).
The EU will also re-establish a political dialogue with Uzbekistan and will step up collaboration with Tashkent in areas such as judicial reform, education, trade, economic reform, energy, climate change, security, as well as human rights (Uzbek Television Channel 2 Yoshlar, October 18).
Nonetheless, from the perspective of Brussels, there had always been an uneasiness with the policy toward Uzbekistan, as it undermined the larger EU strategy toward the region, which is predicated upon engagement with every Central Asian state. However, it has been quite difficult to promote Western-style democracy in a region without democratic traditions, let alone any neighbor acting as an exemplar of these high ideals.
The tragic May 2005 events at Andijan, Uzbekistan, still arouse deep feeling on either side, but the EU quickly characterized it as an “uprising of the people,” a perspective that now seems difficult to maintain. Uzbek authorities from the outset insisted that Islamic militants had externally orchestrated the “uprising.” In the fraught situation produced by Andijan, Western officials chose to rely on suspect sources of information, rapidly undoing bilateral ties that had taken years to develop and nurture.
“The EU sanctions against Uzbekistan from the very beginning were unjust, since they were based on an incorrect assessment of the Andijan events,” says Zurab Todua, a research fellow at the Moscow Institute on Religion and Politics. “The EU described it as ‘people’s uprising’ against the existing authorities. In fact, it was a rebellion organized by radical Islamists and there are many things, which confirm this. The facts that have been gathered prove that one cannot talk about any kind of ‘people’s uprising’.”
Alexei Malashenko, an expert from the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggested that the EU has now shifted tactics in dealing with Uzbekistan, downplaying the emphasis on democratizing the country. “The EU has changed its tactics and acknowledged the Central Asian countries’ own path of development. The EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who recently visited Ashgabat, admitted ‘the civilized specifics of the region’ [that is, he basically acknowledged the right of the countries in the region for authoritarian rule],” Malashenko explained.
Decision makers in Western capitals, focused on developing ties with Turkmenistan, cannot ignore the close relationship developing between Karimov and Berdimukhamedov, as these relations are warming independent of any tangible progress in restoring Western relation with Uzbekistan, which may make Ashgabat suspicious of Western policy towards the whole region. Equally, as the EU sanctions ease against Uzbekistan, some planners may be tempted to take a “wait and see” approach; yet, such a potentially fruitless strategy could see the window closing on the prospects for healing the security divide between Washington and Tashkent.