The President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, and the President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, met in Bukhara on November 19. The leaders of the two countries signed a treaty “On Friendship, Confidence-building, and Developing Cooperation.” In addition, the presidents signed a bilateral agreement on mutual visits by the citizens of two countries and on simplified entry and exit procedures for citizens residing in the border areas (RIA-Novosti, November 19).
The meeting between Karimov and Niyazov is undoubtedly a watershed event for the entire Central Asian region. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, this is Niyazov’s first visit to a foreign country in two years (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 20). The meeting is also remarkable, in that ties between Ashgabat and Tashkent had suddenly deteriorated after the 2002 assassination attempt on Niyazov in Ashgabat. At the time Ashgabat openly accused Tashkent of supporting the assailants. According to high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan, after the assassination attempt, the Turkmenistani special services searched the apartments of Uzbek diplomats in Ashgabat, including the residence of the Ambassador of Uzbekistan in Turkmenistan. In November 2002 Ashgabat also sent additional troops to the border with Uzbekistan and all border checkpoints were closed for almost a month (Eurasia.org.ru, January 20, 2003).
Since then, relations between these two authoritarian Central Asian regimes have remained extremely tense. The situation is complicated by the fact that ethnic Uzbeks constitute approximately 10% of the population in Turkmenistan; while in the border areas the Uzbek proportion of the population is even higher at about 25% (see EDM, November 18).
After the assassination attempt, Ashgabat began to view the local Uzbeks as a “fifth column.” Ethnic Uzbeks were dismissed from all leadership positions in the country. Notably, Uzbeks, who traditionally have occupied clerical positions in Turkmenistan, were removed from the positions of imam-khatybs in all mosques (forum18.org, March 4). In January 2003 Niyazov dismissed the ethnic Uzbek Chief Mufti of Turkmenistan, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, although the formal justification was a personal request to resign. In March 2004 Nasrullah was sentenced to 22 years in prison for alleged involvement in the assassination attempt (forum18.org, March 8). On November 20, the former Chief Mufti of Uzbekistan, Sadyk Muhammad Yusuf, confided that, in reality, Nasrullah ibn Idadullah’s only crime was being an Uzbek. According to Sadyk Muhammad Yusuf, Nasrullah simply became a victim of the anti-Uzbek campaign in Turkmenistan.
The situation is particularly tense along the segment of the Uzbek-Turkmen border located in Khorezm Oblast. Historically the Doshoguz Oblast of Turkmenistan and the Khorezm Oblast of Uzbekistan have comprised a single ethno-cultural region. A powerful state once existed on the territory of this region for 3,000 years. The present division of this region between two states has become an enormous problem for residents of the border areas. For example, practically all Uzbeks residing in the Doshoguz Oblast have relatives in the Khorezm Oblast. There are many cases where villages are located on one side of the border, while family cemeteries are on the other. Currently, a resident of the border area in Uzbekistan must buy an entry visa into Turkmenistan at the border, which costs $6. At the same time, Tashkent does not demand entry visas from residents of border areas of Turkmenistan. The $6 charge is excessively high for the majority of the local residents and there are many instances when they have attempted to cross the border illegally. As a result, there have been many registered cases of Turkmen border guards killing or wounding citizens of Uzbekistan (Centrasia.ru, October 16, 2003).
The recent negotiations between Karimov and Niyazov might have positive consequences simply because the presidents agreed to meet and also because they formally signed the agreement on friendship and good-neighborly relations. Nonetheless, at least at the official level, the two sides still have not addressed the problem of Uzbek discrimination in Turkmenistan. The aforementioned agreements on mutual visits by the citizens of two countries and on the simplified border procedures are purely declarative in nature. The visa regime for residents of the border areas of Uzbekistan has not been lifted yet.