On November 3 Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev paid an informal visit to Uzbekistan. The trip came as a complete surprise inside Kazakhstan, as it had not been announced in advance and looked like a spontaneous decision. Nazarbayev had been touring South Kazakhstan and he arrived in Tashkent from the city of Shymkent. The presidential press service stated that it was an unofficial working visit timed to the first session of the Interstate Coordinating Council.
Following a meeting at Durmen, the Uzbek presidential residence, Nazarbayev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov carefully avoided an extended press conference, and Karimov merely told journalists that the sides had “discussed questions of bilateral relations and exchanged views on regional and international problems. We had a very open and sincere talk. But right now I will not disclose any particular details.” Nazarbayev offered little more information. He told journalists that he had briefed the Uzbek president on his recent visit to the United States, and that the two presidents had discussed the situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, as well as the latest developments in Commonwealth of Independent States member countries. Nazarbayev announced that the two sides had reached an agreement on creating cross-border trade zones and joint training of military personnel (Yegemen Qazaqstan, November 11).
Other sources confirm that the principal topic of the talks in Tashkent was the ongoing political unrest in Kyrgyzstan, although the word “Kyrgyzstan” was never mentioned during the briefing. Nazarbayev’s unscheduled trip to Tashkent came in the wake of Kyrgyz opposition demands for the immediate dismissal of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov. Observers in Kazakhstan noted that one day before Nazarbayev arrived in Tashkent, Uzbek police tightened passport controls and took other security measures in Tashkent and the Fergana Valley. Some people in Tashkent were reportedly detained on the grounds that they carried passports with visas issued by the Kyrgyz Embassy (Delovaya nedelya, November 10).
Despite the outward business-as-usual attitude, both Karimov and Nazarbayev had good reasons to be seriously alarmed by the scale and chaotic nature of the protests in Bishkek. After nearly a week of protests, Bakiyev agreed to accept a new constitution that reduced his powers in favor of parliament (see EDM, November 2, 7, 9).
The turmoil in Kyrgyzstan forced the pro-presidential parties in Kazakhstan into a sort of political alliance. Presidential daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva had stunned the public at her Asar party’s June 19 conference by stating that stability and peace in Kazakhstan should not hinge solely on the president and calling for more parliamentary power. Subsequently, Asar, the Civic Party, and the Agrarian Party merged into a single pro-presidential party — Otan. The director of the Kazakh Institute of Strategic Research, Bolat Sultanov, believes Kazakhstan must adopt a presidential and parliamentary system of governance that also allows the opposition parties to take seats in parliament. Otherwise, Kazakhstan could see its own version of the Kyrgyz scenario. Political scientist Sabit Zhunusov maintains that heavily centralized power was Bakiyev’s weakness and that Kazakhstan should not repeat this mistake (Rakhat TV, November 15).
Any scenario that could lead to Bakiyev’s dismissal would be unwelcome in Astana and Tashkent. Bakiyev duly appreciated the helping hand Karimov extended to Bishkek after the devastating Tulip Revolution of March 2005. At that time Tashkent tactfully announced that it would welcome any government in Bishkek that was supported by the Kyrgyz people and demonstratively offered humanitarian aid to southern regions of Kyrgyzstan. But these friendly overtures were disturbed by the May 2005 rioting in the city of Andijan, when Uzbek authorities accused the Kyrgyz government of cooperating with “destructive forces” allegedly working against Uzbekistan from Kyrgyz territory.
The thaw in bilateral relations occurred only after Uzbekistan joined the Eurasian Economic Community and Bakiyev paid his first visit to Tashkent last October, returning home with an agreement on visa-free travel for citizens of the two countries. Nazarbayev and Karimov regard the flexible Bakiyev, who long ago dropped his pro-U.S. rhetoric, as an unmatched substitute for former Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev. The Kazakh and Uzbek presidents fear that a chain reaction triggered by public rioting in Bishkek might set off similar disturbances in South Kazakhstan and the Fergana Valley.
Bakiyev hardly wants to follow Akayev’s recent career trajectory. In his current weakened position, Bakiyev values any assistance or pledge of support from Astana and Tashkent. Reportedly, at the height of the protests in Bishkek, on November 7, Bakiyev conferred with Nazarbayev and Karimov by telephone. Their conversation, according to official sources, focused on the upcoming summit meeting of CIS leaders and regional economic integration (Delovaya nedelya, November 10).
Integration, both economic and political, remains wishful thinking in Central Asia. Despite the friendly gestures and talks on official levels the divisions among the three countries are still perceptible. It seems Bakiyev pins too much hope on Kazakh investments in the Kyrgyz economy as a stabilizing factor. Paradoxically, Kazakh investments are flowing not to relatively stable Uzbekistan, but to politically explosive and ungovernable regions of Kyrgyzstan like Batken, often targeted by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan is interested in restoring peace and stability in the neighboring country. But pouring funds into Kyrgyzstan will make sense only if the government in Bishkek manages to regain popular support by raising living standards in troubled regions and, last but not least, keeps its promises of genuine democratic reforms. So far, Bakiyev has done very little to convince his Uzbek and Kazakh counterparts that he can ensure stability in his country and ward off a revolution of any color in the region. But riots in Kyrgyzstan have their advantages — they apparently push Kazakh authorities toward radical reforms.