Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s March 19 visit to Uzbekistan was one of his first foreign trips after his reelection as president in December. This priority stresses the political importance of Tashkent for Astana as an economically significant neighbor, although it would be premature to regard Uzbekistan as a political ally. Seven interstate agreements signed in Tashkent give hope for improving relations between the ethnically and culturally related neighbors, after Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s tilt towards the Eurasian Economic Community and Tashkent’s break with the United States in 2005.
At a joint press conference Karimov swallowed his pride and called Nazarbayev “a wise leader and a friend.” Not surprisingly, he angrily lashed out at the World Bank, which allegedly had distorted economic figures on Uzbekistan to present the country as a poverty-stricken part of Central Asia with a 31.8% inflation rate and a miserable per capita income of $50. Nazarbayev softened the tone of the anti-Western verbal tirade by his Uzbek friend and directed the discourse to basic economic matters, stressing that imports of Uzbek cement and other construction materials would boost industrial production in Kazakhstan (Khabar TV, March 21).
Similarly, Kazakhstan’s state-run media was noticeably cautious in assessing the political significance of Nazarbayev’s talks with his Uzbek counterpart, emphasizing future economic and business relations instead.
Even in the economic sphere there is not much to tout as achievements. In 2005 trade turnover registered at $500 million, up 15.8% over 2004, albeit a drop in the bucket compared to Kazakhstan’s trade with China or Russia. Many analysts wonder how the relatively developed market economy of Kazakhstan could form a partnership with Uzbekistan, a country known for the snail’s pace of its privatization.
The demographic boom in densely populated and economically poor Uzbekistan poses a social threat to Kazakhstan. Astana is increasingly worried about the growing number of illegal Uzbek migrant workers employed in low-paid jobs in South Kazakhstan. One week before Nazarbayev’s visit to Uzbekistan, Kazakh police deported 50 Uzbeks who were illegally working at construction sites in Almaty.
At the same time, the weak Uzbek economy and political instability leave Tashkent ill-positioned to resist Russian and Kazakh financial and industrial groups that are eyeing big slices of the Uzbek economic pie. Kazakhstan’s Basis A Corporation has made public its plans to privatize Uzbekistan’s cement plant, while the Russian Vympelkom telecommunications company has its eyes on the Uzbek cell phone operators Buztel and Unitel. Despite the friendly smiles from Karimov, Astana suspects that Uzbek government is covertly trying to limit Kazakh access to the Uzbek economy. For example, Uzbneftegaz, the Korean National Oil Corporation, Russian Lukoil Overseas, and China’s National Petroleum Company attended a recent presentation regarding Uzbekistan’s mineral resources in the Aral Sea. But Kazakhstan, a next-door oil power, was not invited to this gathering (Liter, March 17).
One of the major sticking points in normalizing Kazakh-Uzbek relations is the unsettled border problem. Demarcation is likely to drag on for an indefinite period while frequent shooting incidents along the 2,300-kilometer-long border are poisoning relations within border communities with a mixed population. Since 2001 border guard agencies have registered more than 20 incidents involving local Uzbeks and Kazakhs. The latest tragedy happened on February 24, when Uzbek border guards chasing a truck loaded with suspected contraband flour entered the Kazakh village of Konyrat and provoked a skirmish with locals. This is not an isolated case, since truckloads of flour are being smuggled into Uzbekistan day and night. Diesel oil and gasoline are also illegally brought from Uzbekistan. The Kazakh Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Tleukhan Kabdrashitov, downplays shootings along the border, ascribing these incidents to “the unskilled and unprofessional approach by border guards to their duties.” His Uzbek counterpart, Turdigul Botayorov, takes the matter more seriously, noting that so far the two countries have reached agreements on only 10 checkpoints (Interfax Kazakhstan, March 14).
Most of the areas of cooperation mapped out since the signing of the “Agreement on Eternal Friendship” on October 31, 1998, face numerous hurdles. For example, a water resources consortium of Central Asian states, a project advocated by the World Bank, still has not materialized. In water management policy much hinges on relations between Tashkent and Astana. On the eve of Nazarbayev’s visit to Uzbekistan, the Kazakh Electricity Grid Operating Company claimed that the Uzbek electricity company Uzbekenergo owes $1 million to Kazakhstan.
But the thaw in Kazakh-Uzbek relations is easily noticeable. Tashkent has dropped its accusations that Astana is “sheltering terrorist groups in training camps in South Kazakhstan,” a charge often brandished by Karimov after the March 2004 bombings in Tashkent. Uzbekistan agreed to supply South Kazakhstan with relatively cheap gas for $55 per 1,000 cubic meters. And finally, Nazarbayev and Karimov made a joint statement of friendship and cooperation.
Good neighborly relations between Astana and Tashkent serve the interests of China and Russia, which seek a geopolitical counterbalance to American influence in Central Asia. But many aspects of a political rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are something of a déjà vu. In January 1994 the two neighbors signed an agreement on setting up a Single Economic Space, yet they have nothing to show for it. Hopefully, the new phase of Kazakh-Uzbek relations announced by Nazarbayev and Karimov in Tashkent will finally become a reality.