On October 6 Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov held a bilateral meeting to discuss future cooperation. The meeting took place during Central Asian Cooperation Organization summit in St. Petersburg. This is the first face-to-face meeting between the two presidents following several months of open confrontation regarding the status of some 500 refugees who escaped from Andijan, Uzbekistan, to Kyrgyzstan during a violent riot on May 13. The leaders discussed issues of disputed borders and economic partnership as outlined in the 1996 agreement “On Eternal Friendship.”
But the Kyrgyz-Uzbek dialogue turned out to be a symbolic event that did not alleviate any of the accumulated tensions between the two states. Although the leaders discussed border and economic issues, more pressing problems such as regulating gas and water supplies or Uzbekistan’s earlier accusations that the Kyrgyz leadership allowed terrorist organizations to operate on its territory were left untouched.
Once again, the agreement “On Eternal Friendship” proved too ambiguous to be useful in resolving concrete inter-state policies. Since the agreement does not provide practical details on the rights and duties of the participating parties, other than symbolic recognition of each other’s national sovereignty and peaceful coexistence, it is open to ad hoc interpretations of its scope in emergency situations.
Regarding the legal status of the Andijan refugees, the Uzbek side sees the agreement as obligating Kyrgyzstan to work through official channels in Tashkent rather than with third countries or international organizations. Whereas the Kyrgyz mass media and civil society organizations encouraged the government to abide by basic human rights regulations, Uzbekistan insistently demanded the refugees’ repatriation. With the “Eternal Friendship” strained to the limit, it was no longer clear what actions could be taken within the agreement’s framework.
Kyrgyz analysts have varying interpretations about the meaning of the St. Petersburg meeting. Some are optimistic that Karimov is trying to reestablish friendly relations with Kyrgyzstan because of the growing international isolation of his government (Radio Azattyk, October 10). According to this view, this is Tashkent’s natural reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from its military base in Karshi-Khanabad and the EU’s imposition of severe economic sanctions. It is becoming clear that, after vacating Uzbekistan, U.S. and NATO troops will expand their presence in Kyrgyzstan.
Other observers believe that Karimov is pursuing hidden goals by trying to reactivate his partnership with Kyrgyzstan. In particular, the Uzbek government is trying to hold Kyrgyzstan accountable for allegedly hosting terrorists. According to Uzbek officials, there are still “terrorist training camps” located in southern Kyrgyzstan that threaten regional security. The Kyrgyz National Security Service and Prime Minister Felix Kulov, however, have persistently stated that there is no evidence of insurgent activity in Kyrgyzstan.
The Kyrgyz president emphasized that his government is equally concerned with the spread of Islamic radical movements in the region and therefore actively participates in multilateral security alliances such as Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. He also expressed his hopes that the Uzbek-Kyrgyz partnership would be based on mutual understanding and trust.
Meanwhile, three Kyrgyz citizens detained by the Uzbek militia for organizing riots in Andijan have pleaded guilty. Djohanghir Burkhanov and Valijon Ergashev testified that they underwent subversive training at a military outpost near the southern Kyrgyz village of Teeke and at a school in Osh city. But according to Vecherny Bishkek’s special investigation (October 7), neither the outpost nor school representatives had known of or seen the convicts. The newspaper concluded that the Kyrgyz citizens had either “bluffed” at the trial or were forced to give false evidence.
In the coming months the U.S. government will likely help resolve the energy crisis in Kyrgyzstan, which has worsened since the Kyrgyz-Uzbek disagreement over the Andijan refugees. In recent years the Kyrgyz energy sector has accumulated external and internal debts due to poor management and devastating corruption. According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, Washington will help the Kyrgyz government to develop a rational energy policy that will solve the crisis at least until October 2006 in order to help Bishkek escape unwanted external pressures. Such support has political, as well as economic, value.
Many Kyrgyz analysts have welcomed the news that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan October 10-13 — but not Uzbekistan. They are also encouraged by the prospect of Karimov facing an international trial initiated by the U.S. government. They see such steps as necessary and long awaited (Radio Azattyk, October 5). Such approval of U.S. plans to put pressure on Karimov arises from the fact that many doubt that Uzbekistan will ever become a good and trustful partner as long as the current political regime continues to rule.
Apparently the two Central Asian leaders have decided to embrace the old Russian proverb, “Better a bad peace than a good quarrel.”