Uzbekistan’s recent decision to leave the Moscow-orchestrated Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) hardly surprised anyone in the Kazakh Foreign Ministry who was familiar with Uzbek President Islom Karimov’s constantly changing attitudes toward political and economic structures within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and his deep mistrust for any idea generated by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Uzbekistan joined the Eurasian Economic Community, a brainchild of Nazarbayev, in 2006 in the wake of the crackdown on Uzbek protesters in Andijan in May 2005 and the closure of the American air base in Khanabad. But Tashkent never showed genuine interest in working out a common customs policy and the regulation of tariffs and prices within the Eurasian Economic Community. While Uzbekistan signed agreements on the free movement of EAEC nationals and the currencies of member countries, they were never ratified.
The already tense relations between Tashkent and Astana were further exacerbated by longstanding problems of water sharing in Central Asia. At the Bishkek meeting of the heads of EAEC and CIS countries last October, Uzbekistan was forced under pressure from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to accept an agreement on the use of water and energy resources in emergency situations. Uzbekistan’s attempts to obtain Kyrgyz and Tajik recognition of the trans-border status of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers proved futile. These rivers are a vital water lifeline shared by the three countries and are the sources of permanent tension. Last April Karimov dismissed as “impractical” Nazarbayev’s much-trumpeted scheme for creating a Central Asian union. The decisive factor in Uzbekistan’s drifting away from Russian-dominated economic alliance, however, does not seem to be the rivalry with Nazarbayev for leadership in Central Asia but renewed hope of restoring relations with the West after the EU’s decision to lift sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan after the Andijan incident (Delovaya Nedelia, November 14).
In essence, Uzbekistan’s rapprochement with the West hurts Moscow’s regional ambitions more than Nazarbayev’s visions of leadership. Vladimir Putin, and then his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, treated Karimov as a partner of little importance. When, in June, Karimov suggested merging the Eurasian Economic Community with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (DSTO), Putin and Nazarbayev snubbed the idea. Some analysts in the Kremlin think that Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the EAEC and possibly also from the CSTO is not an irretrievable loss for Moscow as long as Kazakhstan remains in the Russian fold. The about-face in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy urges Russia to focus more on developing closer ties with Kazakhstan. In retaliation to Uzbekistan’s disloyal behavior, Moscow could refuse to buy Uzbek gas for delivery to Europe through its pipeline. Leverage could also be exerted by imposing a ban on Uzbek migrant labor in Russia. But all available trump-cards against Tashkent are not likely to be effective enough to prevent Uzbekistan from joining the Nabucco gas pipeline project and EU-sponsored undertakings much desired by the cash-strapped country in order to receive preferential access to Western loans (Rosbalt, November 12).
Uzbekistan’s challenge to the EAEC threatens the already fragile energy cooperation between Astana and Tashkent. Southern Kazakhstan relies entirely on Uzbek gas, which it purchases for $55 per 1,000 cubic meters on swap agreement concluded between Russian Gazprom, Kazakhstan’s KazMunayGaz, and Uzbekneftegaz in December, 2007. Under the agreement, Uzbek gas purchased by Gazprom is resold to Kazakhstan at a reasonably lower price in exchange for the same volume of Kazakh Karachaganak gas at an equal price. Whether this scheme will continue to work if relations between Moscow and Tashkent turn sour is a matter of conjecture. Astana, at any rate, finds itself between the Russian hammer and the Uzbek anvil.
The short-lived thaw between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan following Tashkent’s ephemeral return to Russia after the Andijan riots produced very few, if any, positive changes in Kazakhstan’s tense relations with its neighbor. The most noticeable sign of change was perhaps the accelerated rate of strengthening border security facilities on both sides. Amid the rumors about Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the EAEC, Nazarbayev traveled to Southern Kazakhstan to attend the opening ceremony of the Kaplanbek crossing-point on the Kazakh-Uzbek border, a duty normally assigned to a high-ranking border-guard officer. Addressing local residents, he said that the demarcation of the Kazakh-Uzbek border had been successfully completed and the border would be securely guarded to ward off the “threat of terrorism, drug trafficking, and intrusion of extremists.” He added, “we deal here with the fraternal Uzbek people” (Liter, November 15).
The tranquility and peace on Kazakh-Uzbek border depicted by state officials is, however, in stark contrast to reality. In 2006 and 2007 three shooting incidents were registered by the Kazakh border authorities. Never has Nazarbayev’s Central Asian dream been as detached from reality as it is today.