On October 3 Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev visited Tashkent to meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Both presidents tried to restore friendly relations between their countries by referring to common cultural roots and the necessity to boost economic cooperation. Although a number of bilateral agreements on economic and cultural cooperation were signed, both presidents were more interested in finding support for their own undemocratic actions than solving a long-standing political feud.
Problems in Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations call into question the very foundations of both states’ existence. Roughly 1,600 kilometers are disputed between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the large Uzbek minority living in southern Kyrgyzstan demands more political rights, and both states are at an impasse over sharing water, gas, and land resources. Both states also have different degrees of political and economic openness. In fact, as noted by one Kyrgyz scholar, “There are more problems for rivalry, rather then agreement.”
Despite these issues, Tashkent embraced Bakiyev’s visit. The Uzbek mass media outlets, heavily controlled by the government, described Bakiyev’s visit as an “historical event between two neighboring brotherly countries” (Press-uz.info, October 3). At the October 3 press conference, Karimov himself noted that the Kyrgyz-Uzbek disagreement over 500 Andijan refugees in May 2005 should not sour ties. “My own anguish… should by no means become a hindrance, deterrent in the development of relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.”
Uzbekistan has been isolating itself internationally since the Andijan massacre, drawing more foes than friends. Cooperation with Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan — the region’s weakest states — has never been a priority for official Tashkent. Yet, since last year, Karimov has been showing more interest toward Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China, and Russian-led regional alliances. He rejoined the Collective Security Treaty Organization and became an active promoter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as the Eurasian Economic Community.
Appraising these developments and the signing of a number of bilateral agreements by both presidents, the Uzbek mass media declared, “It is time for all Central Asian states to understand that it is not right to rely on an uncle across the ocean, but more convenient and reliable to befriend with the closest, time-tested neighbors” (Press-uz.info, October 3). Meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s domestic political climate is continuing to deteriorate, with more local NGOs and international charity funds being shut down and their leaders persecuted by the government.
Bakiyev himself, before visiting Tashkent, had faced turmoil at home. His position was shaken following a scandalous affair in September in which parliamentarian Omurbek Tekebayev was stopped at the Warsaw airport for allegedly smuggling heroin. The president’s younger brother Zhenishbek Bakiyev was reportedly behind the intrigue (see EDM, September 12). Tekebayev, supported by the people and his fellow parliamentarians, publicly hinted that due to the incident, Bakiyev’s early resignation is now a possibility. The Kyrgyz opposition bloc “For Reforms!” will stage a demonstration on November 2 to denounce the legality of Bakiyev’s political alliance with Prime Minister Felix Kulov.
Some Kyrgyz newspapers portrayed Bakiyev’s visit to Tashkent as being more beneficial for Kyrgyzstan than for Uzbekistan. Today, Uzbekistan is Bishkek’s most important regional partner and plays an important role in linking Kyrgyzstan with other, stronger states such as Russia and China. Bakiyev’s weak positions at home and increasing suspicions of his involvement in corruption have compelled him to seek cooperation with states that do not prioritize political and economic freedoms.
In response to Karimov’s evaluation of the Andijan evens as not being a significant barrier in the two countries’ cooperation, Bakiyev recited, “We too, Islam [Karimov] Abduganayevich, have Osh events, the Osh tragedy is like a black spot in the development of Kyrgyzstan. I mean I want to say that whatever is the situation — we are neighbors, brothers in spirit, in blood, in everything. We must help each other to deal with situations with honor and dignity.” Bakiyev was referring to a bloody conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern city Osh in 1990.
While Kyrgyz-Uzbek cooperation is said to be progressing at the inter-governmental level, at the grassroots level the picture is different. Reports suggest that Kyrgyz security structures are under increased pressure from their Uzbek counterparts to harass Karimov’s opposition members in southern Kyrgyzstan. Some experts believe the brutal August 6 killing of an Uzbek imam, Muhammadrafiq Kamalov, in southern Kyrgyzstan was masterminded by Uzbek police with Bishkek’s silent complicity.