BACKGROUND: Nazarbayev’s visit to Uzbekistan was, in his own words, “the continuation of the talks” between the two countries started last September during Karimov’s visit to Kazakhstan. The impetus for last year’s talks was concerns about regional security following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO from Afghanistan in 2014. The failure of existing regional security institutions in Central Asia encouraged the two leaders to assume greater responsibility for their own and regional security and deepen their bilateral cooperation in political, economic, and security areas (see the 12/12/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst).
This time the talks between Presidents Karimov and Nazarbayev went beyond the discussion of security and covered the entire spectrum of bilateral relations and regional issues. The talks revealed a great degree of progress in relations between the two countries, shattering commonly held stereotypes and pointing at a qualitatively new level of understanding and cooperation between them.
First, it was difficult not to notice the ease and relaxed manner with which the two presidents interacted with each other. Contrary to the long-standing cliché that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and their leaders were vying for regional leadership it was clear that the two Presidents were more interested in speaking with one voice. In what appears to have become a tradition, it was the Kazakhstani president who delivered the joint message. At the press conference following last year’s summit, Nazarbayev stepped back to allow Karimov speak for both of them. This year Karimov reciprocated and it was the Kazakhstani leader who took the lead.
Second, Nazarbayev made it clear in no uncertain terms that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan together are “the key states that provide peace, security, trade and growth of well-being” in Central Asia. He went on to say that the shared responsibility motivated the two countries to resolve regional issues, particularly those related to water resources, energy, and food security, through negotiations. In the most clear joint message to date, Nazarbayev emphasized that regional problems had to be resolved by Central Asians themselves “without the intervention of foreign powers.”
Third, the two leaders signed The Treaty on Strategic Partnership (TSP), affirming the new level of their bilateral relations and shared vision of their regional role. The treaty was initiated by Nazarbayev. Acknowledging the fact, Karimov stated that the two countries were driven by the understanding that by combining their resources Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan enhance their stature and “make other countries take their position into consideration.” The TSP is a qualitatively new framework of relations between the post-Soviet states, whose relations have often been based on treaties of “eternal friendship” devoid of any practical meaning. While the text of the treaty has not been made public yet, similar treaties signed by Kazakhstan with West European countries contains a clause that provides for military cooperation.
Fourth, Karimov and Nazarbayev had an extensive discussion of economic relations between the two countries and the ways of boosting them. While the trade between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is steadily growing and Kazakhstan is Uzbekistan’s third largest trading partner, the opposite is not true. For Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is only its twelfth largest trading partner. The two presidents focused on identifying avenues of expanding their economic cooperation. Developing transportation infrastructure was singled out. Transportation links with the outside world are of critical importance for both countries, which are landlocked (Kazakhstan) or double landlocked (Uzbekistan). One of the projects under discussion was the reconstruction of the 84-kilometer Beyneu-Aq-Jigit-Uzbekistan border road that would allow Uzbekistan access to the Aqtau port on the Caspian Sea and utilize both countries’ geographical location to serve as a transit trade route between Europe and Asia. Joint investment projects were identified as another avenue of boosting economic ties. The two presidents decided to establish the Investment Council (in addition to the existing Business Council) that would oversee the expansion of investment activities. As of 2013, there are 118 joint companies operating in Kazakhstan and 178 operating in Uzbekistan.
IMPLICATIONS: The June talks between Karimov and Nazarbayev demonstrate that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have moved a significant step further in their bilateral relations. Unlike last year’s summit, which focused primarily on regional security issues, the talks covered all aspects of bilateral relations – security, economic cooperation, cultural ties, etc. Another distinction is that by signing a number of agreements the two leaders have moved from general discussions to “filling Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan relations with concrete content,” in the words of President Karimov. Of the documents signed the Treaty on Strategic Partnership is of particular importance and relevance. It signals that the two countries have reached a stage when they are comfortable to conduct a coordinated foreign, particularly regional, policy, which they have agreed to pursue in a variety of formats.
The talks have tangibly demonstrated that the two countries have no outstanding issues in their relations and that speculations about their rivalry over regional domination should be cast aside. In fact, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan did what was least expected of them – they claimed the mantle of joint regional leadership. The two leaders then declared that Central Asian countries are capable of resolving regional problems themselves. All this has important implications for the rest of the region and outside players alike.
While it is tempting to view Moscow as the prime target of the joint message coming out of Tashkent it is in no less directed at Bishkek and Dushanbe. Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s domestic and foreign policies often put them at odds with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, forcing them to seek outside protection rather than settlement with their neighbors. It is no secret that the point of the utmost contention is the usage of regional water resources. Speaking for both, Nazarbayev once again confirmed that the positions of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on this issue were identical. He called on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two upstream countries that control water resources in Central Asia, to show greater transparency and take into account the interests of all Central Asian states. Addressing Tajikistan’s leaders directly, Nazarbayev called on them to show rationality vis-à-vis the construction of the Rogun hydropower station. That statement dispelled hopes of those who believed that Kazakhstan’s support of Uzbekistan’s position in the water usage dispute with Tajikistan – and Kyrgyzstan – was ambivalent.
The joint message coming out of the Tashkent summit demonstrates that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are steadily moving toward creating a viable strategic partnership. To pursue that goal the two countries have conscientiously decided to build on each other’s strengths – Kazakhstan’s economic power and Uzbekistan’s military-security capabilities. Much to the chagrin of their neighbors far and near, this decision takes competition between them out of the equation and brings in complementarity. Regionally, it means that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would increasingly become the trendsetters, especially in economic and security areas. The implication for other countries, particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is that they will have to show greater deference to the interests of Astana and Tashkent, both in their domestic, i.e., vis-à-vis sizeable Uzbek minorities in both countries, and foreign politics. For Russia, it signals the need to tread more carefully in picking sides in regional politics and conflicts. Indeed, some pro-Kremlin commentators have gone as far as to suggest the emergence of an Astana-Moscow-Tashkent troika in Central Asian politics. While it is premature to talk about such alliance, these statements show awareness among Russian policy-makers that the Kremlin can no longer be the sole arbiter in regional politics.
CONCLUSIONS: The June 2013 summit between Presidents Karimov and Nazarbayev has opened a new chapter in Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan relations. The two countries have now become strategic partners and openly assumed responsibility for Central Asia’s future. The summit has resulted in concrete decisions to make the strategic partnership meaningful. Success in implementing these decisions, particularly in the economic sphere, will demonstrate the viability of the Astana-Tashkent partnership and their ability to exercise joint regional leadership.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Sergei Gretsky is Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University and a member of The Central Asia Program at George Washington University.