BACKGROUND: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are two key countries in Central Asia and their bilateral relations to a great extent predetermine the regional status-quo. Both are ruled by strong authoritarian leaders – Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan – who, since gaining independence in 1991, have permanently remained in power in their respective countries. Regional affairs in Central Asia and bilateral relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan depend to a great extent on personal will and the ambitions of the two presidents who have often combined personal competition and mistrust with declaratory calls for regional cooperation.
In January 1997, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a Treaty with the unprecedented title “On Eternal Friendship.” This document in principle signified much more than any other agreement on strategic partnership with any other great power. The Treaty underlined that the three countries are fraternal and friendly states. The Treaty’s article 2 states that the signatories will develop cooperation by supporting each other above all in preventing threats to independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Article 3 mentions joint defense measures against a military invasion of one of the parties. Article 4 asserts that the signatories will coordinate their positions on regional and global issues. By and large, the spirit and letter of the Treaty “On Eternal Friendship” in fact describes a strategic partnership, an alliance, and a strategy for integration. In 2005 Nazarbayev even stated that this Treaty could serve as a solid base for future regional unification.
Yet, Central Asia’s post-independence history has implied divergence rather than convergence of the regional and international policies of the two Central Asian pivots, illustrating that they failed to become real leaders of the region. Indeed, most observers of the overall regional developments in Central Asia and Kazakhstan’s and Uzbekistan’s foreign policy trends have argued that they compete for leadership and prestige rather than take responsibility for unification efforts.
Allegations about this competition peaked in March 2010, prompting Nazarbayev and Karimov to bring more clarity regarding the “myth of competition.” Nazarbayev then stated during a visit to Tashkent: “There are no contradictions between our countries … No clashes, no primacy – all these are just invented … We have enough will and political understanding to prevent this.” Yet, some analysts interpreted the rapprochement between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as a temporary strategic exchange: Uzbekistan agreed that Kazakhstan – the then OSCE Chairman – would hold an OSCE summit in Astana, and Kazakhstan expressed its support for Uzbekistan’s position regarding the water problems in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s respective construction of hydropower dams on the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers.
The gap between Kazakhstan’s multi-vector policy and Uzbekistan’s adherence to bilateralism in their foreign policy concepts has been another factor impeding their capacity for regional leadership. This discrepancy finally led to a situation in which the two key Central Asian countries diminished their special responsibility for regional affairs. In the end, the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) – a unique structure for regional integration – ceased to exist in 2005 on the initiative of Astana and Tashkent.
IMPLICATIONS: The newly established Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan strategic partnership is therefore a significant development. The very signing of such a document is a strong message reflecting a turning point in regional affairs. Indeed, implicit and explicit friction between Astana and Tashkent has constantly impeded real progress not only in bilateral but also regional relations. In order to make relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan genuinely strategic, they should be made comprehensive and embrace all important spheres. The strategic partnership should be forged in various directions: diplomatic, economic, military, cultural, and so on.
From this viewpoint, on the one hand, the annual trade turnover between the two countries has reached an impressive level of over US$ 2 billion. Currently, hundreds of joint Kazakh-Uzbek companies exist and function in the territories of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. However, on the other hand, the foreign policies of the two states are based on contradictory principles. Astana adheres to a so-called multi-vector policy and has proclaimed a “path to Europe” strategy. Tashkent instead adheres to a bilateral policy. Kazakhstan is a member of the CSTO, which Uzbekistan abandoned in December last year. Nazarbayev’s position regarding post-2014 Afghanistan, according to his recent statements, is relatively calm and he seems unalarmed regarding the possibility of an exacerbated situation in the region after the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan. Karimov, to the contrary, is extremely concerned about the possibility of spillover of extremist and terrorist activity from Afghanistan’s territory to Central Asia after 2014.
By-and-large, a strategic partnership must manifest itself above all when it comes to the regional affairs in Central Asia. Only the existence of a clear-cut regional dimension can be a real litmus test for a strategic partnership between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Each of these Central Asian states established strategic relations with the U.S., Russia and other great powers, but their own common strategic partnership must be focused on Central Asia as a priority.
For instance, Uzbekistan should not seek to make Kazakhstan a strategic partner against upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in order to exert pressure on them to prevent the construction of dams on the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers. Rather it should use this highest level of cooperation for engaging with those small upstream countries to find a common solution to the dam problem.
Taking into account the Treaty “On Eternal Friendship” and the previous assets of regional cooperation between and among all Central Asian countries accumulated since 1991 (the date of independence) until 2005 (the date of CACO’s closure), the Strategic Partnership Agreement could actually have been adopted between all of them, not only Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. However, post-2005 developments in the region have revealed new divisions: between two upstream and three downstream countries, between stronger and weaker countries, etc. In these circumstances, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan manifest themselves as the most stable, strongest and key countries of Central Asia. Moreover, they are the most conservative ones. Their two leaders - Nazarbayev and Karimov – led the regional process to a deadlock in 2005 when they decided to merge CACO with EAEC (Euro-Asian Economic Community). Hence, Astana and Tashkent should take on a new responsibility for restoring CACO and re-initiate the regional integration process.
CONCLUSIONS: Lifting the level of bilateral relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to a strategic partnership format will be a serious challenge and a great opportunity for both countries. At the same time, this new trend will inevitably have profound implications for the entire Central Asia. From now on the overall relations between two key Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – are doomed to fluctuate within a triangle: competition; strategic partnership; and eternal friendship. Which trend will prevail will depend on how these two states define their national interests and their identity in the region and in the world.
National interests defined on the basis of absolute sovereignty, as has been the case so far, will revive competition for leadership in Central Asia. National interests originating in the long-term vision of advantages of coordinated policy, especially in the sphere of security, will stipulate a strategic partnership perspective. National interests defined on the basis of recognition of common values and identity will reclaim the Eternal Friendship Treaty as the main driver of relations.
Strategic partnership will inevitably require that Astana and Tashkent reconsider their foreign policy principles and doctrinal provisions, since states aspiring to be strategic partners essentially need common international positions. Their foreign policies should reflect something different than what Lord Palmerston once articulated, namely that a country has no eternal friends and no eternal enemies but has only eternal interests. Through their newly established strategic partnership, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are expected to demonstrate that they will never be enemies, that their interests are correlated, and that their friendship is based on a common identity and hence eternal.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Bilim Karvoni” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.