Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations: Harmonious now, but trouble looms
|Publication Date||6 October 2006|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations: Harmonious now, but trouble looms, 6 October 2006, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46cc3224c.html [accessed 19 May 2013]|
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Alisher Khamidov 10/06/06
Converging interests have prompted Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to become political best buddies. But their newfound alliance could prove short-lived, regional experts say.
Bakiyev traveled to Uzbekistan on October 3-4 for talks with Uzbek officials, including Karimov, as well as a little sightseeing in Samarkand. After the talks, Bakiyev indulged in hyperbole as he described the current state of bilateral affairs, speaking of the "eternal friendship" of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. "Uzbeks and Kyrgyz will never be separated," Bakiyev told Uzbek television on October 4. "They should live together, as well as grow and develop together."
While not inclined to make rapturous predictions about future cooperation, Karimov was equally pleased with the outcome of Bakiyev's visit. The Uzbek leader characterized the talks as a "fruitful exchange" taking place within a "trustworthy atmosphere." He called attention to a joint statement that reaffirmed both states' commitment to a 1996 friendship treaty, and hailed the shared commitment to combating Islamic radicalism in Central Asia. With Uzbek assistance, Bakiyev's administration in recent months has cracked down on suspected Islamic radicals, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Uzbek state media outlets offered an unusually extensive and favorable coverage of Bakiyev's visit. One Uzbek State TV broadcast commented: "For centuries, the people of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have lived in friendship and agreement, and contributed to each others' culture and art. Today too, the commonness of history, culture and traditions, language and religion continues to serve as a strong foundation for our cooperation."
The most significant outcome of Bakiyev's trip was a bilateral agreement lifting visa requirements for citizens of both countries for travel between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In addition, Karimov and Bakiyev agreed to open a new border-crossing point in the Ferghana Valley. For Karimov – who has tried to seal Uzbekistan off in the hopes of preventing the further penetration of radical Islamic ideology – opening the frontier to Kyrgyz nationals is the ultimate sign of approval of the Bakiyev administration's efforts to root out militants in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Citizens of both countries cheered the suspension of visa requirements. Cross-border shuttle trading, a vital source of income for many in frontier areas, has withered due to the Karimov administration's increasingly restrictive policies. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz citizens interviewed expressed hope that visa-free travel will greatly reduce instances of harassment and extortion at the border. Kosimjon Hamrakulov, an Uzbek resident, told EurasiaNet: "I have many relatives in Kyrgyzstan and it makes it easier for us to visit each other."
Less than 18 months ago, Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations were marked by acrimony generated by Kyrgyzstan's acceptance of refugees who fled Uzbekistan in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Bilateral antagonism dissipated, however, with the growth of security cooperation. Domestic political factors played a major role in prompting both Karimov and Bakiyev to set aside previous differences and engage each other.
Both leaders have seemed eager to shore up outside political support for their respective administrations. Bakiyev has faced considerable pressure throughout 2006 from political rivals in Bishkek. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Karimov, meanwhile, remains obsessed with the Islamic radical threat to his administration. He had long viewed southern Kyrgyzstan as a haven for Islamic militants, and was quick to act on the opportunity to work with Kyrgyz leaders to undertake a security sweep of the area. In addition, Karimov's approval of visa-free travel may be designed to relieve the building pressure on the Uzbek economy, which at present is stagnating amid the government's efforts to tighten control over all aspects of Uzbek life. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In extending an enthusiastic welcome to Bakiyev, Uzbek officials were also seeking to send a message to Tajikistan: cooperate with us and you will be rewarded. Uzbek-Tajik relations, chilly since the Islamic radical threat first manifested itself in the late 1990s, have experienced a frost in recent months. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Kyrgyz-Uzbek ties may be exceedingly harmonious now, but that may not be the case for long. Bakiyev and Karimov, some political analysts point out, avoided discussing the divisive issue of energy supplies.
Kyrgyz officials had hoped that increased security cooperation with Uzbekistan would secure generous Uzbek export terms for natural gas needed for the fast-approaching winter heating season. Members of the Karimov administration, however, seem disinclined toward such generosity. One Uzbek official who requested anonymity told EurasiaNet: "We should separate political issues from economic issues. Uzbekistan cannot provide gas at reduced prices because it would harm its own economy."
Uzbekistan intends to supply Kyrgyzstan with gas at US $55 per 1,000 cubic meters (tcm) until the end of this year. But starting in January, the Uzbek government is expected to seek a price of up to $100/tcm.
Such a price hike would likely create a domestic crisis in Kyrgyzstan. According to KyrgyzGas, a state company that imports Uzbek gas, Kyrgyzstan's demand is projected to reach 900 million cubic meters of gas in 2007, roughly a 20 percent increase over this year's consumption level. In addition, Kyrgyz Minister of Finance Akylbek Japarov said recently that the country lacks the means to subsidize gas prices for low-income consumers, who constitute a large segment of the Kyrgyz population. Thus, Bakiyev's administration stands to face extreme political pressure from his constituents, if Tashkent raises the export price as expected.
The potential repercussions would also likely hurt Uzbekistan, as Kyrgyzstan would undoubtedly try to ease a wintertime energy crunch by releasing large volumes of water from reservoirs to generate extra electricity. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Downstream areas of Uzbekistan could experience ruinous flooding, and Uzbek farmers could well find themselves without sufficient water for irrigation during the agricultural growing season.
Editor's Note: Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C..
Posted October 6, 2006 © Eurasianet