When Kazakhstan took its seat on the UN Security Council this year, it was a landmark event not just for our country but for all Central Asia. For the first time in the history of the UN, our region has a voice in its most important body.
From the beginning, Kazakhstan has said it intended to use its two years on the Security Council to advance the priorities of our region and strengthen links between its countries. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has appealed to his fellow leaders to work with him on a common platform before Kazakhstan takes over the one-month presidency of the UNSC in January next year.
Good relations between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are crucial to this ambition. Uzbekistan is the region’s most populous country. Kazakhstan is both the largest and has the strongest economy. The closer we work together the better for the entire region.
The links between the two countries, of course, have always been strong. They share a common history and culture along with many personal connections, including kinship.
In regional policy, there is a track record of successful collaboration. The lead the presidents of our countries have given, for example, in making Central Asia a nuclear-free zone has strengthened the global cause for non-proliferation.
We have seen cooperation as well on trade and in major regional infrastructure projects. The building of the gas pipeline to China is important for both our economies (and Turkmenistan, too) but also provides a symbol of what countries working together can achieve.
But there is always room for improvement. And the reality is that while Tashkent’s relations with Astana have been closer than with other near neighbours over the past few years, there are areas where cooperation can be stepped up for the benefit of the citizens of our two countries and the wider region.
The first visit of Uzbekistan’s new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to Kazakhstan on March 22-23 has provided the opportunity for this work to begin. It may have been a happy accident of timetables that his visit coincided with the Nauryz (or Nowruz) celebrations but, in keeping with the festival, there were clearly signs of a welcome warming of relations.
Indeed, before he arrived in Astana for his two-day visit, President Mirziyoyev made clear the priority he has given to deepening cooperation right across the board. He spoke, for example, about how new links had already been established at the parliamentary level, enabling both countries to learn from each other as we each accelerate our modernisation and reform programmes.
There is also, of course, much more our two countries can do to support each other’s economic development through joint enterprises and by working together to lift barriers to trade. The ambitious plans to increase the value of trade between our two countries three-fold by 2020 to $5 billion shows just how much potential there is in the economic sphere.
Our region again finds itself as a critical hub in the global economy. Improving transport links, reducing red tape and standardising regulations will help us increase prosperity across Central Asia.
The extraordinary diversity and beauty of our landscapes, the rich history of our cultures and the friendliness of our people also provide the ingredients to make Central Asia the next big global travel destination. More frequent flights between our cities and high-speed rail links will be good for regional business and tourism. Opening the new high-speed Almaty-Tashkent train ahead of Mirziyoyev’s visit is exemplary.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also need to continue strengthening cooperation to counter terrorism both by sharing intelligence and acting together to prevent the lack of opportunity and despair on which extremism feeds. This is important both to protect our own citizens and tackle this global threat. It is another area that Kazakhstan has already moved up the international agenda.
As in every region, perhaps there has always been a friendly rivalry between near neighbours. But this does not mask the healthy respect, mutual understanding and shared ambitions the Kazakh and Uzbek peoples nurture toward each other.
President Mirziyoyev’s important visit and the new impetus it has given to relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is another reason for celebrating a renewal of this year’s Nauryz.