ASTANA – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan publicly confirmed their commitment to strengthening bilateral ties and friendly cooperation in Central Asia during the official visit of Uzbek leader Islam Karimov to Astana on Nov. 25.
“People in our nations are paying close attention to this visit, as the stability and development of the region depends on the ideas espoused and joint efforts undertaken by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said at the beginning of the talks with his counterpart, recalling the historical and cultural closeness between the two countries.
The Uzbek leader’s visit was prompted by the Kazakh President’s Nov. 11 state-of-the-nation address, said a Kazakh official who did not want to be identified, as he was speaking without authorisation. The address, delivered two months early, outlined major infrastructure investment plans in light of negative trends in the world economy. The official added that the talks took place in an “extremely warm and understanding” atmosphere, reflected in the public statements by the two leaders.
At the beginning of their talks in the Akorda presidential residence in the presence of the media, Karimov stressed the importance of the bilateral Treaty on Strategic Partnership signed in 2013 and confessed that he had not fully appreciated its significance until recently. He went on to heap praise on his Kazakh counterpart, a move laden with importance for long-time watchers of Central Asian politics who often point to perceived rivalries between the two countries and the two leaders.
“There are people in the world who become wiser as they age,” Karimov told Nazarbayev. Using the Kazakh President’s first name and patronymic as a sign of respect, he went on to say “Nursultan Abishevich, I think, and I would like to make a compliment to you, that there are people to whom Allah gives wisdom from their youth. It is difficult to combine this in one person, yet when it is a natural part of his character, one has to yet again recognise his far-sighted views and confidence, as evidenced in your initiative last year to sign this document, which enters into force on Jan. 1.”
As talks continued, the two leaders reviewed bilateral economic, trade, energy, regional water security, transportation and cultural cooperation. They also touched upon key aspects of regional security and pressing international issues, including the situations in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
President Nazarbayev highlighted Uzbekistan’s role as his country’s leading economic partner in Central Asia.
“Despite negative trends in the world economy and decreases in prices of major commodities, the trade turnover between our countries is growing,” Nazarbayev stated.
According to an Akorda press release, between 2005 and 2013, the trade turnover between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan quadrupled, exceeding $2 billion. In the first nine months of the current year, it totaled more than $1.5 billion.
“This dynamic stems from the sustainable economic growth in both countries, as well as a strengthening of cooperation throughout the region,” Kazakhstan’s leader empasised.
He highlighted the positive role played by the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan business council that was founded in line with assignments from both presidents. Nazarbayev reminded that Uzbekistan voted for Astana’s bid to host EXPO 2017 and expressed hope that the neighbouring country would present an interesting pavilion at the event which opens in less than three years. “Our country is ready to provide all necessary conditions for this to be possible,” he said.
Nazarbayev and Karimov also talked of their determination to intensify cooperation on the joint fight against international terrorism and religious extremism and coordinating their stances within the UN, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and other international organisations.
A “detailed, open and trustful” exchange of views on issues of special relevance for the entire Central Asian region took place as well.
Nazarbayev said he was “glad to note that our approaches on many topics coincide,” including those to regional water security. “Cooperation in this vital sphere is possible only on the basis of mutual trust. It is also necessary to assure transparency and consider the interests of all countries in the region without any exception,” he underlined.
According to Karimov, the two leaders stated that they shared a “common stance” on the prospects of building new hydroelectric facilities on the upper stream of Central Asia’s two great rivers – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. They did not elaborate upon this “common stance.”
At the press briefing following the talks, Nazarbayev voiced his belief that the visit would strengthen the two countries’ existing strategic partnership.
Karimov also expressed his satisfaction with the results of the meeting. In his opinion, the meeting demonstrated the similarities in the positions of the two countries on practically every aspect of bilateral relations, as well as key directions of regional cooperation and international politics.
“The early stabilisation of situation in Afghanistan is key to security and stability in Central Asia and regions beyond,” Karimov stated. He commended Kazakhstan’s fast economic growth of “no less than 5-6 percent” a year, which he called “serious growth.” In his opinion, similarly good results in Uzbekistan have created good opportunities to further increase bilateral trade and foster sustainable economic growth in both countries.
Shunning rumours of a “regional rivalry” between Astana and Tashkent, Karimov said that Uzbekistan welcomed Kazakhstan’s active foreign policy and Nazarbayev’s initiatives aimed at strengthening regional and international security.
“Kazakhstan is the country closest to us, a sister nation, which, through thick and thin, has always been at our side. We have always relied on each other’s assistance. I would like to express my great respect for Kazakhstan’s people, who are moving confidently towards prosperity. We need to meet more often in order to ‘synchronise watches’ and jointly determine future prospects,” he concluded.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the two most populous countries in Central Asia and are the region’s largest economies. As major exporters of hydrocarbons, the two countries developed a solid industrial base during Soviet times, even though few of these industries produced ready-made goods.
While Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector focuses on wheat-growing and cattle-breeding, Uzbekistan’s agriculture is largely based on cotton, fruits and vegetables. However, both countries are dependent on fresh water for irrigation that flows from upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The need to assure water and energy security is a major factor in regional cooperation in Central Asia, along with the need to tackle cross border drug trafficking and the spread of religious extremism.
Another factor is the presence of large diasporas living on both sides of the border, with up to one million ethnic Kazakhs in Uzbekistan and up to half a million ethnic Uzbeks calling Kazakhstan home.