In a speech at the signing of a historic border agreement between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek, Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoev heaped praise on his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov.
“I want to tell you that we have no problematic issues. In the 31 years of the independent history of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, this is the first time there has been this level of mutual relations,” Mirziyoev said at his pomp-filled state visit on January 26-27.
“I want to give special thanks to my respected colleague Sadyr…. If not for his political will, we would have not reached today’s result. We could have said like we used to that we will solve these problems tomorrow or the day after. Well, tomorrow lasted 30 years, and the problems weren’t solved.”
In addition to the agreement finalizing the pair’s border deal, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan put pen to paper for more than 20 other agreements.
Notable were the deals inked for an auto-assembly plant and a textile factory in Kyrgyzstan. Requirements for crossing what Mirziyoev hailed as “a border of friendship” have also been relaxed — citizens of the two countries will only need ID cards, rather than international passports.
Often foes during the reign of Mirziyoev’s long-ruling autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan’s bilateral relationship has warmed up significantly in the years since the hard-liner’s death in 2016.
There are increasing signs that the border agreement might be a starting point for deepening cooperation between two countries in a region where analysts say Russia’s days of playing divide and rule may be coming to a close.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, veteran Central Asia watcher Arkady Dubnov said it was “difficult to disagree with either president [that this is] an event of historical importance.”
“Especially after all the years of seemingly irremovable claims, confrontations, ambitions, [and] misunderstandings,” Dubnov said.
But the analyst also noted that the deal had not come without a cost, with more than 20 politicians, activists, and journalists jailed over their opposition to the border agreement that saw a strategic reservoir inside Kyrgyzstan transferred to Uzbek control.
“I am sincerely sorry that Kyrgyzstan harshly suppressed these protests…. I hope that in the near future all the prisoners in this case will be released, because otherwise it will only lead to further escalation,” Dubnov said.
Bearing that and Kyrgyzstan’s history of political instability in mind, are there any limits for the reconfigured bilateral relationship?
‘No Other Route’
With the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan witnessing two full-scale battles in the past two years, it is easy to forget that there were once fears of a major military confrontation on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, where shootings and deadly skirmishes occasionally took place.
In 2016, just months before Karimov’s death, Kyrgyzstan raised the alarm over what appeared to be a threatening buildup of troops and military equipment on Uzbekistan’s side of the frontier.
A disputed mountain that the two countries had squabbled over throughout that year, Ungar-Too, has now been confirmed as Kyrgyz territory in the border deal agreed to by Mirziyoev and Japarov.
The two countries’ armies always avoided clashes, but in contrast to Mirziyoev’s warm words for Japarov, the relationship between Karimov and then-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev was never good.
In 2015, during an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow, Atambaev appeared to criticize his older Uzbek colleague for choosing not to attend Moscow’s parade commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
The Kremlin has traditionally invited close allies to the May 9 event where it advertises its military might.
“That’s my opinion,” interrupted Atambaev, as Karimov launched a withering rebuttal to the comments, mockingly referring to the Kyrgyz president as “our friend, Atambaev.”
“Very pleasant. We have known your opinion for a long time,” Karimov retorted.
A more structural obstacle to improved ties was Kyrgyzstan’s ambitions to build –with Russian financing — a giant hydroelectric dam upstream of Uzbekistan, potentially impacting the volume of water flowing into its agriculture-rich neighbor via the Naryn River.
But with the project stalling and Russia’s economy weighed down by a first round of sanctions following Moscow’s initial incursions into Ukrainian territory in 2014, Kyrgyzstan tore up the contract with the Russian company.
And now, as per a framework agreement signed by the three countries at the beginning of this year, it is Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan pledging to help Bishkek build the hydroelectric plant, called Kambarata-1. That move will mean Uzbekistan is involved in the management of transboundary water resources originating in Kyrgyzstan and can benefit from the output of the future plant, which at present has no investor.
Tashkent-based analyst Anvar Nozirov said Mirziyoev’s preference for compromise over conflict has been key to better ties with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan’s other neighbors.
But he also argued that other changes — such as growing and politically unpopular power deficits in Uzbekistan — have forced the two countries into tighter cooperation.
“Water for the agricultural sector is a priority, but Uzbekistan also sees the potential in Kyrgyzstan’s energy sector, since it is struggling to bring its own energy resources online,” Nozirov said.
Russia’s grinding war in Ukraine that has both alarmed its partners in the region and prevented Moscow from investing in major projects is an additional factor convincing Central Asian states that there is “no other route” beyond long-term cooperation, the analyst added.
“For Central Asian countries, integration in Russian-led organizations hasn’t produced tangible results,” Nozirov said, adding that Kyrgyzstan’s “distinctive political culture” prevented the border deal being reached earlier.
Nozirov was more skeptical, however, about prospects for a multibillion-dollar railway that China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have agreed to in principle, citing economic difficulties since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of appetite for megaprojects in China.
‘Trust Building’ After Crackdown
There are still many big differences between Kyrgyzstan, where political pluralism and volatility have become a tradition, and authoritarian Uzbekistan.
These differences may still have a bearing on the relationship in the future.
Japarov is the third Kyrgyz president Mirziyoev has done business with in six years.
In the first quarter-century of the two countries’ independence, Karimov ruled until he died while two of the four Kyrgyz presidents who took office during that time were toppled by protests.
Kyrgyz social media users contrasted Uzbekistan’s fuss-free confirmation of the border deal — a unanimous vote in the rubber stamp senate followed by Mirziyoev’s signature — with the uproar in Kyrgyzstan, where lawmakers that opposed the deal were put under pressure.
Others suggested that silence in Uzbekistan over the border agreement was logical because Uzbekistan had got the better end of the deal.
Although the relationship has perhaps never been better, it is still fragile, said Emil Juraev, a Bishkek-based political scientist. The way that the border deal was rammed through with limited discussion and transparency by the Japarov administration in Kyrgyzstan has affected the public’s perception of the agreement, he added.
“Overcoming the bitterness that many will feel about the Kempir-Abad reservoir will now require a steady series of confidence and trust-building measures,” Juraev told RFE/RL.
Nursultan Akylbek, a Kyrgyz activist who opposed the agreement, said it is impossible to declare a new era in Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan relations until the full effects of the border agreement are known.
“I don’t believe in the success of [the auto-parts production facility]. There were big expectations from Mirziyoev’s state visit. But I would not highlight any results. Perhaps only that one can enter Uzbekistan with only an ID card now,” he said.