President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev is starting his official visit to Astana on March 22. The schedule of talks with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is busy enough: starting from security problems up to enhancement of bilateral cooperation. Tashkent and Astana have a chance to build close partner relations minimizing existing “jealous” attitude caused by regional leadership ambitions. In an interview with EADaily, Stanislav Pritchin, a research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, speaks on Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan relations, regional problems and prospects of their settlement.
The visit to Kazakhstan is Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s second regional trip. Earlier, he visited Ashgabat. World political centers are in waiting. What is the reason for the Uzbek president’s activity in the region?
Since Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s program documents contain economic development tasks, intensive contacts and cooperation with neighbors are deemed priorities of Uzbekistan’s diplomacy. We witnessed opening of a motor and railway bridge as one of the major events in the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan talks. The bridge will help exporting and transiting Uzbek goods via Turkmenistan to Iran and the Caspian Sea region. Recalling the first official speech of then acting president Mirziyoyev on September 8 2016, it also prioritized relations with the neighbors.
It is anticipated that a solid package of documents will be signed in Astana. What area of the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan cooperation will be spotlighted?
I think it is hard to outline some major aspect of cooperation. Economic cooperation, intensification of transport contacts and humanitarian cooperation is important to both Astana and Tashkent. Political dialogue and discussion of combined actions in fighting terrorism, transboundary crimes and regional security are equally important. Economic opportunities are interesting too – Kazakhstan may become a window to Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) for Uzbekistan, at least in the machine-building sector, soon. It is anticipated that after Mirziyoyev’s visit, establishment of an assembly factory of Uzbek cars in Kazakhstan will be announced. This will help overcome certain restrictions on direct supplies from Uzbekistan.
Ahead of Mirziyoyev’s visit, political circles speak of possible formation of an Astana-Tashkent geopolitical axis. What does it mean?
I assess prospects of Tashkent-Astana axis with caution. The sides have much in common, common regional interests and willingness to boost economic cooperation. Both the countries are economic and political leaders in the region. They are leaders in the military field too. Suffice it to say that their positions coincide on such painful issue as water resources in the region, Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, first. Naturally, ties of these countries emerged on agenda at different stages of independence. What holds them from creating a political partnership axis? Apart from foreign policy priorities, mechanisms of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy show that it is very active both in bilateral relations with its key partners Russia and China and in versatile relations with and active involvement in various organizations. Uzbekistan prefers bilateral contacts to multilateral formats. Such different degrees of involvement are perhaps one of the factors impeding formation of the axis. Let’s specify what we mean speaking of axis. It shall be long-term, effective institutions operating in a permanent cooperation regime. Meantime, what we see now is just regular contacts at various levels of the executive power without permanent committees and with weak legal backing. The so-called axis may emerge over time, if leaders manage to keep the current positive dynamics.
Tashkent and Astana have a similar stance on security issues. Will this factor become a basis for Kazakh-Uzbek relations?
Security field is very important for both the states. Anti-terror measures, threat of return of IS (Islamic State – a terrorist organization banned in Russia and some other countries) fighters from Syria and Iraq are acute problems for both Astana and Tashkent. There is a problem of transboundary crime, drug traffic, and common threat from Afghanistan. Generally speaking, intensified contacts to ensure regional security are a game with positive result for all regional actors. Another matter that regional security requires involvement of all five states in Central Asia and not just the big actors. The Uzbek-Afghan section of the border is not very long and is well protected, but Uzbekistan’s neighbors cannot boast of the same level of defense. As a result, in case of destabilization in the north of Afghanistan, threats will emerge for Uzbekistan from its neighbor countries. That is why involvement of all the five countries in the region to ensure security is a necessity not a caprice.