President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on April 24 completed his two-day visit to Uzbekistan. It was a reciprocal trip of the Turkmen leader - he was invited to visit Tashkent during his counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Ashgabat, the first, by the way, foreign visit of the newly elected president of Uzbekistan. Perhaps the main result of the visit was that modern technologies were used in its coverage: the ceremony at the airport and the joint press conference of the presidents were broadcasted through the Uzbek leader personal page in Facebook.
If that was a hint of the host party to the guest for a need to move in step with the times and make the closed regime of his state more liberal, then it had no effect. The Turkmen president was eager to talk about global issues, regional projects, inviting Uzbekistan to participate in them with a broad gesture. But when discussing pressing specific issues affecting the interests of the two countries’ people, everything remained unchanged.
In particular, the visa regime will not be canceled or even liberalized, which is so important for Uzbeks living in Turkmen Chardzhou and Tashauz, and for Turkmen in Bukhara, Khorezm and Kashkadarya regions of Uzbekistan. The transport issue remained unresolved. But Ashgabat offered Tashkent to explore the possibilities of using its ports in the Caspian Sea, and Mirziyoyev was invited to take part in the opening ceremony of the Turkmenbashi port. Tashkent was invited to join the TAPI gas pipeline project, "support it financially and morally". The Uzbek side agreed, but, as expected, not fully. And in conclusion Berdymukhamedov announced his readiness to provide a platform for negotiations on the Afghan settlement under United Nations auspices.
The presidents of the two countries expressed satisfaction with the results of the talks, but, in some experts’ opinion, the diplomatic protocol obliged to do so. EADaily asked Bakhtiyor Ergashev, director of the Tashkent Ma'no Center for Research Initiatives, to evaluate the results of the visit.
What are your impressions, are there any results from the visit?
A year has passed since Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Turkmenistan, and it's time to make a return visit. Generally, it is necessary to speak not so much about Turkmenistan, as about Uzbekistan. The foreign policy of Tashkent, the core of which is declared openness and good neighborliness, can go as far as the counterparty is ready.
If Tajikistan is ready for a month-long visa-free regime, then Uzbekistan responds the same way. Kyrgyzstan declared full support for Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan repays with the same coin. As for Turkmenistan ... From a humanitarian, political point of view, the most important issue for the two countries’ citizens, especially for those of the border regions, is the visas issue. It has remained unresolved. Turkmenistan is the only country in the region that does not have direct flights with its neighbors. I wish there was a flight between our capitals.
But the issue remained unresolved. This may be a trifle, but in fact, the indicator that Turkmenistan does not want to go further and is not ready to open. And Uzbekistan's position is not to insist on anything: they are ready to talk about the educational sphere - let's talk about this, about TAPI - fine, let's solve the issues with TAPI. The documents signed by the presidents cover the humanitarian and educational spheres. There are no breakthroughs in the economy. There is very little, gradual rapprochement of positions in transport projects, which occupy an important place in the agenda both in Uzbekistan and in Turkmenistan.
What's new in the TAPI project?
Nothing new has happened. Shavkat Mirziyoyev backed the initiative in May of last year, declaring his readiness to participate in the project. But Uzbekistan will likely be limited to TAPI's political support. That sounded a year ago and was repeated now. Uzbekistan is hardly ready for financial or technological participation. There are no additional gas volumes for export to fill the pipeline. For Uzbekistan, this project is not important from a commercial point of view, but it is interesting from the political and geopolitical ones. The TAPI, at least from the border of Turkmenistan to Herat and beyond, will run almost parallel to the railroad that Uzbekistan intends to build: Mazar-i-Sharif - Herat with access to the Iranian ports, as well as to the Arabian port of Chorbahr. These projects are correlated with each other, because both require a reduction in the intra-Afghan conflict degree, an agreement on the implementation of these infrastructure projects - the pipeline and the railway.
These projects reinforce each other in that they require at least some kind of political agreement, dialogue and security guarantees. Therefore, the political and geopolitical support of TAPI is important, although at the same time, I repeat, Uzbekistan has no economic interest in this gas pipeline. TAPI will be filled with Turkmen gas from the Davletobod deposit. Ashgabat needs money, Tashkent is unlikely to become a financial partner, but declaring political support for the project will strengthen Ashgabat position in finding the necessary funds from some international financial institutions.
How do you assess Turkmenistan's readiness to provide a negotiating platform for the Afghan problem settlement?
Ashgabat has always been active in mediating peacekeeping issues in the intra-Afghan conflict. A number of meetings were held in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Ashgabat. The experience of providing a platform for negotiations with Turkmenistan is considerable. Therefore, the desire to turn Ashgabat into a place where the dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government will take place under the UN auspices is understandable. Actually, why not? It does not matter where it will be done. The main thing is to make sure that the parties sit down at the negotiating table and start negotiating. All neighboring countries are interested in this, including Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In the end, both states have projects, mentioned above, that related directly to stability in Afghanistan.
Why was it not possible to solve seemingly simple questions related to visa regime abolition or liberalization, the opening of an air service between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan?
This is really relevant. People are suffering with visas. Some are forced to go to Tashkent for a visa, others are to go to Ashgabat. In this case, you can wait for a month for a visa and not get it. This is a serious burden on people. The question was raised about creating mutual transitions, at least in the border area, and easing the visa regime. All this has long ago to be solved, as well as transport issues. But it depends little on Uzbekistan - it is ready. When Turkmenistan decides - that's a question. At the same time, Turkmenistan in principle has exhausted the possibilities of autocratic development of society and economy.
Reality dictates the need for change. Turkmenistan will be forced to open. Moreover, the development of common transport projects encourages this. Their implementation will require if not the abolition of the visa regime, then its maximum relief. Or, for example, the Turkmen leader has invited the people of Uzbekistan to rest on the Caspian Sea. It's fine, but how? It is impossible to get visas in less than three months. Here it is - a reality that will have a positive impact on the Turkmenistan liberalization.
EADaily’s Central Asian Bureau