Last week’s visit to Kyrgyzstan paid by Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was the latest very clear sign of improving relations between the neighbouring Central Asian countries.
The highlight of the January 26-27 visit was the signing of a border deal that Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov referred to as officially completing the delimitation of the two countries’ 1,314-kilometre border.
For the first 25 years after the Soviet Union collapsed and the former Soviet Central Asian republics became independent, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border was the most dangerous frontier in Central Asia. From the late 1990s on, every year people were shot by border guards along the often-nebulous frontier, and dozens died.
In the summer of 2000, when militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan appeared in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, bordering Uzbekistan, the Uzbek military planted landmines along parts of Uzbekistan’s borders with its eastern neighbours.
The landmines were finally removed only a few years ago.
Hundreds of kilometres of the border remained unmarked. Several times there were tense standoffs when small groups of Uzbek military forces crossed into areas Kyrgyzstan considered part of its territory.
When Mirziyoyev became acting president in September 2016 after the death of predecessor Islam Karimov, Uzbek troops were occupying Ungar-Too, a mountain with a transmission relay station just inside Kyrgyzstan.
The troops refused to release Kyrgyz employees who were working at the station when they seized it. That standoff ended just days after Mirziyoyev came to power.
Ungar-Too is part of the border deal Mirziyoyev and Japarov have just signed. It is officially Kyrgyz territory now.
While that might please some Kyrgyz residents of the Ungar-Too area, the part of the deal that has ceded the Kempir-Abad reservoir to Uzbekistan sparked protests from more than 1,000 people in Kyrgyz villages near the reservoir.
Two dozen politicians, activists and journalists who led a committee opposing the handover of the reservoir to Uzbekistan have been held in custody since late October.
Mirziyoyev was originally scheduled to visit Kyrgyzstan around that time, but the opposition in Kyrgyzstan to the terms of the border agreement he was due to sign caused the trip to be postponed several times.
For Uzbekistan, the border issue is entirely resolved, but it is likely Kyrgyz authorities will be dealing with domestic criticism over the reservoir transfer for the foreseeable future.
There were, however, other indications of progress in Kyrgyz-Uzbek ties during Mirziyoyev’s visit.
The visit in itself was proof of Uzbekistan’s improving relations with Kyrgyzstan.
It was Mirziyoyev’s second trip to Kyrgyzstan as president. The first, in September 2017, was the first official visit paid to Kyrgyzstan by an Uzbek president since 2000.
In the latest visit, besides the border agreement, other matters requiring discussion included important projects involving both countries, projects that are moving forward after years of delays.
As things stand, the expanding 'Middle Corridor' China-to-Europe trade transit routes concentrate on options via Kazakhstan, but imagine a railway running from China to Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan and you imagine the "CKU" (Credit: Commonspace.eu).
After a quarter of a century, for instance, there is finally some progress with the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway project.
The leaders of the three countries signed a deal to start a technical study of the route on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan held last September. The study should start in April. A representative office for the project, meanwhile, opened in Bishkek on January 18.
Western sanctions on Russia in response to its war on Ukraine seemed to prod China into finally committing to the CKU railway as another means of finding alternative trade routes linking with Europe that avoid Russian territory.
The railway would be a boon for Kyrgyzstan. It plans to develop mining sites in the mountains along the route. Extracted minerals would then easily be transported by the railway.
Japarov spoke about the importance of the two countries connecting “regional trade networks to sea routes and world markets.”
With high mountains along its eastern and southern borders, Kyrgyzstan is unfavourably located for trade, nearly all of which must pass through Uzbekistan to the west, or Kazakhstan from the north.
The route through Kazakhstan has been complicated for the last several years. Kazakh authorities have several times unilaterally imposed new restrictions on Kyrgyz trucks hauling cargo, resulting in lengthy delays and long lines at the border.
This is despite both countries being members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with its unified trade and transit regulations.
It means that better relations with Uzbekistan are even more important for Kyrgyzstan.
Improved ties with Uzbekistan have already led to an easing of restrictions on goods crossing from Kyrgyzstan. The final demarcation of the border should further facilitate Kyrgyzstan’s trade via its western neighbour.
Construction of the Kambar-Ata-1 hydropower plant (HPP) in Kyrgyzstan was another item on the Mirziyoyev-Japarov agenda.
Under Karimov, Uzbekistan opposed construction of the massive HPP along the Naryn River, upstream from Uzbekistan. Now, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, also downstream, are partnering with Kyrgyzstan to build the HPP.
A report by UzDaily.uz, published after Mirziyoyev concluded his Kyrgyzstan visit, extolled the benefits of the project for the countries involved, saying it would help ensure there is water stored in the HPP’s reservoir for use downstream during spring and summer and would provide Kyrgyzstan with badly needed electricity, while enabling the Kyrgyz to “annually export energy worth $234 million”.
The article noted that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan will both need more electricity to meet their growing populations’ needs.
One eyecatching agreement will mean Kyrgyzstan selling $100mn of grain and corn to Uzbekistan. Some 90% of Kyrgyzstan is covered by mountains, so the country does not have such an abundance of grain, or corn, that it can afford to export in large volumes.
A business forum attended by representatives of the two countries ahead of Mirziyoyev’s arrival resulted in signed agreements worth $1.6bn.
Many of the deals involve projects in Kyrgyzstan that Uzbekistan will establish, such as an automotive assembly plant, textile factory, chemical fertiliser plant and agricultural projects for growing potatoes and greenhouses.
All of this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.
The new Kyrgyz-Uzbek cooperation is a welcome development for both the two countries and wider regional cooperation.
All the Central Asian countries suffered during the years Uzbekistan was walling itself off from its immediate neighbours under Islam Karimov, but now Central Asia stands to benefit from greater trade, regionally and internationally, so long as the borders are kept open and the governments remain on friendly terms.