TURKMEN-UZBEK RAPROACHMENT REACHES A NEW PHASE IN ASHGABAT
On January 31, Ashgabat hosted the third session of the Turkmen-Uzbek intergovernmental commission on trade, economy, science and technology and a humanitarian partnership. The main subject of the bilateral summit was dedicated to making effective use of the countriesâ€™ economic and humanitarian potential. As the bilateral forum was leaping forward, a broad exhibition of Uzbekistanâ€™s goods and services, businesses, culture and traditions was also staged in the Exhibition Palace in Ashgabat.
A large delegation from Uzbekistan, headed by Batyr Hojaev, the Minister of Economy and Elyor Ganiev, the Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, Investment and Trade arrived in Ashgabat to participate in the forum. Nazarguly Ataguliyev, the Minister of Trade and Foreign Economic Relations of Turkmenistan, headed the Turkmen side of the joint commission. In contrast to earlier sessions of the commission, Ganiev said that the representatives of Uzbekistanâ€™s financial structures and businesses are more willing and ready to participate in investment projects and private sector development processes in Turkmenistan.
The joint delegation also expressed a new initiative for establishing a regular exchange of economic figures and macroeconomic data of development in both countries. The Turkmen participants in the commission in particular called for closer cooperation in the agricultural sector. Part of the summitâ€™s agenda was dedicated to preparing new agreements for President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedovâ€™s expected visit to Tashkent in mid-2008.
While the commission continued exploring new aspects for bilateral cooperation, local media sources turned the spotlight on to an exhibition of Uzbekistan being staged for the first time in a major way in Turkmenistan. Representatives of major state and private businesses of Uzbekistan took part in the exhibition and reached common ground to sign contracts with Turkmen counterparts for delivering goods and services to the Turkmen market.
Turkmenistan is particularly interested in purchasing tractors and other agricultural machines needed for the cotton and wheat industries in the country. Annually, Turkmenistan places orders for hundreds of tractors from Belarus at relatively high prices, and buying similar machines with equal quality from neighboring Uzbekistan appears to be much more cost-effective. Therefore, Turkmen authorities want to see Uzbekistan as a long-term trade partner for developing its agricultural sector.Â Â
By implication, the three-day long bilateral summit and an almost weeklong exhibition in Ashgabat marked the increasing level of bilateral cooperation both at the state and private sector levels. More importantly, it showed a major positive step in leaving the frosty past behind and moving toward a new phase of rapprochement in Uzbek-Turkmen relations. Under former President Saparmurad Niyazovâ€™s leadership, Uzbek-Turkmen relations were frozen, especially following the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazovâ€™s life in November 2002.Â Turkmen authorities had then accused Tashkent of providing assistance to coup plotters in Ashgabat and expelled the Uzbek ambassador, declaring him a persona non grata. Similarly, tight security measures in border areas were reinforced and diplomatic connections halted.
A somewhat ambivalent, but relatively decisive thaw was reached during Karimovâ€™s historic two-day visit to Ashgabat in October 2007.Â By signing a package of eight major agreements, the two sides laid a new ground and legal basis that would decide the future course of Turkmen-Uzbek relations. While lifting the â€œiron curtainâ€ between the two countries, Karimov appeared to have found a personal rapport with his counterpart Berdimukhammedov. Berdimuhammedovâ€™s conferring on Karimov the rank of â€œHonorary Elder of the Turkmen Peopleâ€ and Karimovâ€™s giving his counterpart the highest award of Uzbekistan, â€œBuyuk Hizmatlary Ucunâ€ (For Great Services) added a symbolic meaning to the personal rapport.Â Apparently, both Karimov and the new leadership in Turkmenistan seem to have realized the importance of closer cooperation for resolving common problems and pursuing economic interests.
Finding a common ground on the effective use of water resources, among other, nevertheless still remains one of the major issues in the intergovernmental commissionâ€™s agenda. Since the time when former president Niyazov decreed the creation of an artificial lake in the Karakum Desert, Uzbekistanâ€™s concern grew that water from the Amu-Darya River flowing through the territory of Turkmenistan and to the Aral Sea would dramatically diminish. On Turkmenistanâ€™s part, Berdimukhammedov needs Tashkentâ€™s cooperation in carrying out Turkmenistanâ€™s planned Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, a mega-project expected to export 30 billion cubic meters of blue fuel to China starting from 2009. As expected, 530km of this 7000-km long pipeline is to cross through the territory of Uzbekistan.