Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev got what he wanted out of Uzbekistan. During talks in Tashkent on March 17, Nazarbayev secured Uzbek support for his cherished aim of hosting a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) later this year. In return, he offered unqualified backing for Uzbekistan's stance on hydropower development in Central Asia.
Nazarbayev for the first time fully endorsed the position of Uzbek leader Islam Karimov's administration, which maintains that no hydropower facilities should be built in so-called upstream countries until international feasibility studies are completed. "Until the results of [international] expert testing are available, no dam should be built," Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by the independent Uzbek website Uzmetronom.
Karimov has vociferously resisted plans by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to complete long-stalled hydropower projects -- the Rogun power station on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan and the Kambarata facility on the Naryn River in Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Uzbekistan says the dams could disrupt water supplies to downstream states, adversely impacting economic interests and damaging the environment. Astana, which has been calling for a regional water and energy consortium to be set up to regulate supplies, had hitherto steered clear of making categorical statements on the Tajik and Kyrgyz projects.
"Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, being countries downstream of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, need such guarantees [offered by international feasibility studies]," Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by the official Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper on March 18. "This is not needed by us, the presidents, but by our peoples and our environmental and economic security. It is a question of water supplies to millions of people."
Earlier in March, the World Bank offered to underwrite an environmental feasibility study for Rogun and to provide financial support for construction, depending on the study's findings. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Nazarbayev said he had spoken to Tajik President Imomali Rahmon and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev ahead of his visit to Tashkent, and that they agreed in principle to international sustainability studies for hydropower projects. If studies proved that development plans could proceed without a detrimental impact on neighboring states, Astana and Tashkent would be willing to participate in construction, Nazarbayev announced.
Tashkent has regularly issued strident statements over hydropower projects in upstream states, but during this visit the rhetoric of Uzbek leaders was restrained. "It was noted that in the construction of hydropower facilities on cross-border rivers, it is necessary to take account of the interests and security of all the region's states," a report posted on the Uzbek presidential website on March 17 noted.
The apparent quid-pro-quo for Nazarbayev's backing of Uzbekistan's hydropower position was Karimov assent to Astana's bid to convene an OSCE summit. Kazakhstan is serving as the OSCE chair in 2010. "We wholly support the chairmanship of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the OSCE, and also the republic's initiative to hold a summit," Kazakhstanskaya Pravda quoted Karimov as saying. The Uzbek presidential website pointedly avoided mentioning the OSCE endorsement.
Astana has been lobbying fiercely to secure the backing of member states to host the first OSCE summit since 1999. A few influential states, notably the United States, have yet to be persuaded that such a meeting would yield genuine results. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Nazarbayev is expected to lobby US officials on the OSCE summit idea when he is in Washington to attend an international nuclear summit in April.
Observers say securing Tashkent's support marks an important diplomatic victory for Nazarbayev. "In the first place, it was precisely to persuade Islam Karimov to lift his objections [to an OSCE summit] that the president of Kazakhstan went to Tashkent," Arkady Dubnov, a well-known commentator on Central Asian affairs, wrote in the Russian Vremya newspaper on March 17. Dubnov also cited the warm words spoken by Karimov about Kazakhstan's successes being tantamount to Uzbekistan's successes, which Dubnov interpreted as a "gesture of diplomatic reconciliation." [Editor's note: Arkady Dubnov is a regular contributor to EurasiaNet's Russian edition].
"Relations between the two largest countries, battling for leadership in Central Asia . . . have never been distinguished by particular warmth," Dubnov added.
Karimov and Nazarbayev -- who both became leaders of their Soviet republics in 1989, and have led their respective states since they gained independence in 1991 -- have long been viewed as competitors for a leadership role in Central Asia. But during the visit, Nazarbayev was at pains to deny any rivalry, insisting that any such reports are "invented."
"There are no contradictions between our countries," Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by the Kazinform state news agency. "There have always been people who wish there not to be friendship. We have the will and political understanding not to allow this."
Nazarbayev rounded off the trip with a call for regional unity. "It is important as never before not to allow fragmentation and diffusion in our region. I am convinced that without serious dynamics in our personal and interstate relations, the region will not be able to join forces for development and prosperity."
HHowever, many observers doubt that the expressions of mutual friendship voiced in Tashkent will have a lasting impact. They likewise do not expect that Central Asian states can resolve divisive issues, such as the hydropower development, any time soon, and believe that the Kazakh-Uzbek rivalry is not a thing of the past.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.