Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov posing for a photograph at a horse-breeding center outside Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat. (Photo: Turkmenistan government website)
The president of Uzbekistan’s maiden foreign trip, to Turkmenistan, may prove a valuable exercise in building bridges — well, inaugurating them at least.
For his first visit since becoming leader of his country, Shavkat Mirziyoyev decided on March 6 to pay a visit on his neighbors to the south — a fresh indication that Uzbekistan may seek to revive its often shaky regional relationships at the expense of broader geopolitical alliances.
In line with custom, the trip was marked by a flurry of document-signing.
Mirziyoyev and his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, inked an agreement on economic cooperation in 2018-2020 and a memorandum of understanding on the need to develop railway infrastructure, among other documents.
Turning from word to deed, the two leaders traveled to the northeastern Lebap province on March 7 to attend the ceremonial inauguration of the 1.75 kilometer Turkmenabat-Farap railway and road bridge, which straddles the Amu-Dary River and could conceivably enable greater cross-border traffic. Until now, trains crossing the river coursing along Turkmenistan’s side of the border did so using a bridge built in 1901.
According to a Turkmen state media account, the leaders stood at the banks of the river and watched as traffic traversed the newly opened bridges — trains arrived from Uzbekistan, and in the other direction, trucks carried textiles, fertilizers and other goods.
Ambitious visions on transportation appear to have dominated the visit.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, in Dushanbe on February 27. Photo: Russian Presidential Press Service
Anybody expecting major developments out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tajikistan will be left disappointed as nothing of note appears to have transpired.
Putin exchanged the usual pleasantries with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, during their February 27 meeting in Dushanbe, while paying some very cursory and noncommittal lip service to the need to intensify defenses against potential threats spilling over from Afghanistan.
No mention was made of the Eurasian Economic Union, quashing suspicions for now that Tajikistan was considering finally relenting and joining the Moscow-led trading bloc. In fact, a very pointed reference was made in a speech by Rahmon to how talks addressed specifically bilateral relations.
“During the talks, we thoroughly reviewed the status and prospects of Tajik-Russian cooperation in the bilateral format and within international forums such as the United Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization,” Rahmon said.
The most significant break for Tajikistan was signaled by Putin’s remark about his government considering a revision on a ban of Tajik citizens barred from traveling to Russia for one or other reason.
“We discussed this. And overall a solution has been found and we will work in line with an agreement reached with the president of Tajikistan,” Putin said.
Russian deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov, who traveled with the visiting delegation, said that more than 200,000 Tajik citizens may currently be affected by travel bans. Shuvalov said bans would likely be waived for those people that had committed only minor violations of migration laws.
“Those that committed crimes or were in some way involved in illegal activity will, of course, not be granted permission to enter,” he said.
When Uzbekistan suddenly decided this week to deny permission for an airline from Tajikistan to land in its capital, it might have been safe to expect an outcry.
Privately owned Somon Air was due to carry a couple dozen paying passengers for the February 20 flight to Tashkent — the first along this route in 25 years — when it learned permission had been revoked.
Tajikstan’s Asia-Plus reported on January 21 that Uzbek authorities fired off an incensed letter laying all the blame at the feet of the Tajiks.
The letter argued that Somon Air had filed a request to effect charter flights and not regular scheduled flights. It also claimed it only received the official paperwork authorizing the route on February 19, one day before the flight. That gave the insufficient time to adopt a decision, as the matter had to be considered by security services and air defense officials, the Uzbek letter stated.
And finally, the Uzbek authorities said Somon Air still had no branch office in Tashkent and that the sale of tickets was accordingly not possible.
This is high bunkum even by the normally lofty standards of Central Asian officialdom.
A date for the Somon Air maiden flight had been set weeks ago and widely advertised by media in both countries, which makes nonsense of the implication that Uzbek oversight bodies were somehow caught by surprise. As to the sale of tickets, Somon Air has a website through which that can be done, so even this is unconvincing grounds for rescinding permission to operate. In any event, it is unclear how Somon Air’s commercial strategy is supposed to be of any interest to Uzbek authorities.
A plane carrying paying customers, officials and reporters completed the first commercial flight between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for the first time in 25 years, signaling a hopeful new chapter in the two countries’ often-strained relations.
The plane departed the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, at 10 a.m. on February 10 and arrived less than an hour later in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
“The Tashkent-Dushanbe-Tashkent flight, which the peoples of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have awaited for 25 years, was made possible by the willingness of the two nations’ leader to meet halfway,” Tom Hallam, chief executive at Tajikistan’s privately owned Somon Air, was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti news agency.
Regular flights along the same route are scheduled to start from February 20.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia-Plus reported that only 14 tickets were sold for the maiden flight. Aside from paying customers, other fliers included aviation officials and journalists.
Asia-Plus quoted one passenger, Jamila Yusupova, as describing the flight as a momentous personal occasion.
“I am originally from Tashkent and back in the Soviet days I moved to Tajikistan together with my husband. And it has been 25 years since I have not been able to see my family. Now my brother and sister, who I haven’t seen for a quarter of a century, are waiting for me there,” she said.
Narmurad Rajabov, an ethnic Tajik living in the city of Bukhara, said his brother lived in neighboring Tajikistan. He said they had not seen one another for many years because of the difficulties entailed in securing a visa.
Central Asia has looked at Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency and some of it likes what it sees. The rest seems unbothered.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev fired off a note of congratulations to his counterpart-to-be and suggested that Trump drop in for a visit.
“I believe that under your leadership, the United States will remain a mainstay in the preservation of stability, security and prosperity in the entire world,” Nazarbayev said in the statement.
The haste and palpable warmth of the statement are hard not to see as a ringing endorsement. Nazarbayev, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, clearly see in Trump a figure untroubled by such trifles as the promotion of democracy and human rights.
When Hillary Clinton last visited Kazakhstan, in 2010, she made a point of raising the plight of a jailed human rights defender, Yevgeny Zhovtis, while also hailing Astana for its progress on human rights.
Maulen Ashimbayev, a member of parliament with the ruling Nur Otan party, predicted that Trump’s victory would prove beneficial to Kazakhstan by virtue of the prospect of improving relations between Washington and Moscow.
Only some panicked, last-minute diplomacy has prevented Tajikistan being plunged into almost total isolation after Russia backed away from threats to suspend flights between the two countries.
In more positive aviation news, Uzbekistan’s plans to reopen air links with Tajikistan as of next year portends new possibilities in much-needed regional cooperation.
Russia last week dangled the threat of unilaterally closing air traffic with Tajikistan after the latter dragged its feet granting permission for flights to Dushanbe and the northern city of Khujand from Moscow region’s recently completed Zhukovsky International Airport.
That prospect would have been nothing short of cataclysmic for Tajikistan. Flights to and from Russia account for 95 percent of the totality of Tajikistan’s international air traffic. Passengers are in the main the labor migrants that keep the economy afloat. The remaining 5 percent of routes are accounted for by flights to Istanbul, Bishkek and Dubai and are, according to industry insiders, not nearly as profitable as those to Russia.
Last week, while Tajikistan was still sticking to its guns, the head of the aviation department at the ministry of transportation, Mahmadyusuf Rahmonov, explained that under a bilateral agreement, Russia and Tajikistan were automatically entitled to have two airlines each service routes between the countries’ capitals.
When Uzbekistan’s acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed a joint session of parliament earlier this month, he made a point of saying that his foreign policy priority was to boost relations with regional neighbors.
"We always remain committed to adopting an open, friendly and pragmatic position toward our immediate neighbors — Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan," Mirziyoyev said.
Since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaders in Central Asia have been paying lip service to the notion of fostering fraternal ties in the region, but Mirziyoyev has tentatively lived up to his word in small if meaningful ways so far.
In an apparent start at trying to mend fences, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov on September 29 visited Tajikistan, where he met with President Emomali Rahmon.
Discussions were confined to what might sound like meaningless generalities anywhere else. For these two countries, however, talk of positive trends in relations, increased trade, revitalized dialogue on trade and economic cooperation and “the importance of maintaining regular political consultations and dialogue at the highest levels” are more than noteworthy.
Rahmon and Karimov’s relationship was fraught by personal enmity, making reaching state-level agreement on a number of thorny sticking points — of which there are many — all the more difficult.
The biggest source of bilateral unease lies in Dushanbe’s determination to build the giant Roghun hydropower plant, which Tashkent has loudly complained will pose a potentially existential risk to its agricultural sector by stemming the flow of a major river.
A series of alleged tapped telephone conversations among senior Tajikistan diplomats discussing plans to cover up a purported rape in Turkmenistan is threatening to sour relations between the otherwise friendly nations.
The recordings appeared earlier this month on a 20-minute YouTube video edited clumsily to appear to like a news report on Turkmen state television. A link to the video — the origin of which is uncertain — is now being widely shared by exiled Tajik opposition groups, which are pointing to the claimed incident as evidence of moral corruption among officials.
None of the recordings could be independently verified and none of the governments involved have commented officially on the alleged events described.
The narrator of the YouTube video, whose voice has been distorted, possibly to disguise his identity, opens the account with praise for Turkmenistan and its leader, only to note “there are some who are prepared to do almost anything to spoil relations with our country” — a reference to Tajik diplomats.
The speaker claims in the narration that the third secretary of Tajikistan’s Embassy in Turkmenistan, Golibshoh Kayumov, was earlier this year detained by police in the city of Chardjou on suspecting to rape a minor earlier this year.
As supporting evidence, there is a lengthy recorded telephone conversation between people identified as Tajik Embassy second secretary, H. Rahimov, and then-ambassador Mahmudjon Sobirov. After some initial pleasantries, Rahimov explains to this superior that Kayumov was caught in flagrante delicto with the young girl and was later forced to sign a statement admitting to having sexual relations with her.
Kazakhstan has become the first country from Central Asia ever to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Out 193 countries represented at plenary session on the UN General Assembly on June 28, 138 voted to hand the role to Kazakhstan, which squeezed out contender Thailand.
Seasoned UN veteran and current speaker of Kazakhstan’s Senate, Kassym Jomart-Tokayev, broke the news with a message of congratulations on his Twitter account.
“Kazakhstan is a UNSC Member. It's a historic achievement of my country led by President Nazarbayev on the 25th Anniversary of Independence,” he wrote.
Election to the Security Council requiring garnering 129 votes. Kazakhstan won 113 votes in the first round of voting, coming ahead of Thailand with its 77 votes. It took a second session of voting to secure the seat.
Kazakhstan take up its temporary seat on the council alongside Sweden, Ethiopia and Bolivia starting from January 1 and occupy through to the end of 2018.
This kind of positioning on the global stage is something that Astana, which strives to be see as major diplomatic player, takes very seriously.
The country’s most recent moment in the diplomatic spotlight was in 2010, when it became the first post-Soviet republic to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In June that same year, Kazakhstan declared its candidacy to claim a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In 2011-2012, Kazakhstan became the first Central Asian country to become chair of Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
A citizen of Uzbekistan has been sentenced to 16 years in jail for spying for Tajikistan in fresh reminder of the unabated tensions between the two countries.
The way in which the news was revealed is also telling as each side seeks to sharpen its weapons in a long-standing information war.
On April 4, Uzbek state television aired a documentary titled “Traitor” (“Sotkin” in Uzbek) explaining how Sharifjon Asrorov purportedly collaborated with Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security to pass on classified information.
The information in question was related to the situation in prisons, refugees, and military bases and personnel in the Uzbek regions of Surkhandarya, Kashkadarya and Bukhara, the documentary explained.
The film stated that Asrorov, who it said is married to a woman from Tajikistan, confessed to spying.
Traitor was shown at 9 p.m. local time on the main state channel, although the station’s logo was not featured on the screen during the broadcast.
As a station employee explained, these type of programs are rarely advertised in advance, even to the channel’s management, and regularly bump scheduled shows off the running order at the last minute.
“The film was made by the television production unit of the National Security Service [SNB], which has lately taken to producing a lot of films and television programs about terrorism, drug-trafficking and espionage. In the jargon, this is what we call ‘unscheduled programing,’” the station worker told EurasiaNet.org.
As the television station employee said, editorial staff are never informed about the content of SNB films before they are aired. The feature on Asrorov will likely be repeated.