ENGRUS

Uzbekistan: President Cannot Get Enough of Turkmenistan

When Uzbekistan’s president likes a place, he likes it to pay it a repeat visit, or so it would seem.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev is set to go on a second trip to Turkmenistan on May 19-20 — he first went in March — at the behest of this Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

The leaders will meet for talks and sign off on some intergovernmental agreement to “further develop cooperation.” Trade and transportation are likely to be at the top of the agenda.

Turkmenistan was actually the first country that Mirziyoyev visited as president, a choice that sent a signal that the new Uzbek leader was intending to live up to vows that he would favor regional relations over those with the usual larger geo-strategic partners. The main outcomes of that visit were a strategic cooperation agreement and a pledge to improve transportation links.

As one of only two nations in the world to be double-landlocked*, Uzbekistan  has faced particular complications in connecting to the outside world, a fact that made the late president Islam Karimov’s customarily frosty attitude to neighbors even more mystifying. With the recent completion of a north-south railway line  through Turkmenistan — intended in the broader picture to give China a time-saving outlet to the Persian Gulf — Uzbekistan is sniffing an opportunity. Eased access to Caspian routes are also high appealing.

Following up on its concerted charm offensive in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan is hoping it can carve out another promising export market in Turkmenistan, which has been suffering of late from deficits for staple goods due to its shortage of hard foreign cash. Turkmenistan is itself in desperate economic straits, so any advantageous deals it can broker with a friendly neighbor will be eagerly welcomed.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, who share a 1,621 kilometer-long border, should by rights be natural bedfellows, for any number of reasons. And yet relations have historically been poor and a two-way visa regime makes it complicated for citizens of either country to visit the other.

The nadir in relations probably came in November 2002, when the Turkmen government blamed Uzbekistan of involvement in an alleged assassination attempt on the late President Saparmurat Niyazov. Turkmen authorities searched the Uzbek Embassy at the time and Ashgabat then sent troops to reinforce the border. 

The death of the Turkmen autocrat Niyazov relaxed things somewhat, and now the passing of his old Soviet Politburo buddy Karimov has warmed feelings even further.

In a tangentially related sign of goodwill, on May 16, around 100 Uzbek children traveled to the Turkmen white elephant resort of Awaza on the Caspian Sea for a holiday, again at Berdymukhamedov’s suggestion. Keeping with that theme, the two presidents will be meeting in Awaza.

* The other double-landlocked nation is, of course, Liechtenstein.