by Maksim Yeniseyev
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev (at left end) and Uzbekistani counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev confer in Samarkand December 24. They agreed to boost bilateral trade. [Atambayev press office]
TASHKENT -- Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are boosting economic co-operation and affirming their resolve to fight extremism together.
The rapprochement comes as Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took office last year, strives to thaw ties with his country's neighbours.
"Good relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are the most positive and auspicious scenario for reinforcing security in the region," Valerii Khan, a Tashkent political scientist, told Caravanserai.
"In the past, [their] relations were married by ethnic conflicts between the Uzbek [minority] and Kyrgyz in Osh [Kyrgyzstan] in 1990 and 2010, by water disputes and by personal hostility between the countries' [past] leaders," he said.
On March 28 in Tashkent, Uzbekistani Deputy Foreign Minister Anvar Nasyrov and Kyrgyz Ambassador to Uzbekistan Daniyar Sadykov conferred on their countries' ties, according to the Uzbekistani Foreign Ministry.
Topics included the state of bilateral co-operation and planned diplomatic meetings in April.
Security concerns of the two neighbours include the Fergana Valley, a fertile, densely populated region shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
It is the most "explosive" spot in Central Asia, according to some analysts.
"A religious, conservative population lives here," said Khan. "This was exactly where extremists from Tajikistan tried to invade [Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan] in 1999."
That attempt led to combat, forcing the deployment of Kyrgyzstan's regular army.
Aware of the potential for extremist recruitment in the Fergana Valley and of the radicalisation of thousands of Central Asians who have joined insurgencies in the Middle East, Mirziyoyev and Kyrgyz counterpart Almazbek Atambayev conferred on security in Samarkand December 24.
The leaders expressed their resolve to continue co-operating and noted the necessity of achieving peace in Afghanistan as a pre-condition for Central Asian security and prosperity, according to Mirziyoyev's press office.
They also agreed on the need to step up security co-operation to reverse the "creeping expansion" of extremism, the CIS TV channel Mir 24 reported after the summit.
The countries are making progress on border disputes that date back to Soviet times.
One of the artifacts of their past differences is that Kyrgyz citizens may not enter Uzbekistani territory in the Fergana Valley, and vice versa.
"If I want to go to Osh [Kyrgyzstan], I have to fly to Bishkek [Kyrgyzstan] first, even though Osh is almost on our border," Vera Merzlyakova, a Tashkent resident, told Caravanserai. "This is absurd."
The governments are working toward the day when such restrictions end.
On March 19 in Osh, task forces from both countries ended 10 successful days of talks on border delimitation and demarcation, according to the Uzbekistani Foreign Ministry.
They surveyed the most complex segments of their border and signed a protocol on their findings, according to the Uzbekistani Foreign Ministry.
About 70% of their shared border is delineated so far, Caravanserai reported in February.
As relations thaw, both countries are expecting rapid trade growth.
In 2015, bilateral trade amounted to only $148 million, a paltry total for two countries, according to the Uzbekistani Foreign Ministry.
At the Samarkand summit, the two presidents committed to boosting that figure to $500 million within two years, according to Mirziyoyev's press office.
Business owners and other residents of Uzbekistan are hoping for more rapprochement.
Citing the mutual ban on each country's citizens from entering the other country's territory in the Fergana Valley, Tashkent businessman Sherzod Annazarov called importing Kyrgyz goods "problematic".
"It's easier to transport goods into the Fergana Valley from Turkey or the UAE than from Kyrgyzstan," he said of the present situation.
Some signs on the ground are encouraging.
Previously, Caravanserai wrote about reciprocal visits last September and October by Uzbekistani and Kyrgyz delegations.
In late March, the Uzbek senate ratified a regional agreement to found an Institute of Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation (CAREC), which would include, among other countries, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
"CAREC projects supported by the IMF, UN Development, Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank are extremely significant for the growth of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan's economies," Shukurullo Mavlonov, an economist from Tashkent, told Caravanserai.
One project is renovation of the Toktogul hydro plant in Kyrgyzstan, he said, adding that completion will mean more power for both countries.
Presidents of Central Asian countries overall called 2017 a year of changes and said they foresee further innovations in 2018.
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