By Maksim Yeniseyev
TASHKENT/ASTANA -- Friendly policies pursued by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan's presidents have been boosting trade and cultural relations in recent months, say officials and analysts.
Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev made better relations with his country's neighbours a priority after taking office last year.
"During the first quarter of 2017, we saw an increase in business relations in various sectors," Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev said during a summit with Mirziyoyev in South Kazakhstan Province April 29, according to Mirziyoyev's press office. "During the first three months of 2017, trade grew by 37%."
Trade between the two countries fell somewhat in 2016 to $2 billion (7.5 trillion UZS), according to data released during a February session of the two countries' joint inter-governmental commission. In 2015 it had been slightly above $3 billion (11.4 trillion UZS).
"Trade between the two countries has not reached its full potential ... You rarely run into Kazakhstani goods on [Uzbekistani] shelves," Shukurullo Mavlonov, an economist from Tashkent, told Caravanserai.
Mindful of the benefits of greater economic co-operation between countries that have a combined population of almost 50 million, Mirziyoyev and Nazarbayev during an April 24 phone conversation agreed on increasing annual trade to $5 billion (18.8 trillion UZS) in coming years, according to Mirziyoyev's press office.
The two leaders consider economic development and higher standards of living key factors in fighting terrorism and radicalism, Caravanserai previously reported.
To catch up with lost opportunities, Uzbekistani businesses are actively exhibiting their products in Kazakhstan.
On May 12-13, 230 Tashkent manufacturers attended a trade fair in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, and signed a memorandum of co-operation between Tashkent and Shymkent, according to the Uzbekistani Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
As part of the deal, South Kazakhstan Province established 11 industrial zones to accommodate joint projects. The province accounts for almost 30% of Uzbekistani-Kazakhstani trade.
"I export Uzbekistani-made men's clothing all across CIS states but not to Kazakhstan," Ilyos Tursunov, a businessman from Tashkent, told Caravanserai. "With relations warming up between our countries, I am seriously considering this market."
Tax benefits or free trade zones will help Uzbekistani businesses succeed in Kazakhstan, he said.
Another testament to improving relations is expected to come soon, when the countries re-open a long-closed section of the M-39 highway.
The road fell victim to worsening relations after the Soviet collapse in 1991, with the disputed section closing in 2006.
A piece of Kazakhstani territory, Maktaaral District, sits on M-39 between the major Uzbekistani cities of Tashkent and Samarkand. Uzbekistani drivers who in Soviet times passed through Maktaaral without difficulty found themselves having to undergo Kazakhstani border inspections between two Uzbekistani cities.
Since the M-39 section closed in 2006, Uzbekistani motorists have been forced to use a 70km-long bypass road that stays in Uzbekistani territory and circles around Maktaaral District.
Once M-39 fully re-opens, "Samarkand will be closer, and we will be able to save almost an hour of travel time," Dovlat Sobirov, a driver from Tashkent, told Caravanserai.
The governments are encouraging people-to-people links too, aware of the large diasporas each country contains. According to official statistics from both sides, 808,000 ethnic Kazakhs live in Uzbekistan and 548,000 ethnic Uzbeks in Kazakhstan.
On May 2-6 a "Caravan of Friendship" from South Kazakhstan Province visited Uzbekistan. Fifty aksakals (elders) made a pilgrimage to the graves of Central Asian historic figures venerated in Kazakhstan. They also visited cultural sites in Tashkent, according to the South Kazakhstan Province government press office.
"This is the second 'Caravan of Friendship', but last time, five years ago, it took place only in Turkestan city [in Kazakhstan]," Guli-Rano Rasulova, deputy chairwoman of the South Kazakhstan Provincial Uzbek Ethnocultural Association, told TV channel TVK May 3. "This time it's taking place on a provincial scale."
"Crossing the border was difficult," Tashkent resident Abduvali Sulaimanov of Tashkent told Caravanserai, recalling the chill that set in after 1991. "There were long lines and unfriendly border guards. But everything has changed."