TASHKENT-DUSHANBE -- After 25 years of few cross-border transport options, residents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are awaiting the return -- said to be imminent -- of nonstop flights between their capitals.
In 1992, as civil war broke out in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan terminated nonstop service between Tashkent and the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. Travellers trying to visit each other's country had to drive through rugged terrain for hours or change planes at inconvenient airline hubs.
Now, after several years of warming relations, Uzbekistan Airways is saying that regular nonstop service will resume in April, according to a February 27 announcement on its website. The service is expected to occur twice a week.
If and when nonstop flights between Tashkent and Dushanbe resume, a Tajik carrier, Somon Air, will be the other provider.
Officials, businesspeople and ordinary citizens are expressing hope that the flights will stimulate a further rapprochement between their countries.
"I have been waiting for this occasion for a very long time," Dmitriy Vasilyev of Tashkent told Caravanserai. "Most important, it's a sign that from now on there will be friendship between our countries."
"Now we can fly to Tashkent in 45 minutes," said Zarina Isambayeva of Dushanbe. "It's a great relief."
"The resumption of air service between the nations is something their residents have been waiting for all these past 25 years," Iskandar Firuz, an analyst from Dushanbe, told Caravanserai.
Tajik air carriers stand to benefit from access to Tashkent International Airport, Uzbekistan Airways spokesman Iskander Jalilov told Caravanserai. "Numerous transit flights will be available to their passengers," he said, listing many countries that Tajik passengers will be able to reach on flights originating in Tashkent.
Uzbekistan Airways additionally "reached an agreement to repair aircraft in Tashkent for Tajik airlines", he added.
1st flight to Tashkent
A test flight from Dushanbe to Tashkent, conducted by Somon Air, took place February 10. That flight was for more than 50 journalists and officials, not for the general public.
"This flight made it possible for residents of both countries, which have many mixed marriages, to visit their relatives without problems or without long waits at check-points," Lidiya Saidova, a Dushanbe journalist on that flight, told Caravanserai. "It was joyful to see the faces of passengers flying to Tashkent to see their relatives ... Tashkent was very hospitable."
It took years of talks to reach that point.
Negotiations between the countries' aviation authorities began in 2015. Last November 30 they signed a pact on air transport co-operation.
"Tajikistan appreciates the initiative from the Uzbekistani side to restore air links," said Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe December 27, during talks with Uzbekistani Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, according to Rahmon's press office.
Large populations of potential customers
Both countries have large diasporas that could benefit from not having to drive for hours to see family. Uzbekistan has almost 1.2 million ethnic Tajiks, according to the National Encyclopedia of Uzbekistan, while ethnic Uzbeks represent 12.2% (926,300 people) of the Tajik population, according to the Tajik government.
Those potential customers hope for simpler, cheaper visas to ease their way.
"The air service is a good idea, but obtaining a visa is very expensive, long and difficult," Ilkhom Rajapov of Tashkent told Caravanserai.
A one-month visa for an Uzbekistani visiting Tajikistan costs $50 (165,400 UZS), while a Tajik visiting Uzbekistan pays $60 (198,500 UZS), according to the Tajik Foreign Ministry.
Uzbekistan would like to relax the visa system, but doing so depends on a satisfactory security picture, said Uzbekistani Ambassador to Tajikistan Shokasym Shoislamov in Dushanbe last October, according to Avesta.tj.
"The visa regime, 14 years ago, was introduced ... from the fear that radical groups would infiltrate from neighbouring Afghanistan," said Shoislamov. "We should expect the visa regime to loosen up, but it's premature to speak about eliminating visas entirely."
"A final decision might come ... once we have confidence that the threat of radical groups from Afghanistan has disappeared," he said.
Stepped-up official, commercial co-operation
The plan to resume nonstop flights comes amidst signs of progress between the countries' governments and businesses.
A February 7 decree signed by Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev calls for an "action strategy of the Republic of Uzbekistan for 2017-2021, which envisages creating a belt of security, stability and neighbourly relationships around Uzbekistan," according to the Uzbekistan National News Agency.
That plan builds on a bilateral thaw that began in 2014 after a summit of Rahmon and Mirziyoyev's predecessor, the late Islam Karimov.
Meanwhile, businesses from both countries are creating joint ventures and other evidence of co-operation.
On January 31, Uzbekistani business leaders visiting Tajikistan agreed to hold the first-ever exhibition of Uzbekistani goods in Dushanbe at the end of March, according to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Tajikistan.
[Nadin Bahrom from Dushanbe contributed to this report.]