Crossroads Asia

Water and Railways Discussed By Kyrgyz and Uzbek Prime Ministers

It may lack big headlines, but the normal continuance of diplomacy between neighbors is important in Central Asia.

Water and Railways Discussed By Kyrgyz and Uzbek Prime Ministers
Credit: Dan Lundberg/Flickr

On August 1, Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov arrived in Kyrgyzstan’s capital for a working visit. At hand are a host of perennial issues — like borders, water and railroads — and the laying of groundwork for a future visit by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to Kyrgyzstan.

Aripov met with Kyrgyz Prime Minister Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev and other government officials, including President Soornbay Jeenbekov.

Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been on an upswing since the death of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, in late August 2016. In October 2017, then-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev made a momentous official visit to Tashkent, where he signed a Declaration of Strategic Partnership with Mirziyoyev. Two months later, President Jeenbekov traveled to Uzbekistan to solidify the relationship further. Those visits continue to set many of the agenda items for bilateral interactions like Aripov’s trip to Bishkek.

For example, in both Atambayev’s and Jeenbekov’s trips to Tashkent, transportation links got top-billing. In particular, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway has gotten renewed attention. The long-delayed line fits into both Central Asia’s constantly highlighted need for greater connectivity, both within the region and to adjacent regions, but also China’s Belt and Road Initiative framework. 

The line, as Bruce Pannier wrote back in September 2017, “is an ambitious project” that would begin in Kashgar, run through mountainous Kyrgyzstan and connect to Uzbekistan at a town called Pap. Before his Tashkent trip in 2017, Atambayev griped that the railway plans included no actual stops in Kyrgyzstan and proposed an alternate route plan.

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Prime Ministers Aripov and Abylgaziev said negotiations were still underway, though few details were offered. The project’s cost estimates have ballooned over its long lifespan — estimated at $2.5 to $3 billion in 2011 and doubled that, according to Pannier, as of 2017. Where that money comes from, especially for the Kyrgyz portion, will be of upmost importance if the project is ever to reach completion. 

Another important issue discussed between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek prime ministers was the matter of implementing a previous agreement in the joint use of water resources from the Orto-Tokoi (Kasan-Sai) reservoir. What had been, as recently as 2016, a flashpoint for disputes between the two states, is now firmly within the diplomatic and bureaucratic process. In December 2017, Kyrgyzstan ratified an agreement signed in October which addressed some of the more contentious aspects of the reservoir which was constructed on Kyrgyz SSR territory, and filled with water coming from Kyrgyzstan in the Soviet Era with funds from the Uzbek SSR. The agreement granted Kyrgyzstan control of the reservoir but both countries access to its water, with maintenance costs divided according to water usage — notably, Uzbekistan was allotted most of the water usage and thus most of the costs. The two countries also set up a Joint Water Commission.

There may be few big headlines in Aripov’s visit, besides the suggestion that Kyrgyzstan is considering taking out a $100 million loan from Uzbekistan. But the normal continuance of diplomacy between neighbors is important in of itself. Issues of infrastructure, like the long delayed China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, as well as water, can be contentious, and ongoing discussions are important to push such efforts ahead. These are certainly areas to watch as the details of Mirziyoyev’s next visit to Kyrgyzstan are settled.