When television producer Abduaziz Madyarov traveled between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with a British TV crew in November, he and his colleagues had to spend hours waiting in queues at border posts. That tortuous experience epitomized the tense relationship the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have had with one another since independence 26 years ago. But it’s an experience that could be on its way out.
For a quarter of a century, water, land and ethnic conflicts have poisoned ties between the five ’stans. Now, even as the U.K. pulls away from the European Union, and other countries in the bloc mull their future in it, Central Asian nations are opening up to one another, taking steps to establish what in a few years could amount to their version of a Schengen zone.
In March, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan abolished a strict visa regime that was a relic of their differences since the Tajik Civil War (1992–1997) and subsequent tensions over the Rogun hydropower project that Tashkent fears could lead to a water shortage for Uzbekistan. People can now travel between the two countries without visas.
Then in mid-September, the first deputy prime ministers of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan signed an agreement on the mutual recognition of visas that will effectively allow future tourists the possibility of visiting both countries if they have either’s visa. Officials of the two nations are working toward finalizing a date to launch the project. Kazakhstan has invited Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey to join the project, which Kazakh senator Dariga Nazarbayeva, a daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has dubbed the “Silk Road visa.” Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed interest in signing on to this regional visa arrangement. And even Turkmenistan, the most closed of the Central Asian nations that has not yet shown any interest in this, is now showing signs of a thaw toward its neighbors. Its president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, visited Tashkent in April, signaling a shift in previously tense relations.
It is a revolution.
Farkhad Rasulev, CEO, Dolores Travel Services
Driving many of these initiatives is Uzbekistan’s new reformist leader, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has made better relations with neighbors the centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda. But a history of economic struggles since independence and a geography that means all five of the ’stans are landlocked — Uzbekistan twice over — are also coalescing into a realization that regional integration is less a choice and more of a necessity, experts argue.
“I think that it is a revolution!” says Farkhad Rasulev, a CEO of Dolores Travel Services, one of Uzbekistan’s biggest tourist companies, referring to the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan visa agreement. “We were waiting for the last 15 years.”
(The above video is from the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border, earlier this year. Credit: Nikita Makarenko)
The moves Central Asian nations have made this year are still only baby steps, with no guarantee of long-term success, caution experts. These moves at regional integration may also spark alarm in Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin has pulled Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia together with Russia to form a customs union called the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). But while the EEU, formed in 2014, aims to facilitate trade between member states, it has no plans to turn the region into a common visa zone. On the other hand, strengthened integration among the Central Asian republics might leave them less vulnerable to China’s growing influence there — an outcome Russia would welcome.
Turkmenistan’s support for the visa-free norms the other four ’stans are edging toward remains unclear. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan still have to formally sign on to the Uzbek-Kazakh plan for a Silk Road visa. And Azerbaijan and Turkey, invited by Kazakhstan to join the project, are yet to formally respond.
“I don’t think it is a beginning of a regional integration,” says Rafael Sattarov, a Central Asia analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. At the moment, he says, a “few persons” are driving regional cooperation, but there’s no guarantee “that they will not make a U-turn in the middle of the road.” More than political ties, Central Asia needs stronger economic integration along the lines of Europe and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and that needs patience, he says. To truly integrate with the other Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would also need to leave the EEU, and there are “very small chances” they’ll do that, he argues.
But officials working on the proposals to strengthen easy travel in the region suggest that they’re willing to remain patient. The agreement with Kazakhstan is only the “start of a process,” an Uzbek government official says, requesting anonymity. The many questions that emerge from that agreement — for instance, how Uzbekistan will treat guests from countries with visa-free arrangements with Kazakhstan — will now be answered, one at a time, he says.
It’s no surprise that Uzbekistan is leading the move toward regional integration. It is the region’s most populous nation, and its leader is riding on a wave of popularity over a series of reform measures that have opened up the country to the outside world. Uzbekistan also has the most to lose without integration — Liechtenstein is the only other country in the world that is doubly landlocked. But its size and clout make the efforts it has started with its neighbors this year that much more realizable.
For the region, the current border regime is a “real nightmare” that needs to go, suggests Madyarov, the producer. It’s often disorganized and frequently descends into a “fight without rules,” he says. “I dream about a day when [borders] will be destroyed in Central Asia.”
There are also clear gains from softer borders for the individual nations. The agreement between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan will drive more tourism to both nations, suggests Rasulev, since visitors can go to both on one visa. The business of “tourism is big in Kazakhstan, and all foreigners will [now] want to see historical landmarks of Uzbekistan too,” he says. In July 2018, Uzbekistan introduced $ 20 electronic visas for visitors from 101 countries as part of its efforts to promote tourism.
And the future, in many ways, only needs to learn from the past. For 70 years under the Soviet Union, there were no border posts separating the Central Asian republics, and people could move between them with relative freedom. After a quarter century of barbed wire and concrete posts dividing them, the region wants to return to that Central Asian “Schengen” they once had — without the authoritarianism of a communist state.