Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has so far avoided taking any drastic steps in terms of foreign policy, but one of his priorities is quite clear: Tashkent is trying to emerge from the isolation imposed by the late president Islam Karimov in regard to its closest neighbors, and to create a new, more open economic order in Central Asia. 

In September, Mirziyoyev took to the podium of the UN to announce the dawn of a new political atmosphere in the region, and called for regular consultative meetings among the heads of Central Asian nations. In November, an international conference took place in Samarkand under the auspices of the UN, with the spotlight on regional problems. At the EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting that same month, EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini said that there had never before been such a “positive and constructive” dialogue in the region, adding that the spirit of cooperation had appeared thanks to the new Uzbek president. 

Mirziyoyev’s predecessor Karimov had become disillusioned with foreign policy by the final years of his rule. The idea of Central Asian integration that had been so popular in the 1990s had failed, relations with the West collapsed when Uzbek police and security forces shot dead protesters in Andijan in 2005, and Tashkent’s attempt to reestablish a dialogue with the EU in 2011 led to no more than the signing of a mutually nonbinding cooperation agreement on energy. The situation was so dire that after Karimov visited Brussels that year, the Belgian king, the NATO leadership, and the head of the European Commission all refused to say which of them had invited the Uzbek president. 

The final straw was the suspension of Uzbekistan’s participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012, after which the Uzbek authorities decided to steer clear of major powers, and to only cooperate with regional neighbors on a bilateral basis. This approach corresponded most closely to Tashkent’s perceptions at that time of protecting its sovereignty and the role of personal connections between leaders in foreign policy. 

Although Mirziyoyev was then head of government, his role on the international stage was minimal. At summits and meetings where protocol required the participation of the premier, it was then finance minister Rustam Azimov who spoke. Mirziyoyev was considered uncouth and too provincial for external affairs. His main task back then was to meet the cotton harvest quota and to monitor the activity of the regional governors. But as president, he is consciously destroying those stereotypes, and is demonstrating in every way possible that his foreign policy will be wholly distinct from that of Karimov.

The new Uzbek leader loves when foreign media describe him as a reformer and a modernizer. To obtain such complimentary assessments, even foreign policy can be reconsidered, especially since the tricky economic situation is forcing the country’s leadership to look for investment, and that won’t come without a departure from Karimov’s modus operandi. 

The main task of Tashkent’s new foreign policy is to drag the Uzbek economy out of stagnation. And to that end, any tactic is considered, from developing cross-border trade with neighboring countries to creating a favorable investment climate. Mirziyoyev is prepared to head to Russia, Turkey, and South Korea to achieve that goal. It’s already well known that Russian companies plan to invest about $16 billion in Uzbekistan, while the Uzbek side plans to increase exports of fruit, vegetables, and cars to the Russian market. 

One crucial problem to solve is that of the energy sector. When there is a constant deficit of fuel even in the capital, relations with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia are inevitably a priority. In March 2017, during a visit by Mirziyoyev to Turkmenistan, the Uzbek state energy company Uzbekneftegaz and Turkmenistan’s Türkmennebit signed a memorandum on the joint exploration and exploitation of deposits in the Turkmen part of the Caspian Sea, meaning the Uzbek company will carry out geological prospecting work abroad for the first time in its history. Russia, in turn, has already begun trial deliveries of oil to Uzbekistan: the first shipment was sent on November 17, 2017. 

Tashkent is trying to get across the message to its neighbors that economic prosperity is the key to everything, and that this goal is worth forgetting other petty grievances and putting major problematic issues on hold. By proposing the development of unified approaches to the joint exploitation of transboundary rivers, the integration of the national economies of countries in the region, and the development of cross-border trade, Uzbekistan has not lost hope that it can fashion a new format of cooperation with Central Asia’s other republics, at the head of which will stand joint economic prosperity. Tashkent believes that effective cooperation in Central Asia has the potential to double regional GDP.

Discussions have even begun about the possibility of Uzbekistan entering the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), although the current foreign policy doctrine still classifies integration projects within the former Soviet space as an obstacle to the development of trade and economic relations with other countries, as well as a limit on sovereignty. Yet in November, an article was published on the popular Tashkent-based website repost.uz about the potential advantages and disadvantages of joining the EEU. As Alexei Volosevich, editor of AsiaTerra.info, has noted, under Karimov, even posing that question in the headline would have been impossible, as it contradicted the supremo’s assertion that Uzbekistan would never be dependent on anyone. 

Tashkent’s first cautious steps consist of organizing regular consultative meetings between the heads of Central Asian states. So far, there is no talk of creating a new integrated structure in Central Asia, but even the fact of these meetings will be a significant stimulus to expand cooperation between the region’s countries. After all, in the last fifteen to twenty years, Central Asian countries have gotten completely out of the habit of organizing themselves to hold their own summits, meeting only within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or the latest U.S. platform for dialogue with the region: C5+1 (all five Central Asian states). 

Mirziyoyev is demonstrating with actions as well as words that Uzbekistan is now ready to be both flexible and pragmatic. During his visit to Kyrgyzstan, Mirziyoyev announced that twenty-year-old problems would be resolved in the near future, and, sure enough, Tashkent and Bishkek have already signed an intermediary agreement on their border, while the Uzbek hydroelectric company Uzbekgidroenergo plans to get involved in the construction of Kambaratinsky hydroelectric power station. Under Karimov, negotiations on those issues had hit a brick wall. 

Now, Central Asia’s countries will face a major test of their ability to conduct normal economic diplomacy. They will all encounter considerable difficulties, and Mirziyoyev is no exception. Many in Uzbekistan will inevitably perceive his pragmatism as weakness in negotiations with Dushanbe and Bishkek. But for the time being, Tashkent appears to be firmly set on replicating the “Asian paradox” in the region, in which political problems are no hindrance to the development of economic relations.

By:
  • Rafael Sattarov