“Currently the country is implementing the economic reform. The economic reform needs a strong resource support. The country has no own funds to implement this reform. It needs to attract Russian, Chinese, western and any other capital,” Andrei Grozin, an expert on Central Asia, said.
CABAR.asia: How would you evaluate the foreign policy pursued by the Uzbek president? How reasonable is it to call his steps in this sphere a “breakthrough”?
Actually, it is reasonable to call as such. This evaluation is to some extent emotional, but in fact the foreign policy of Uzbekistan has gone through profound changes in the last two years. If we compare it to the late period of Karimov, we will see that the current Tashkent policy is more active, aggressive to some extent, focused on openness accepted in the Uzbek traditions. If we compare the current situation with what was in the period of previous leadership, we’ll see obvious and serious, milestone changes in the foreign policy trend of Uzbekistan. All documents and speeches of Shavkat Mirziyoyev emphasise the focus on the normalisation of relations with closest neighbours, i.e. Tashkent gives priority to and is interested more in neighbours in terms of foreign political partnership.
If we compare it to the period of 2013-2014, we’ll see that all those problems that were between Tashkent and its closest neighbours, mainly Dushanbe and Bishkek, have changed for the better now. As a matter of fact, no one could even expect that the Uzbek-Tajik relations would change in the short term as they have changed now.
After the recent visit of Mirziyoyev to Dushanbe, the parties have changed the quality of their relations. The relations with Kyrgyzstan improved earlier. If you remember five years ago border incidents used to occur every month, even with the use of weapons. The problems were due to sharp decline in commodity turnover, commodity flows and supplies, border closure. Uzbekistan cut off gas to Tajikistan from time to time, blocked road transportation, electric supplies were suspended in the region. The suspension of the unified Central Asian energy grid was mostly caused by the position of Uzbekistan. Now we see the reverse situation – Mirziyoyev has repeatedly spoken about the need to recover the unified power circuit. This is one of the indicators of profound changes in various spheres. For example, two years ago it would be impossible to imagine the joint counter-terrorism exercises of Tajik and Uzbek security forces. Now it is an established fact.
In my opinion, in terms of relations with Bishkek, there’s a greater extent of mutual trust, ease of tensions, which can even lead in the mid-term to real steps towards solving the enclave and exclave issues, which seemed to have absolutely no solutions until recent times. This is also due to the constructive stand of the new Uzbek leadership.
For more details read: A “historical visit” of Mirziyoyev to Dushanbe
In fact, no sharp changes have occurred either in relations with closest neighbours, or in relations with the global centres of power. During Karimov, foreign policy declared normal relations with neighbours as one of priorities. It focused on equal and mutually acceptable partnership with the global centres of power, which is called a Kazakstan strategy of multi-vector foreign policy. However, it’s only now that all these declarations have started to be implemented, while they remained only declarations in the past.
Are there any signs that the key aspects of the Uzbek foreign policy concept will be revised?
I have been actively interacting with different experts and high-ranking officials of Uzbekistan in the last month. A range of joint bilateral large scientific forums has been held in Moscow both by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and by academic institutions of the Russian Academy of Sciences. And all experts said that if the Uzbek foreign policy concept was to be changed after all these years and if it needed some amendments, these changes would be very specific, accurate, soft, but not pivotal. In other words, some editorial changes might be made. But the essence of the concept is unlikely to be changed.
In recent years, Islam Karimov kept Uzbekistan away from Russia, China, USA and Western countries equally. Do you think Shavkat Mirziyoyev will pursue this policy? To what extent will he be able to maintain the Karimov’s approach and will he ever want to?
I think he will maintain. We can see the country is interested in expanding partnership in all aspects, without putting all eggs in one basket, in the general concept and foreign policy, in documents related to the concept, in practical steps taken by Mirziyoyev as president in the last two years. Now, following the visit of Vladimir Putin to Tashkent, some “hot heads” started speaking about the pro-Russian orientation of Uzbekistan. I think it is too soon and unreasonable. Uzbekistan during the visits of Mirziyoyev to Washington, D.C., Delhi, Paris, not to speak of the last year’s visit to Beijing, has shown interest in expanding economic and political partnership with all global centres of power. The objective reality is that Uzbekistan defends its national interests by trying to get the most out of relations with all other countries.
They are interested in attracting all global centres, all maximum possible investments. Let’s take China as an example. During Karimov, Tashkent failed to attract Chinese business to its economy despite the apparently positive relations with Beijing. For example, South Korean companies outweighed Chinese investments to Uzbekistan by the total amount of investments until recently. Not to speak of other sources of funding, e.g. Russian oil and gas companies or Western, European companies. The One Belt One Road Initiative was suspended to some extent in Uzbekistan. Now the situation is quite different: after the last year’s spring visit of Mirziyoyev to Beijing, significant agreements, memorandums and specific contracts were reached in the amount of 23 billion dollars. This amount is marginally less than 27-billion-dollar contracts signed during Putin’s visit to Tashkent in October.
How would you estimate the relations between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan? Are they rivals or partners in Central Asia?
Yes, there have been many speculations on this theme. It’s more like a rivalry. It didn’t appear yesterday, it used to be in the late Soviet period. The rivalry between Tashkent and then Alma-Ata (official name in the Soviet times – editor’s note) existed back in the 1970s. These used to be the two largest economies in the region, largest elite groups and largest lobbying potential. Thus, after the independence, these countries remained rivals to some extent. Many things depended on the personalities of their leaders. Nursultan Nazarbayev always held himself out as an “Eurasian”, nearly the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Islam Karimov obviously had different opinion on these issues: on the situation in the region, on leadership in the region, etc. Their relations were uneven, sometimes objective or subjective in nature. They are still uneven just because the change of leadership does not change objective concerns of elites, national economies and businesses.
Of course, there is certain rivalry but it’s not antagonistic in nature. Now we see that the relations between Tashkent and Astana are being built in a positive way. The first visit of president Shavkat Mirziyoyev was not to Moscow, Beijing or Washington, D.C., but to Astana. Thus, he demonstrated that the relations between the two largest states in the region must be built in a positive way.
Uzbekistan understands it needs friendly, partnership relations in all aspects and without good, advanced relations with Astana it will lose the opportunity to enter into full economic cooperation with Russian Federation because it all depends on geographical location. It’s clear that Moscow is aware that Russia should not rely on Kazakstan or Uzbekistan separately in the region. It’s not about “or-or”, it’s about “and-and”. The joint approach is in the economic and geopolitical interests of Russia. Following Putin’s visit to Tashkent, the leaders of the three states met in Saryagash, south of Kazakstan. It was an informal meeting, but Nursultan Nazarbayev, Vladimir Putin and Shavkat Mirziyoyev were obviously discussing the issues of further trilateral cooperation.
During the visit of Vladimir Putin to Tashkent, a lot of agreements were signed in different areas, including cooperation in textile, sewing and knitting industries, supplies of Uzbek fruits and vegetables to Russia. It has raised concerns in Kyrgyzstan because these areas are traditional exports from the republic to Russia. Can Uzbekistan compete with Kyrgyzstan, a member of EAEU, on equal terms in this field? Does Kyrgyzstan have any advantages?
Uzbekistan has certain barriers. Although the parties have agreed during the recent Russian-Uzbek agreements on gradual reduction of customs tariffs, they will still be higher than for the members of EAEU because within the Eurasian Economic Union, to which the Kyrgyz Republic is a member, the parties gradually move towards harmonisation of a set of commodity items. Previous exclusions are being removed step by step. The unified requirements existing within EAEU also promote the competitiveness of goods among the member countries. Some steps will be taken for Uzbekistan such as the “green corridor” for fruits and vegetables. This decision has had a significant impact, turnover of commodities has increased, yet this approach is not systemic. Currently, it’s just a declaration of intent based mainly on the free trade zone agreement within CIS, once lobbied by Islam Karimov. Today the products of the Uzbek agricultural sector and potential soft goods imported into Russian markets have more barriers than soft goods made in Kyrgyzstan.
As to vegetable produce, in my opinion, Russian retail chains have repeatedly met with Kyrgyz businessmen and offered them to activate supplies of fruits and vegetables to specific regions of Russia, namely Eastern and Western Siberia, Ural. As far as I know, Russian representatives of retail chains visited Bishkek throughout 2016 and partly in 2017, but failed to reach an agreement for unknown reasons.
Uzbekistan can contribute to a more competitive environment in terms of the scope of supplies and prices. It’s no secret that a large portion of commercial products of Uzbekistan enters the territory of EAEU, particularly to Russia, through Kazakstan under the brand of Kazakstan-based companies. In fact, the goods of Uzbek producers lose here, but they seem to afford such losses. There will be competitiveness between the consumer goods industry of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan can reduce its costs and increase profitability of their produce due to cheaper labour force. In any case, the barriers I’ve said about work in favour of the Kyrgyz consumer goods industry. We can see this in the available range of commodities in Russian stores. I can personally see this competitiveness. The soft goods made in Uzbekistan are already competing with the Kyrgyzstan-made goods in certain price tiers, especially intended for low-budget consumers. This might be an incentive for the consumer goods industry, for business of Kyrgyzstan to reduce costs, increase profitability, and use the opportunities available in EAEU. If nothing is done but to be “in sackcloth and ashes” and saying that Uzbekistan is engaged in predatory pricing, no result will be reached.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.