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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 20 New Delhi May 5, 2018

Uzbekistan — the Emerging Regional Power in Central Asia

Saturday 5 May 2018

by R.G. Gidadhubli

Among the five Central Asian states (CAS) in the southern underbelly of Russia, Uzbekistan is the most populous with 32 million out of 74 million population of the CAS. In September 2016 Shavkat Mirziyoev took over the presi-dency of Uzbekistan after the death of the authoritarian President, Islam Karimov, who had ruled this predominantly Muslim country for over two decades following the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Mirziyoev is emerging as a popular leader of Central Asia as he has brought about major changes in domestic, regional and international arenas. It is worth-while to highlight some of the policy measures undertaken by Mirziyoev.

Uzbekistan, as all the former Soviet republics, undertook the policy of transition from the former socialist system to political democracy and market economy adopted by the Western countries. Human rights is one of the indicators of Western democratic societies which needed to be implemented by the former Soviet republics. In October 2017 Human Rights Watch complemented that in his first year as President Mirziyoev had undertaken “some positive steps” with regard to human rights and adopted the policy of gradually reducing authoritarian control. This was necessary since Karimov was often criticised over his government’s human rights abuses and he had ruled with an iron fist since the Soviet era.

As a part of his policy, Mirziyoev has released many political prisoners. This is evident from the fact that on March 17, Uzbek human rights activist Gaybullo Jalilov was released after serving eight years in prison. Fiftyone-year-old Jalilov is a member of the unregistered Society for Human Rights Organisation and was arrested in 2009 and later convicted for plotting a terrorist attack and sentenced for 13 years. The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) contended that sustainable measures needed to be undertaken. Hence, as reported by HRW on March 28, 2018, under the leadership of Mirziyoev, despite an improved landscape for open debate and critical reporting, journalists and other critics of the government in Uzbekistan remain under pressure from legal restrictions, politically motivated prosecutions, and fear-induced self-censorship. This report was based on interviews with 22 journalists, editors, and media owners from 17 government-registered, independent, and international news outlets. Many mediapersons opine that freedom had increased slightly and speak of a dynamic and competitive environment in which new Uzbek-language and Russian-language publi-cations have appeared. At the same time some critics contend that fear of repression by security services remains a major factor in the way they work.

Afghan Problem

Mirziyoev earned international appreciation for his active role in the ongoing Afghan issue. On March 26, 2018 the Tashkent Conference was held to discuss the Afghan problem which was attended by the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Thomas Shannon, and also all the five Foreign Ministers of Central Asian states and representatives from more than 20 countries from the United States, the European Union, Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia. Shannon discussed with Uzbek leaders the progress made under President Mirziyoev’s reform agenda, reaffirmed support for Uzbekistan’s initiative and valuable contributions to leader-ship in the region, and underscored the United States’ commitment to stability in Uzbekistan and throughout the region.

Mirziyoev is seeking to raise the international profile of Uzbekistan as a part of his campaign to open up the country and attract foreign investment after decades of isolation and economic stagnation. A joint declaration, issued at the end of the March 26 meeting in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, noted the signatories’ “strong backing for the National Unity Government’s offer to launch direct talks with the Taliban, without any preconditions”. They also called upon the Taliban to “accept this offer for a
peace process that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”.

The conference comes on the heels of the so-called Kabul Process event held in the Afghan capital on February 28, 2018 in which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed peace talks with the Taliban without preconditions. The Kabul Process Conference “is a continued demonstration of international support for a peaceful political settlement in Afghanistan”. Thus the Tashkent meeting highlighted the potential re-emergence of Uzbekistan as a diplomatic player in the region under the leadership of Mirziyoev that is appreciated by the West.

Regional Cooperation 

Mirziyoev has been aware of the need to enhance regional cooperation in Central Asia. This is because during Karimov’s 27-year rule in Central Asia’s most populous nation, its relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan were strained by disputes over transit routes, border security, water resources, and other issues. As opined by some analysts, a major shortcoming of Karimov’s presidency was that he had largely shunned regional cooperation, particularly cooperation that was not on his terms. Hence Karimov was often dismissive of his neighbours’ policies and at times aggressive on issues such as borders and water use. Hence other Central Asian countries, namely, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan turned to the other big Central Asian state, namely, Kazakhstan. That enhanced the role and status of Kazakhstan and not Uzbekistan for help.

After taking over as President, Shavkat Mirziyoev was aware of the declining image and role of Uzbekistan in the Central Asian region. Hence he decided to take several steps to improve Uzbekistan’s ties with its neighbours as regional policies needed to be changed dramatically. It is highly appreciable that Mirziyoev wants Uzbekistan to be involved in regional projects, and is even offering money for projects Uzbekistan opposed under Karimov, such as the Kambar-Ata hydropower project in Kyrgyzstan and Roghun hydropower project in Tajikistan. Mirziyoev wants more trade with Uzbekistan’s Central Asian neighbours and generally more regional cooperation all around.

In this context it is important that a major event took place on the March 15, 2018 when the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Speaker of Turkmenistan’s parliament gathered in Astana for the first Central Asian summit since 1999. It was a friendly meeting, and the leaders vowed to make it an annual event to improve regional cooperation. In fact this summit of Central Asian leaders in Astana was largely the work of Mirziyoev, as frankly stated and appreciated by Kazak President Nazarbaev for his active part, which is intended to bring about closer cooperation among the five states of the Central Asian region located at the crossroads of Eurasia.

As per reports, talks at the March 15 meeting touched on a wide range of issues including water rights, which experts say has been a potential source of severe tension in the region. As stated by Nazarbaev, “A major issue is problems around water-sharing. Our countries have 70 million people living here around two major rivers—the Amudarya and the Syrdarya—and we agreed today that no political bargaining is acceptable in that matter.” In fact there is an urgent need to resolve water issues in the interests all Central Asian states as also issues related to hydropower construction, water releases, and electricity sharing. There are expectations that the summit will bring about major changes for the benefit of all the five states. Mirziyoev has sustained close and cordial relations with Russia and China and Uzbekistan is a member of the SCO.

Bilateral Ties 

In 2017 Mirziyoev visited Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan to improve bilateral ties as a part of his policy priority. On the eve of Naoroz on March 21, 2018 Mirziyoev again met Kazakh President Nazarbaev in Samarkhand which marked recent improve-ments in bilateral ties between the two large Central Asian states. Nazarbaev’s visit to Samar-khand came six days after he hosted a rare Central Asian summit in Astana, an event initiated by Mirziyoev.

Most importantly Mirziyoev’s sincerity in improving bilateral ties is evident from his visit to Tajikistan on March 9-10, 2018. As rightly stated by an expert on Central Asia, Bruce Pannier, the ice was broken in relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan coinciding with the arrival of spring. Uzbekistan’s relations with Tajikistan have been described as bad or tense during the last about two decades. In fact during Karimov’s regime Tashkent and Dushanbe have levelled charges against one another on issues of sharing of water, demarcation of border, role of radical Islamic groups, namely, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, etc. It is opined by some analysts that the Uzbek and Tajik governments had gone to great lengths to demonise each other and all this was played out in the state media of the two countries.

For instance, Islam Karimov had vehemently opposed Dushanbe’s move to complete a Soviet-era project, the Roghun hydropower plant, arguing that it would leave downstream Uzbekistan facing a water shortage and potential environmental problems. But Mirziyoev expressed support for the construction of Roghun, which he described as a “very sensitive topic”. Mirzioyev has been slow in going to Tajikistan, but that was possibly because the idea of Tajik-Uzbek friendship required some time to set in.

Thus on March 9, 2018 Mirziyoev, made a landmark visit to Tajikistan and met Tajik President Rahmon and vowed to swiftly build stronger relations after years of tension between the Central Asian neighbours. The talks were “very productive” and in all 27 agreements were signed after the meeting including the deal enabling citizens of each country to visit the other for up to 30 days without obtaining a visa. In fact the prospect of visa-free travel is a big deal for ordinary people since a large number of Uzbek nationals have been a minority living in Tajikistan and in turn a large number of ethnic Tajiks have been living in Uzbekistan.

Rahmon called Mirziyoev’s two-day visit “fateful and important” and said that Tajikistan will be “supporting Uzbekistan’s efforts to boost regional cooperation”. Moreover, according to the agreements, the land mines in the border areas will be cleared by the end of 2019. According to official data, bilateral trade has increased from $12 million in 2015 to more than $120 million in 2017. Due to the agreements signed in Dushanbe, bilateral trade is expected to increase to about $500 million in the near future. Hence under the leadership of Mirziyoev, there are bright prospects of Uzbekistan emerging as a regional power in Central Asia.

Dr Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Bombay.

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