On 28 May 2019, the Moscow office of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute hosted the ‘Multiple vectors of Central Asia: Uzbekistan’s case’ roundtable. The meeting was the fourth in a series devoted to analysis of the foreign policy of Central Asian states. The subject of discussion was the current condition and future scenarios of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. The keynote speech was made by Uzbek political scientist Rustam Makhmudov.
Makhmudov began with the thesis that the presidential elections of December 2016 were a watershed moment in the foreign and domestic policy of Uzbekistan. Prior to this, there had been an increasing policy of securitisation, which had partly been caused by the activities of extremist organisations. Since the entry of the new president into office, attention has primarily been paid to economic development, which has led to an intensification and greater openness in foreign policy activities.
A strengthening of ties with the West has become the highest priority. Uzbekistan’s leadership has a clear understanding that without Western resources and institutions it will be impossible to launch and implement most of its necessary reforms. Activities of Western NGOs, international institutions, and media are increasingly visible in Uzbekistan. As part of a policy of greater openness, tourist visas have been abolished for 45 (mostly European) states. As a result of these and other measures, Uzbekistan’s positions in international ratings have considerably improved.
Relations with Asian countries, primarily South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, are intensifying.
Fostering cooperation with the Russian Federation is a constant focus as well because Russia is Uzbekistan’s second-biggest trading partner. Besides that, more than 2 million labour migrants from Uzbekistan work in Russia. According to an agreement signed in 2018, the Russian corporation, Rosatom, will build a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan that is expected to provide 20% of the country’s electricity needs. Afterwards, domestic personnel will be trained to service the plant.
China has recently come to lead the ranking of Uzbekistan’s largest trade partners. Trade turnover with the PRC reached $6.5 billion, which is 19% of Uzbekistan’s total foreign trade.
There is an upward trajectory in relations with Muslim countries, primarily Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Intensification of relations with a number of states in Southeast Asia is planned.
Relations with Central Asian neighbours have also been positive in recent years. In particular, Makhmudov emphasised, there has been a breakthrough in relations with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, evidenced by a higher volume of bilateral trade. Relations with Kazakhstan, which is Uzbekistan’s third-largest trade partner with annual trade turnover of $3 billion, are being strengthened. At the same time, the potential of intraregional cooperation is still underused.
Responding to questions during the discussion that followed the presentation, Makhmudov expressed the opinion that Uzbekistan prefers to build security relations on a bilateral basis. According to him, the network integration model is more effective in many cases than traditional institutional integration. This also applies to the prospects for the country’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union.
It was also noted that Uzbekistan will have to adjust its policy to the gradual change in the structure of global governance and the emergence of a multipolar order. Today, it is already necessary to respond to processes like the deterioration of US-Iran relations and the pressure of sanctions on a number of countries.
Speaking of the country’s international achievements, Makhmudov pinpointed the reduction of water consumption. A representative of Uzbekistan’s Foreign Office in attendance at the roundtable noted that by creating industrial enterprises in rural regions, Uzbekistan is responding well to the challenge of rapid growth in the rural population. At the same time, demographic pressure continues to increase with annual population growth of about 600,000 people.
Concluding, Rustam Makhmudov pointed out that one of the key tasks and major challenges in the development of the country in the short term will be maintaining the current pace of reforms.