By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez
President Donald Trump met with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan on 16 May, an important breakthrough after the isolationism of the Karimov regime. What is noteworthy about the meeting is that President Mirziyoyev is the second Central Asian leader that President Trump has met so far this year, after a meeting with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan which took place in January.
Kazakhstan is generally regarded as the leader of Central Asian countries, given its level of development and proactive foreign policy. However, Uzbekistan’s President Mirziyoyev is keen on improving his country’s ties with the rest of the world. While the international community wants to see two Central Asian success stories, governmental ambitions and competitiveness may mean that Astana and Tashkent will eventually clash —though hopefully through non-violent means— for regional hegemony.
Kazakhstan: Central Asia’s De Facto Leader
Much has been written about Kazakhstan’s accomplishments (as well as the country’s ongoing problems), so for the sake of brevity, we will provide a cursory list in order to focus more on analysis.
Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s geographically largest country, with a population of 18 million. The Kazakh government has supported a liberalized and open market structure as it attempts to attract investors and diversify its pool of trade partners. Apart from its significant trade relations with direct neighbors like China (which are being intensified due to the Belt and Road project) and Russia, the Central Asian country recently began exporting uranium to Brazil and, according to the Wall Street Journal, also plans to sell shares of the state-owned large uranium mining company KazAtomProm this year. Kazakhstan relies heavily on its significant oil, gas. and mineral resources, particularly its uranium. According to the World Bank, Kazakhstan’s GDP in 2016 was USD$137 billion, making it the highest in the region.
Additionally, the government has invested heavily in education in recent years. According to the 2016 UN Human Development Report, Kazakhstan ranks 56th spot in educational achievements, at the top of the “high human development section” between Bulgaria and the Bahamas. One important initiative carried out by the Ministry of Education is the Bolashak scholarship program, which has brought thousands of young Kazakhs to study in U.S. and Canadian universities since the late 1990s (afterwards the students return to Kazakhstan to work there for a number of years).
Finally, Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is well known for its global aspirations. It was the first Central Asian country to serve on the United Nations Security Council (2017-2018), and has played a mediating role (albeit unsuccessfully) in Syria, and may attempt to do so in Ukraine as well.
President Mirziyoyev Opens Uzbekistan to the World
As for Uzbekistan, it has yet to achieve its full potential since becoming independent after the fall of the Soviet Union, due to the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Islam Karimov. The late dictator focused less on developing the country and more on enriching family and allies, like his daughter Gulnara Karimova.
Uzbekistan has a large population, around 32 million people, and its main industries include gold, oil and gas, not to mention cotton (a controversial industry due to forced and child labor). The country’s GPD in 2016 was USD$67 billion. As for its location in the Human Development Report, the country ranks in the 105th spot, at the bottom of the “high human development section,” between Maldives and Moldova.
Unfortunately for Uzbekistan, Karimov pursued isolationist policies, shying away from regional integration. For example, he withdrew Uzbekistan from GUUAM and expelled various NGOs operating in the country. The 2005 Andijan Massacre made Uzbekistan an international pariah. The incident led to the U.S. military closing its military base in Khanabad, as per order of the Uzbek government following Washington’s criticism of the Karimov regime after Andijan.
President Mirziyoyev served as Karimov’s Prime Minister since 2003. He became interim leader in September 2016 upon the longtime ruler’s demise, and was officially elected president in December 2017. His main rival, Rustam Inoyatov, head of the National Security Service, was dismissed in January 2018, which helped secure the president’s control over the government.
Over the past year, the Uzbek leader has focused on changing the perception of the international community (specifically the U.S. and Europe) regarding his country in order to create new partnerships and attract foreign investment and technology to promote development. Political prisoners have been freed, and there will apparently be more tolerance towards freedom of expression as, in a significant move, Voice of America journalist Navbahor Imamova has been granted accreditation to work in Uzbekistan. Additionally, Tashkent has promised to do away with controversial programs like child labor in cotton fields.
Which is on the ascent as Central Asia’s regional hegemon: Uzbekistan or Kazahkstan?
Trying to define a “power” in international affairs is complicated, just as it is difficult to quantify “influence.” It is somewhat easy to do so for global powers (such as China, Russia, or the U.S.) as one can look at the size of armed forces, nuclear arsenals, GDP and support from allied nations in fora like the United Nations. On the other hand, understanding what constitutes a “regional power” is more complicated (see academic literature on the subject: here, here and here).
As previously mentioned, Kazakhstan is generally viewed as Central Asia’s leader in recent years particularly due to its foreign policy achievements, such as joining the UNSC and its role in peace negotiations. Should Uzbekistan under President Mirziyoyev want to achieve a “regional power” status, we would expect Tashkent to have an ambitious foreign policy akin to Astana. For example, Uzbekistan could attempt to join the WTO (it currently has observer status while Kazakhstan joined in 2015), or try to mediate a conflict. Tashkent is already pursuing this route, as a major peace conference on Afghanistan was held in Tashkent in March 2018; that same month a gathering of Central Asian heads of state took place in Astana, at the initiative of President Mirziyoyev.
The author would argue that in the short run, Kazakhstan’s prominent role is secure. For example, Kazakhstan’s GDP is twice that of Uzbekistan, and it would take years for industries to be developed, production to improve, and new investment-friendly laws to be put into place in order to raise the Uzbek GDP. As one Central Asia expert explained to the author: “What the Uzbeks are doing now, Kazakhstan started doing two decades ago; Astana started earlier so they are ahead.” Another Central Asia expert stressed how “Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are members of regional organizations, but Kazakhstan is in the lead (Eurasian Economic Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Commonwealth of Independent States) whereas Uzbekistan is only a full member of SCO and CIS and either not a member or a passive member of other organizations.” Even more, Uzbekistan has outstanding border issues with some of its neighbors, not to mention water-related issues. In other words, Uzbekistan still has a lot of catching up to do in the diplomatic arena.
With that said, a particular concern for Astana is that Uzbekistan’s population is almost twice that of Kazakhstan. Thus, should Tashkent manage to capitalize on its massive population (by Central Asian standards), this human resource could shift the regional geopolitical and economic balance.
There is an important question that will be answered in the coming years, which is: If Uzbekistan’s star rises, will Kazakhstan’s prominent role evaporate? Central Asia is a small region in terms of area, market, and number of countries (six, if you count Afghanistan). The region is bordered by global powers like the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, with India, Iran, and Pakistan not that far away. There’s also Turkey, whose goal is to be leader of the pan-Turkish world. In other words, there is not much metaphorical and literal space for two Central Asian regional powers to share.
As a final point in this discussion, it will be important to monitor Kazakh-Uzbek relations. So far bilateral relations seem to be improving as the leaders of both countries met in late 2017. Even more there have been people-related initiatives like the resumption of a bus service between the two countries and there was even a Kazakh educational event in Samarkand in late May 2018.
With that said, international relations is the study of changes, and while bilateral relations are enjoying a honeymoon phase, it is reasonable to assume that this may not last. For example, should Uzbekistan start receiving more investment in the coming years, threatening Kazakh industries, or should regional governments support Uzbek membership to the UNSC, Astana may start behaving in a more competitive manner towards its neighbor.
The rise of President Mirziyoyev to power in Uzbekistan, a country rich with untapped potential, could signal a shift in Central Asian geopolitics, including changes to Kazakhstan’s current status as the region’s powerhouse.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated, and don’t reflect any official position of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.
The author would like to thank the various Central Asia experts consulted as part of this analysis.