By Ashok Sajjanhar
Islam Karimov, the authoritarian strongman of Uzbekistan since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, was officially announced dead on September 2 last year. Six days later, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the country’s prime minister since 2003 and Karimov’s protégé, was appointed Uzbekistan’s Interim President by a joint session of both houses of parliament. And on December 4, he was elected as the President by an overwhelming majority in the elections and was sworn into office ten days later. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that the election lacked “a genuine choice,” pointing to instances of ballot box stuffing and proxy voting.
The region and the world heaved a sigh of relief when the changeover from Karimov to Mirziyoyev took place smoothly and seamlessly. The issue of succession in Central Asian Republics has been a matter of considerable anxiety for the region as well as the international community because most leaders in these countries, except in Kyrgyzstan, have been at the helm of affairs for long periods.
Uzbekistan occupies a unique place in Central Asia and the region. It is the only Central Asian Republic that shares land borders with all the other four countries of the region. It has the highest population of 32 million which is just a shade less than the sum of populations of the other four Central Asian Republics combined. Under the circumstances, with democracy not having developed roots in Uzbekistan, the peaceful transfer of power was welcomed with satisfaction and relief.
Nothing much different from what had been happening under Karimov was expected from Mirziyoyev when he assumed office. After all, he had occupied the second most powerful position in the country for more than 13 years. Nothing had emerged during all these years to suggest that he had any difference of views or approach with Karimov on policies to run the country. It was hence expected that Mirziyoyev will continue the same programmes and plans in domestic, foreign and economic spheres that had been pursued by Karimov for the last quarter of a century.
Mirziyoyev has, however, surprised even his most strident critics by charting a course quite independent from that of his predecessor. It has been termed as ”Revolution from Above.” He has embarked on a slew of political and economic policy reforms in the domestic arena which have the capacity to radically transform the economy and international standing of the country in the coming years.
The most far-reaching domestic structural change that has taken place thus far in Uzbekistan is Tashkent’s implementation of a currency convertibility system which is likely to be fully implemented by 2019. This will facilitate foreign direct investment and steer the ‘’black, informal economy” into the formal arena. This move is highly significant because it puts in place the foundation of Uzbekistan’s economic awakening and has the potential to transform it from being a predominantly agricultural-exporting economy to a more broad-based and diversified one by promoting manufacturing, logistics, energy, mineral (including uranium), service sector, and other capacities.
Another domain under reform is the economy. In October 2016, Mirziyoyev started to issue decrees aiming at improvement of the business climate in the country. In November 2016, the creation of four new free economic zones was announced. A tax reform has been introduced, and in August 2017, important steps towards the full convertibility of the national currency were adopted as well as decisions to invest in a modern IT infrastructure and a national “Silicon Valley.”
Mirziyoyev has initiated far reaching reforms in the area of expanding media freedom, protection of human rights, freedom of expression, religious freedom etc.. He has introduced a greater degree of domestic openness. It has been observed that the country’s official media is exhibiting greater independence and initiative. Several journalists and political activists have been freed from prison; some dissidents have been invited to come back home from abroad. For the first time, commemoration of the Andijan massacre by human rights activists was not disrupted by the police in May this year. Most recently, more than 4000 people were removed from blacklists of potential Islamic militants, which signals a thawing of relations between the state and religious sects. On July 28 this year, the Uzbek prosecutor-general’s office declared that Karimov’s eldest daughter Gulnara, who had not been seen in public since the last three years, was convicted and imprisoned in 2015 over tax evasion and other charges.
Relations with neighbours
Under Karimov, Uzbekistan had scant substantive cooperation with its neighbors. His poor personal relations with other Central Asian leaders and isolationist policies fostered mistrust and kept countries apart from each other.
Mirziyoyev has rapidly sought to repair the damaged regional relations that he inherited by visiting three of the four neighbouring states. He has pursued a policy of pro-active engagement with its neighbors with a view to restore Uzbekistan’s natural role as a transit hub in the region. Under Karimov, transport links with neighboring nations were curtailed, and crossings to and from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were each restricted to two or three points although each of the borders is more than 1,000km long. Several rail services that crisscrossed these republics of the Soviet Union fell into disuse amid disagreements over transit fees and maintenance, forcing people and goods onto longer and more expensive alternative routes.
Bilateral negotiations on delimitation and demarcation of state borders with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—an unresolved issue since Soviet days—have covered greater distance in the last 12 months than for the last 15 years; agreements on strategic partnership, economic and military cooperation have been signed.
The fact that Mirziyoyev chose Turkmenistan (6-7 March) to be the first country of his visit after being elected and did not opt for one of the major regional players like Russia or China, clearly demonstrates his intention to maintain independence in his foreign policy. It also underlines his strong commitment to foster vibrant relations with the neighbours. Border management, energy and water have been the principal factors that for a long time strained Uzbekistan’s ties with its neighboring countries. Unresolved issues have often led in the past to closing of border crossings, economic sanctions such as halting gas and electricity supplies, as well as several incidents of skirmishes along the borders.
Under Mirziyoyev, Tashkent’s ties with Dushanbe and Bishkek have significantly improved. This is evident from the restored communication links, such as resumption of direct flights in April this year between Tashkent and Dushanbe, the first time since 1992, and the willingness of Uzbekistan to resolve issues related to previously disputed territories, particularly with Kyrgyzstan. In addition, Mirziyoyev’s administration has mellowed its stance towards the construction of the Roghun and Kambar-Ata-1 HPP in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively. Previously, Uzbekistan was strongly against any HPP projects constructed on the territories of the upstream countries unless they were agreed upon with the states located downstream, namely Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Former President Karimov even warned that the issue of water management could escalate to the point where a war would become inevitable. In sharp contrast, when on October 29 last year, Tajikistan started the construction of the Roghun HPP, no voice of opposition was heard from Uzbekistan. According to the recent statement by former Kyrgyz President Atambayev, leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have given their prior consent to construction of the Kambar-Atta-I HPP: this is likely to inspire a rapid interest by foreign investors.
Ties between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have been less complicated, with no major disagreements dividing them. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have no unresolved issues on delineation and demarcation of common borders and share a similar stance on the use of waters of Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Economies of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have different structures, which provide an opportunity for mutually beneficial trade. Volume of trade between the two states increased by 30% since the change in the leadership of Uzbekistan. Similarly, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have avoided major tensions in their relations over the past two decades. After Mirziyoyev’s take-over, leaders of the two countries have established close ties with each other, particularly on energy cooperation. Recently, during his second visit to Turkmenistan in May this year, Mirziyoyev expressed interest in participating in the TAPI project, a pipeline that links Turkmenistan with Pakistan and India via Afghanistan.
In the wider neighborhood, cooperation with Russia has also become closer, especially on economic and security issues; albeit a formal security alliance with Moscow remains unlikely. President Putin visited Uzbekistan for Karimov’s funeral. Mirziyoyev returned the symbolically generous gesture by visiting Moscow in early April this year. Investment accords worth USD 12 billion, trade deals worth USD 3.8 billion and a total of 50 agreements were signed during the visit. Relations got established on a stable footing through their first bilateral military exercises in 12 years. Equally important are new trade and investment agreements with Uzbekistan’s largest trade partner China as well as Turkey and Iran.
An idea of the intense interaction with neighbouring and regional countries can be gauged from the fact that during the last 14 months, Mirziyoyev has travelled to Kazakhstan four times, to Turkmenistan three times, to Russia twice, in addition to travelling once to Kyrgyzsatn, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US and South Korea. He has also hosted leaders of Kazakhstan (twice), Kyrgyzstan (twice) and once each of Russia, Turkey, Afghanistan etc.
Speaking at the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, Mirziyoyev said: “A peaceful and economically prosperous Central Asia is our most important goal and key task.” This demonstrates his seriousness to walk the extra mile to strengthen ties with all countries of Central Asia.
Tashkent’s nearly two decades of isolation from its neighbors have seriously impaired its chances of becoming a major regional hub in the short term. But the thaw in Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors is bound to have a favorable impact in the medium and long-term on regional cooperation and trade.
Relations with India
India and Uzbekistan enjoy close and warm historical and civilisational ties. The two countries have been closely tied to each other through exchanges during the Silk Road era from 300BC to 1500AD. Babur, the founder of Mughal dynasty in India, travelled from the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan to India in 1526. In more recent times, Indian culture, dance, music, films, yoga etc have been extremely popular in Uzbekistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Mirziyoyev in Astana on the sidelines of the SCO summit on June 8 this year. Uzbekistan offered to supply uranium ore to India for its nuclear power plants. It was agreed to enhance and expand bilateral ties over a wide range of areas, including security, political, economic, connectivity, energy, culture etc. As a result of the interaction, a high powered delegation led by Uzbek Foreign Minister and Foreign Trade Minister visited India in August this year. It would significantly contribute to bilateral and regional peace, security and prosperity if President Mirziyoyev were to visit India at the earliest available opportunity to further promote understanding and economic exchanges between the two countries.
President Mirziyoyev has infused fresh energy and dynamism into Uzbekistan. The country has taken rapid strides in domestic political and economic arena as well as in foreign relations, particularly with its neighbours. Under Mirziyoyev’s leadership, the future of Uzbekistan and relations with its neighbouring partners appear bright and buoyant.