Voices from the Region

A New Makeup of Central Asia? The First Results of the Regional Policy of Sh. Mirziyoyev

By Farkhod Tolipov

On March 26, 2017

The first 100 days have passed in the administration of the new president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. There is a tradition of discussing this special and symbolic period. With this in mind, we will look at the regional gauge of Tashkent’s foreign policy. Both during the election campaign and after being elected president, Mirziyoyev designated the region of Central Asia a priority for the foreign policy of Uzbekistan. As a confirmation of this new direction, on December 23, 2016, President Mirziyoyev received Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Idrisov; on the next day, December 24, he received the president of the Kyrgyz Republic, Almazbek Atambaev; on December 27, a high-ranking delegation from Uzbekistan arrived in Tajikistan and was received by President Emomali Rahmon. Telephone conversations between the president of Uzbekistan and his colleagues in other countries in the region increased in frequency. Thus, active contact was renewed with practically all of the countries of Central Asia equally.

Strategic Partnership with Turkmenistan

On March 6–7, 2017, President Mirziyoyev made his first official visit to Turkmenistan. In addition to what might be called standard negotiations and announcements, the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan has special significance. It is the second document of its kind signed with a neighbor in the region, following the Strategic Cooperation Agreement between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in June 2013. The significance of this agreement lies in the fact that it symbolizes the highest level of mutual trust, specific activity in cooperation between the states, the long-lasting nature of cooperation, and a singular position on key problems in the region, including security issues. Furthermore, the agreement is colored by the circumstance that Turkmenistan, in signing it, is demonstrating political engagement that runs contrary to its typical doctrine of neutrality.

By way of acknowledgment of the new strategic character of the cooperation between the two governments, a ceremony was held during the visit for the grand opening of the automobile and railway bridges Turkmenabad–Farab across the river Amu Darya. President Mirziyoyev appraised this event as having geopolitical significance not only for Turkmenistan but for the whole region.

The two sides acknowledged that the clear priority for cooperation was the transportation sphere. As Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov noted, Turkmenistan is ready to begin joint work on the transport route “Uzbekistan–Turkmenistan–Caspian Sea–South Caucasus” with an outlet to Black Sea ports in Georgia, Turkey, Romania, and other countries.[1] This news can be assessed as sensational, since it bears witness to the embodiment of the long-discussed idea of creating a direct transport corridor from China through Central Asia to Europe.

With the aim of perpetuating the memory of the first president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, one of the central streets of Turkmenabad was named after him. A memorial complex was erected on this street, and a bust of Karimov was placed there. In this way, it became clear that new relations between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were not formed out of thin air but have a solid foundation laid over the years of independence.

The two sides signed a joint declaration that is also permeated by the spirit of strategic partnership. In it, notably, the presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan again expressed the common position of the two governments, that “the construction of new hydrotechnical projects on the cross-border rivers of Central Asia should be accomplished on the basis of a constructive approach and compromise, in which none of the rights of any of the affected governments would be ignored, and also in accordance with generally recognized norms of international water rights as fixed by the conventions of the UN, foreseeing the implementation of corresponding independent international expertise and the agreement of the lowland countries for all projects that have a cross-border impact.”[2]

As is known, in October of last year, work resumed on the construction of the Rogun Hydroelectric Station in Tajikistan, to which the Uzbek side has yet to react. In connection with this, a contradictory impression was given that Tashkent had given approval for the construction of this project, which Karimov had opposed during his administration. The note in the Joint Declaration of the Presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan about the problems of cross-border rivers therefore became a strategic reaffirmation of the previous position.

The following point in the Joint Declaration also draws attention to itself: “The parties will further create favorable conditions for members of the Uzbek and Turkmen diaspora living in their territory as concerns the question of retaining and developing their native languages, national cultures, traditions and customs; they will undertake all necessary measures to provide for the rights and legal interests of the citizens of the other Party living on the territory of its government.”[4] The problem of the diaspora had remained pressing in recent years. For example, Uzbek schools had been closed in Turkmenistan. Therefore, the current declaration without doubt reflected the spirit of strategic partnership of the two governments.

As we see, the results of the official visit of the president of Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan are rather impressive. It particularly bears noting that, in addition to everything else, they brought to light the idea that the relationship between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is not just bilateral in nature, but one that affects the whole region.

“Central Asia Is a Single Organism”

The same can be said about the bilateral relationship between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. On March 22–23, 2017, President Mirziyoyev made an official visit to the Republic of Kazakhstan. On the eve of his visit, he gave an exclusive interview to a journalist from the information agency Kazinform, in which he stressed that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan feel their responsibility for the condition of affairs in our broader region generally, for the strengthening of peace and security. He likewise noted: “We all understand very well that Central Asia is a single organism which for centuries has had a common geographic, economic and cultural space.”[5] On March 22, the day of the visit, the first scheduled run of the high-speed train from Almaty to Tashkent took place, symbolizing the turning of a new page in Kazakh–Uzbek relations.

The official visit by the president of Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan was, without exaggeration, a historic event. It was followed by a large-scale business forum and trade show of Uzbekistan’s industrial production, which saw the signing of 74 contract agreements totaling over one billion dollars.

As he had during the visit to Turkmenistan, in Astana Mirziyoyev again clarified Tashkent’s position on the water problem: actions should be undertaken on the basis of a constructive approach and compromise, where the rights of one government are not trampled on by the other, and also in compliance with generally recognized norms of international water rights. “In this sense we support the initiative of the UN on the negotiation of international conventions for the rational and fair use of natural water resources of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers,” the president of Uzbekistan stated, putting a final point to the water question.[6]

This visit had resonance within Uzbekistan as well. After the conclusion of the visit, the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of defense, the chair of the Senate Committee of Uzbekistan, and a host of leaders of the country’s ministries and departments gave interviews to the Uzbek press. This became a rather new and indicative occurrence for Uzbekistan, since public statements and interviews had not been characteristic of the country’s political process. For instance, Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulaziz Kamilov alluded to the prevailing false impression of a supposed competition between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for leadership in the region, which absolutely does not correspond to reality.

In this way, Uzbek–Kazakh relations were dialectically elevated from mythic competition to strategic partnership and on toward eternal friendship.[7] We can conclude that it was a difficult and contradictory but also naturally evolving process of interconnected and parallel growth of young governments under the conditions of independence.

In the interview mentioned above, Mirziyoyev said the following: “Returning to the questions of regional cooperation, I would define Uzbekistan’s policy today in the following way: not to back away from critical problems, but to search out reasonable compromises.”[8] These words once more confirmed one important truth: that Uzbekistan, both in its isolationism and it its active engagement in regional affairs, acts as a key state in Central Asia, capable of being either a brake on or a catalyst for regional cooperation.

Can we confirm that, through the efforts of Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s make-up has begun to be re-formed? All appearances suggest as much. Multiple statements from leaders of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan indicate this, going beyond the bilateral relationships to include general regional affairs. Plus, this remaking is under way not only on a macro level, with the help of diplomatic negotiations and contacts at the highest level, but also at the micro level, by means of, as it were, the “stitching” of border regions, and intergovernmental and sectoral cooperation (which has become its own sort of integrative innovation).

Uzbek president Mirziyoyev’s next visit – this time to the Russian Federation – will take place in April. He will travel to Moscow, with impressive successes in the Central Asian geopolitical theater in his diplomatic pouch. These successes now need to be firmed up with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

 

References:

[1] https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2017/03/07/talks/.

[2] http://mfa.uz/ru/press/news/2017/03/10355/.

[3] Farkhod Tolipov, “Uzbekistan–Tajikistan: Game Over but What Is the Score?,” CACI Analyst, December 15, 2016, http://cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13415-uzbekistan-tajikistan-game-over-but-what-is-the-score.html.

[4] http://mfa.uz/ru/press/news/2017/03/10355/.

[5] http://www.inform.kz/ru/prezident-uzbekistana-o-vizite-v-kazahstan-narody-nashih-gosudarstv-mnogogo-zhdut-ot-etoy-vstrechi_a3009595.

[6] https://ru.sputniknews.kz/politics/20170323/1840720/astana-tashkent-led-tronulsya.html.

[7] Farkhod Tolipov, “Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan: Competitors, Strategic Partners or Eternal Friends?,” CACI Analyst, August 7, 2013,  http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/12786-uzbekistan-and-kazakhstan-competitors-strategic-partners-or-eternal-friends?.html.

[8] http://www.inform.kz/ru/prezident-uzbekistana-o-vizite-v-kazahstan-narody-nashih-gosudarstv-mnogogo-zhdut-ot-etoy-vstrechi_a3009595.

 

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