Majlis Podcast: New Uzbek President Tries His Hand At Foreign Policy
New Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev made his first official foreign visit as Uzbekistan’s leader on March 6-7. Mirziyaev said Central Asian regional relations would be one his priorities and he followed through, visiting Turkmenistan with plans to travel to Kazakhstan later in March.
Qishloq Ovozi recently looked at Mirziyaev’s first six months in office, not excluding foreign policy but focusing more on the domestic policy changes, or lack thereof.
Our regular Majlis, or panel discussion, decided to flip that and concentrate on Mirziyaev’s regional foreign policy during his first months as president. There was mention of domestic policies as well.
Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir.From Washington, Alex Melikishvili, senior Central Asia analyst at IHS Markit Country Risk, joined the talk. From Prague, Alisher Sidikov, director of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, took part. And since I just wrote a paper on this and gave a presentation on the topic (Thank you George Washington University!), I sat in on the discussion.
‘Less Baggage’ Than Karimov
Mirziyaev was Uzbekistan’s prime minister from 2003 to 2016 so he is more familiar with domestic politics than he is with foreign policy.
In terms of his regional policy, Sidikov said Mirziyaev “doesn’t have this baggage of President Karimov, being [the] oldest in the region, or thinking he is [the] smartest in the region, or having some personal rows so for him it’s much easier to start everything from the clean page.”
That is certain. It was not only that Karimov did not like many of the other Central Asian leaders, he also occasionally mocked them in public comments. When the leaders of neighboring countries implemented decisions that displeased Karimov, he closed his border to them [and Uzbekistan borders every other Central Asian state], suspended railway transit through Uzbekistan to these countries, or turned off gas supplies.
Mirziyaev’s choice of Turkmenistan for his first visit was interesting. Karimov did not get along with Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, but Uzbek-Turkmen ties improved greatly after Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov came to power after Niyazov’s death at the end of 2006. Uzbekistan’s ties with Turkmenistan were probably better than with any other Central Asian country over the last decade.
Melikishvili pointed out that it was “a safe choice because Turkmenistan is officially a neutral country.”
There were also practical reasons for going to Turkmenistan. Melikishvili explained that “joint transportation projects and regional transportation projects” are necessary for Uzbekistan, which like all the other Central Asian countries is in the midst of a deep economic crisis at the moment.
It was mentioned that Uzbekistan is also one of the world’s only double landlocked countries, meaning there are at least two countries between Uzbekistan and any access to the world’s oceans.
Melikishvili noted, “Berdymukhammedov promised Uzbek companies unfettered access to the port infrastructure that is being built as we speak, on the Caspian shore.”
Access to the landlocked Caspian Sea would help a bit in connecting Uzbekistan to the Caucasus countries and possibly farther westward and could boost trade modestly.
Sidikov said Berdymukhammedov’s is at least partially driven by trade interests, including something Uzbekistan desperately requires at the moment. “They need cheap gas and oil, which they can use in the neighboring Bukhara refinery, one of the biggest in Central Asia,” Sidikov said.
Uzbekistan does have oil and natural gas, but in recent years there have been shortages of both, something noticed by segments of the population living in cold flats during the winter and observed by motorists who face regular shortages of petroleum at filling stations.
Turkmenistan has an abundance of both commodities and a severe lack of customers at the moment.
Melikishvili added that maybe the most important reason Mirziyaev needed to go to Turkmenistan was to “explain why Uzbekistan and China decided to postpone the construction of Line D of [the] Central Asia-China gas pipeline network.”
That decision has huge repercussions for Turkmenistan and was examined in a recent Qishloq Ovozi.
Sidikov commented on Mirziyaev’s upcoming trip to Kazakhstan, saying some of the talks with President Nursultan Nazarbaev would undoubtedly involve “Kazakh investments” particularly “into property in the [Uzbek] capital Tashkent.”
And Melikishvili recalled that an auto plant to assemble Uzbek cars was due to open in the northern Kazakh city of Kustanay about the time Mirziyaev comes to Kazakhstan.
Sidikov mentioned progress made in Uzbekistan’s ties with Kyrgyzstan to the east. Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations have been, to put it very mildly, bad for many years.
Sidikov said part of the reason ties are suddenly improving is a renewed desire from Mirziyaev’s government to “connect the Osh [Kyrgyzstan]-Andijon [Uzbekistan] region and China, and from China to South Korean ports.”
There is a railway planned from Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan to China but Sidikov suggested the Uzbek government would like to see a road route opened as soon as possible.
‘Lucrative Opportunity’ For Russia
Mirziyaev is scheduled to make his first visit as Uzbekistan’s president to Russia in April.
“It will be interesting to see how far Russian-Uzbek cooperation in the military and security area advances,” Melikishvili said. “In particular, I’m referring to the fact Uzbekistan needs to overhaul its military and Russia will see a very lucrative opportunity in this in terms of selling weapons and equipment, military equipment to Uzbekistan.”
As for Uzbekistan’s relations with the West, Sidikov explained, “The things that he [Mirziyaev] doesn’t understand he tries not [to] touch at this point, so that’s why issues like talking to the West [are] primarily under [the chairman of the Senate Committee for Foreign Affairs, also twice Foreign Minister Sadyk] Safayev and [current Foreign Minister Abdulaziz] Kamilov.”
One of the big topics of the Majlis was some debate about how much control Mirziyaev really has over decision-making.
Mirziyaev has made some promises, such as easing the visa regime for come countries, only to later postpone the implementation of these plans.
The announcement just before Uzbekistan’s December 4 presidential election that the country would start moving in 2017 to make the national currency (the som) convertible was the last thing heard about that issue.
Melikishvili said another promise from Mirziyaev, this one to cancel requirements for an exit visa, was coming up later this year and would provide the outside world with another opportunity to see if the new Uzbek president can do the things he says he will.
The Majlis looked at all these topics in greater detail, talked about Uzbek-Tajik relations, and delved into some other matters concerning Mirziyaev’s time as Uzbekistan’s leader.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.