_ Fozil Mashrab. Washington D.C., 20 November 2017. Published for debate.
Since President Shavkat Mirziyaev’s state visit to Moscow in April 2017, bilateral relations between his country of Uzbekistan and Russia have been steadily expanding. And the frequency of subsequent bilateral exchanges suggests that this trend will most likely continue with the full support of both governments (RIA Novosti, November 2).
This “new phase in Uzbek-Russian relations” was cemented during Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s recent official trip to Uzbekistan, on November 2–3. Medvedev led a high-level delegation to attend the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) meeting in Tashkent. During a bilateral intergovernmental meeting on the sidelines of the CIS summit, both sides confirmed their commitment to further deepening relations and signed a package of new cooperation and investment agreements (Vesti, November 2).
According to Russian officials, bilateral trade between Uzbekistan and Russia in the first eight months of 2017 grew by 21 percent to reach $2.1 billion. Russian exports to Uzbekistan grew by 15.9 percent, and Uzbekistani exports increased by more than 30 percent (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 2). Uzbekistan is Russia’s fourth-largest trading partner among the CIS countries. Between January and August 2017, 18.5 percent of Uzbekistan’s foreign trade turnover was with Russia. The latter country has regained its status as Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner, which was briefly lost to China in the recent past (Interfax, November 2).
During his visit to Tashkent, the Russian prime minister also observed that “it was absolutely obvious trade-economic relations between the two countries were gaining in weight and were being enhanced more energetically, with significant growth in such important areas as agriculture, food exports, [as well as] industrial and military-technical cooperation” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 2). The Russian government has not only shown a willingness to supply Tashkent with modern weapons at favorable terms but also agreed to help Uzbekistan develop its own military-industrial complex (see EDM, February 15; Ozodlik.org, October 30).
Moreover, Medvedev stated with satisfaction that “practically in all possible areas of cooperation both countries are witnessing the intensification of contacts.” Since Mirziyaev’s state visit to Russia last April, more than 20 Russian delegations of different levels have visited Uzbekistan, including two deputy prime ministers, ministers of internal affairs, agriculture, trade and industry, heads of the Russian Security Council and military intelligence, leaders of Tatarstan and Chechnya, the governor of St. Petersburg, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as trade union leaders and migration officials. A similar number of Uzbekistani delegations also made reciprocal trips to Russia (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 2). Moreover, in early October, the two countries carried out their first joint military exercises in 12 years, held in Uzbekistan’s Dzhizak province (see EDM, October 3).
All these positive developments in Uzbekistani-Russian relations are benefitting both sides. Uzbekistan is gaining easier access to the Russian market for its main export products. Moscow has granted so-called “green-corridors”—a simplified customs regime—for Uzbekistani fruits and vegetables to enter Russian market by removing various selectively applied photo-sanitary and other restrictions (Uzagroexport.uz, September 6). Moreover, both sides are working on arranging similar “green corridors” for Uzbekistan’s textiles and other exports to Russia (TASS, October 23).
Breaking with the highly protectionist practices of the Islam Karimov era, President Mirziyaev has introduced sweeping liberalization of foreign trade by abolishing, as of October 1, import duties on more than 30 product groups. This policy shift opens up access to Uzbekistan’s market for many Russian and other neighboring countries’ products (Sputnik-tj.com, October 2).
All along, this intensified cooperation had been taking place based on the understanding that such closer ties will not necessarily lead to Uzbekistan’s integration into Russian-led economic and military-political unions such as Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (see EDM, April 24). Uzbekistan’s late president, Islam Karimov, had long ruled out joining these organizations because, he said, they reminded him of the former Soviet Union (Tengrinews.kz, January 13, 2015). And today, officials serving under President Mirziyaev continue to claim that membership in the EAEU or the CSTO remains off the table (Regnum, July 5, 2017). According to the Uzbekistani authorities, current bourgeoning relations with Russia are part of Tashkent’s attempt to “de-politicize and de-ideologize inter-state relations with neighboring countries by removing artificial barriers for mutually beneficial cooperation” (Gazeta.uz, December 19, 2016).
Yet, Russia is undoubtedly facilitating trade, investment and military relations with Uzbekistan in this way in order to demonstrate to the new leadership in Tashkent the practical benefits of close cooperation with Moscow. As such, this situation could easily turn out to have been a temporary “free trial” session, susceptible to unilateral changes by the Kremlin, rather than a permanent arrangement if Uzbekistan continues to stay out of the Russian-led integrationist organizations. Expanding the EAEU to include all Central Asian countries still remains a high priority for Russian foreign policy (see EDM, March 2, 2016; Mid.ru, October 5, 2017).
Local proponents of joining the EAEU and the CSTO claim that Uzbekistan’s membership in these organizations would institutionalize the current favorable trade regime as well as close economic and military cooperation with Russia, thus stabilizing bilateral relations. Moreover, it would help the 2 million–3 million Uzbekistani migrant workers in Russia who continue to face hardships there, despite various recently signed bilateral agreements meant to ease their access to the Russian labor market. The Uzbekistani guest workers’ difficult situation would probably be further eased thanks to their native country’s EAEU membership. Incoming migrant laborers from EAEU member states are exempted from Russian-language and Russian-history exams, enjoy access to free medical services, have their university degrees recognized and, most importantly, are not required to purchase costly work permits (Eurasia.Expert, October 24).
As bilateral relations continue to expand, it will become increasingly difficult for Uzbekistan to delay EAEU or CSTO membership indefinitely if the benefits of these closer ties are implicitly seen to be temporary. Even the existing strong pro-Uzbekistan lobby in Russia—which includes Kremlin-friendly Russian oligarchs of Uzbek origin—may only delay but not cancel the requirement for Tashkent to accede to the EAEU and CSTO at some point in the near future, if this new trouble-free bourgeoning cooperation is to continue smoothly (BBC—Russian Service, July 6).
During the reception for Mirziyaev in the Kremlin earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin quoted an Uzbek proverb that can be translated as “united we stand, while divided we fall” (Russia 24, April 5). So privately, Russian officials might already be pressuring Uzbekistan to join these two Eurasian integrationist organizations.