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Reset Button: What Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s Election Means for Uzbekistan’s Domestic and Regional Future

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap] s Uzbekistan headed for the polls on December 4 to choose a successor for longtime strongman Islam Karimov, his prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev was all but guaranteed to succeed Karimov as president.

This came as no shock to analysts of the Central Asian nation as Mirziyoyev had long been in Karimov’s inner circle serving as the country’s prime minister since 2003. With Uzbekistan’s notoriously high turnover rates in senior government posts due to extensive infighting exacerbated by the country’s clan based power dynamics, Mirziyoyev’s political longevity has been attributed to his ability to effectively manage these dynamics, especially among the Tashkent and Samarkand clans, widely considered to be the most influential.

Despite rumors that the transition of power following Karimov’s death would dynastically pass to one of his two daughters, Mirziyoyev emerged as the clear frontrunner after he was appointed to organize Islam Karimov’s funeral where he was seen meeting with various heads of state including his Russian counterpart Dimitri Medvedev. His succession was placed beyond reasonable doubt after he was named interim president, a position which according to the Uzbek constitution should have passed to the little known Senate Chairman, Nigmatilla Yuldashev.

Preliminary results point to Mr. Mirziyoyev winning with approximately 88.6% of the vote. This would be considered a remarkable feat in almost any other country, but is a fairly common occurrence in Uzbekistan as Mr. Karimov had been winning elections with poll numbers upwards of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s current figure. Fraud had long been rampant in previous Uzbek elections and, despite attempts to increase transparency, all feasible political opposition had been heavily suppressed by state actors making this election devoid of any realistic competition.

However, an independent Uzbekistan has never known another president other than Islam Karimov and Mr. Mirziyoyev has already promised a range of reforms designed to increase his popularity domestically and abroad. What are these proposed policies and what effects would they have for the people of Uzbekistan?

Domestic Policy – A New Tone?

Islam Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist for three decades by stamping out dissent with threats of imprisonment, torture, and violence, all the while continuing with Soviet style secularism in a Sunni majority population. Like its people, the Uzbek economy has also been tightly controlled.

The domestic economy has been propped up by a combination of small scale free enterprise, foreign investment in natural resource extraction, particularly in natural gas, and a cotton industry which is still supported in part by child labor. However, one of the most important sources of income for the average Uzbek population comes from remittances from abroad sent by migrant laborers who mostly live and work in Russia. Figures point to Twelve percent of the Uzbek GDP coming from migrant laborers sending money from Russia alone. That said, the fall of the Russian Ruble has reduced that figure by about half.

With the Uzbek economy on course to grow at its slowest rate in over a decade, Mr. Mirziyoyev has made economic reform a central pillar in his election promises. His main economic liberalization promises consist of mainly reforming the country’s currency market and easing restrictions for small businesses. While not earthshattering, these policies aim to placate some of the most apparent economic issues affecting the country.  

As stated earlier, much of Uzbekistan’s economy is based on remittances from abroad, yet convertibility of the Uzbek currency in either direction is strictly controlled by the state. With official monthly quotas in place for converting the Uzbek Som into U.S. Dollars or Russian Rubles, a thriving black market exists to handle the excess demand. This naturally brings with it a level of criminality and corruption which makes successful business ownership all but impossible for those not part of the government elite. A streamlined currency convertibility market would also serve to attract foreign investment, a part of the economy which could most benefit the largest market in Central Asia of approximately 30 million people.

Solving Regional Differences

Uzbekistan geographically straddles the divide between Asia and Europe. This is representative in the people, the culture, and in its diplomatic mindset. In the ‘near abroad,’ Uzbekistan borders and has varying relations with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The ethnic boundaries between these countries are not represented with the current borders. Despite frequently conflicting national interests, it is important to maintain a base degree of relations in order to protect the interests of the fluid ethnic boundaries. In recent history, this has been easier said than done. Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors can be described as a range from stability to almost vitriol. For example, while Turkmenistan’s hermit state status keeps relations uneventful, Uzbekistan fell just shy of armed conflict with Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s chief economic rival in the region, has experienced the most cordial relations out of the rest of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics owing to the degree of coordination needed for mutual efforts to tackle drug trafficking through their mutual border. Uzbekistan is one of the main arteries for the opiate trade which originates from Afghanistan, its southern neighbor. The longtime Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev saw an equal in Islam Karimov as they were both their respective countries’ sole heads of state since independence and therefore approved of each other’s authoritarian grips on power by stifling dissent and opposition. Mr. Nazarbaev visited Uzbekistan to pay his respects at Mr. Karimov’s funeral in Samarkand and sat down for an official meeting with Mr. Mirziyoyev to discuss the improved development of ties between the two countries, particularly in trade. For continuity’s sake, it is most likely in Mr. Mirziyoyev’s best interest to attempt to maintain these relations especially as there have currently been few proposals to overhaul relations in any major way.

Mr. Mirziyoyev has also travelled to Tajikistan in late September to foster improved relations which have soured due to various reasons. The main strategic disagreement, and the main source of discussion in Mr. Mirziyoyev’s diplomatic has been over Tajikistan’s planned construction of the massive Roghun hydroelectric dam in one of the region’s major rivers. Tashkent has expressed concerns that the proposed dam will deplete the much needed irrigation canals and therefore harm its lucrative agricultural sector. No agreement has been made so far, but the fact that Mr. Mirziyoyev has attempted to create some dialogue on the issue is promising. If Mr. Mirziyoyev’s demonstrated intentions serve as a baseline for future relations, then they spell out more cooperative future for these two neighbors.

Uzbek regional relations with Kyrgyzstan have been the most problematic. Shortly before Mr. Karimov’s passing, Uzbekistan had security service members occupying a strategic point on a disputed part of the Kyrgyz border. Uzbek authorities also sealed the border indefinitely into Kyrgyzstan even for private individuals which heightened tensions with ethnic Kyrgyz who live in the border regions of Uzbekistan. This again highlights the imperfect borders of distinct ethnicities within Central Asia and the additional strain it places on mutual relations and diplomacy. Following the passing of Mr. Karimov, the occupied territory was promptly vacated and the border was reopened. This indicates a rapid shift of opinion coming from Tashkent which seems to favor a reconciliatory tone. While open negotiations about expanding ties with Kyrgyzstan have not yet taken place, it seems like Mr. Mirziyoyev has taken a step back from conflict and successfully de-escalated the situation.

What next?

The election of Shavkhat Mirziyoyev has brought with it exciting possibilities for the people of Uzbekistan and its regional partners. While his proposals have not been implemented, they signal a clear departure from Islam Karimov’s heavy handed politics and diplomacy. What is fairly certain, however, is the continued tradition of authoritarianism and widespread human right violations which had kept Islam Karimov in power to continue under his protégé. Ultimately, Uzbekistan’s future is uncertain. With increased attempts to exert their influence, major powers like Russia and China, and to a smaller extent the United States and Turkey, a ‘Great Game’ scenario may occur in an attempt to court the new president into a respective sphere of influence. It is too early to say how Mr. Mirziyoyev may respond to these outside pressures, but if his presidency maintains his predecessor’s neutrality while enacting liberalized economic reforms and and improving regional relations, then Uzbekistan has a chance to make the most of its potential

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Central Asia

Greater Eurasia: New Great Game formulate abundant possibilities for Central Asia

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The title “New Great Game” became the most conversed topic in the contemporary realm of global politics. The heart of the Eurasian continent, the Central Asian region, already witnessed a colonial battle between Russian and Britain. The position of Geopolitical status more fueled up the conflict. The Great Game furnished an unpleasant impact on the entire Central Asian region; it grasps by the Russian empire. Russia’s century-long predominance over the Central Asia region concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it nevertheless has a massive impact over the countries of Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Following centuries, they were preceding reappeared different New Grete Game, where the foremost global power countries have engaged. The internal scenario of central Asian states is struggling over hegemonic power. Subsequently, the central Asian nations are well equipped with natural resources like oil, gas like Kazakhstan’s largest uranium producer, that attracts all major countries to penetrate in Central Asia.

The New Great Game impacted both as constraint and opportunity in Central Asia. The central Asian states are adopted the multi-vector approach to the foreign policy due to landlocked country. So, the developed countries are offered various development schemes in the region. Currently, three major powers are Russia, US and China compete with each other to become a prominent player in Central Asia. Every nation is looking for their interest through the region. Nowadays, Washington mostly engaged in the New Great Game, after the US entered in Afghanistan, and it required Central Asian states cooperation to expand the authority of NATO in Eurasian land. Although, following the attack on 9/11, the US mostly keep eyes on terrorism activities and central Asian states are becoming significant for security purpose. Moscow always indeed to the presence in Central Asian internal politics and seems to maintain its status quo. Russia always considered the Central Asian states as his campaign, with the significant military, economic and political influence. Moscow consistently rated Central Asian nations as “soft underbelly”. Russian culture, music, food highly incorporated with Central Asian states, but Moscow seems fallen the economic competition with Beijing. China is somewhat successful in pushing Russian influence in Central Asia.

China expands its control over in the pecuniary sector, Dragon becoming larger trade partner and investor in that region. China’s visionary project ‘Belt and Road initiative’ and China’s strategy to influence and grow its economic power over the Eurasian continent required Central Asian states linear involvement. China shared more than 3000 k.m of the direct border with CA, this is an opportunity for China to enhance its strength and became more dominant rather than other countries. Central Asia is a crucial component in the Geopolitical puzzle. The abundant of natural resource in CA is the primary purpose behind for more intense of New Great Game. The Caspian Sea contains a large amount of natural resource. The superpower countries followed up the pathway of the dependency model, and they create opportunity with precisely inside their acquisition. The new Great Game change the notion of Geopolitics on a broader level. China is steadily expanding its influence over the Eurasian mainland with hegemonic expansion over the south china sea. There is an appearance of another cold war (economic domain) between China and the US; both countries headed for intense competition for global supremacy. That’s why central Asia states played an essential function to determine immense superiority over the Eurasian landmass. All these countries participated in New Great Game implemented the soft power and made an effort to pull Central Asian nations through proffering opportunities. The central Asian States compensated relishes the possibility, although faced reluctance from significant players.  The potential development of the Central Asian Region endures the growth of the Eurasian continent.

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Territorial Disputes in Central Asia: Myths and Reality

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One of the focal points of any state foreign policy is the issue of territorial disputes, irrespective of its geographical size, economic opportunities or geopolitical ambitions. At the same time, in the modern world, the scenario of the use of force as a possible option for China to resolve territorial disputes in Central Asia is hardly probable. None of the parties, including neighboring countries, are interested in intensifying territorial claims and initiating a real conflict. Despite the apparent advantages, a guaranteed response from the international community jeopardizes all benefits for the potential aggressor (for example, Beijing) from possible territorial acquisitions. In addition, the system of control and monitoring has been formed in the region with the direct participation of Russia. The guarantors of the system are, in particular, the SCO and the CSTO; the latter one has a sufficiently deterrent effect on the capacity of regional players to demonstrate invasive intentions.

Meanwhile, the international community developed a civilized way to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic means such as long-term leasing of land, the creation of joint jurisdictions, etc. China has experience of transferring territories, for example, the 99-year lease of Hong Kong by the United Kingdom or the recognition of Macao as “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration” followed by the signing of the joint Declaration on the question of Macao. Since China became a successful economic power, Beijing has preferred to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic instruments, rather than from a position of strength.

It should be pointed out that implementing its Belt and Road Initiative, China has never presented it as a charity project. Moreover, the initial goal was the development of the Central and Western regions of China. All foreign countries participating in the initiative expressed their desire to join it on the terms of mutually beneficial development. By accepting China’s offers and agreeing to its loans and investment projects, any of the countries had the opportunity to assess the risks and not participate in them, or to make a choice and develop their own economy on the terms of other financial institutions, such as Western ones. In this case, China acts in the Central Asian region like most major powers interested in strengthening their positions and promoting their political, economic and humanitarian agenda.

Possible allegations of Beijing concluding economic contracts on bonded terms should also be addressed to officials of the “affected” countries who agreed to these proposals from the Chinese side. At the same time, if it appears that one of the parties has not acted in its national interests, this is more a problem of the internal state structure of a particular country and its attitude to the work of its own officials, and to a much lesser extent – a claim to the development of bilateral relations with China.

It is also necessary to distinguish the official position of the state from the statements of individuals who often act in their own interests. For example, an article with the title “Why Kazakhstan seeks to return to China,” which is given as an example in the publication “Land leases and territorial claims of China in Central Asia and the South Caucasus,” was written by an anonymous blogger with just over 80 thousand subscribers (insignificant number according to the Chinese standards). An analysis of how the news was spread geographically by international media, as well as the contents of official statements, confirms the opinion of experts-sinologists that it was an attempt to gain popularity and “collect likes,” and has nothing in common with the official position of Beijing.

Another example of using the foreign policy agenda in the internal political struggle is the statement of the leader of the opposition party of Tajikistan, R. Zoirov, who accused China of moving the borderline 20 kilometers deeper into the territory of Tajikistan.

On the eve of the presidential elections in 2013, Tajikistan’s opposition once again tried to “accuse authorities of surrendering land to China” in the framework of the 2002 border demarcation agreement. China claimed 28 thousand square kilometers of Tajikistan’s territory, but as a result of the negotiations, it received just over 1 thousand square kilometers of high-altitude land unsuitable for life, without proven volumes of large deposits. The results of negotiations can be evaluated in different ways, but each country has the right to seek convenient forms of dispute resolution and debt repayment. In addition, this agreement was ratified by the government of Tajikistan only in 2011. The official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan described the statement of the opposition as a provocation, due to the fact that the author acts in his own interest. Later, it was revealed that Zoirov’s statement refers to 2011 and was “made two years ago and published just now.” According to R. Zoirov, he determined the distance to the border based on the statements of local residents. The official authorities of Tajikistan, China, Russia and other regional powers ignored information about China’s occupation of Tajikistan’s territory as unreliable.

Recognizing the high public sensitivity of transferring land from one state to repay credit obligations to another, it is necessary to proceed from the analysis of the contents of specific international agreements, the motives for signing them by current authorities, and the national interests of the parties involved. Otherwise, one is likely to discover a distorted interpretation of key events in line with the populist rhetoric of an unknown blogger or to be the recipient of information propaganda carried out by major powers competing for regional influence.

From our partner RIAC

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From Central Asia to the Black Sea

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(Source: mift.uz)

In early June, China unveiled a new transportation corridor when a rail cargo of 230 tons of electrical appliances worth some $2,6 million arrived in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Though distant from the South Caucasus, the development nevertheless has a direct impact on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor.

For centuries, Central Asia has been notorious for the lack of connectivity. Highways, railroads and pipelines were solely directed northwards towards Russian heartland. Geography also constrained the development of alternatives, but the problem is that other routes were also purposefully neglected during the Soviet times. Therefore, nowadays breaking these geographical boundaries equals to decreasing Russian influence in Central Asia.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, crucial changes have taken place where newly developed east-west transport links (from China to Central Asia, then South Caucasus) allow the region to be more integrated with the outside world. The primary motivator for this is China. The country strives to involve itself into the region’s economics and politics and, specifically, build ties with arguably the region’s most important geopolitical player – Uzbekistan. Beijing has already taken several important steps. For instance, China has become Uzbekistan’s top economic partner through growing trade and direct investment. Take the most recent example, Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will lend $100 million to Uzbekistan to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic and future public health disasters.

The new China-Uzbekistan corridor is some 295 km shorter and cuts five days off the standard 15 days-corridor which goes through Kazakhstan and Russia to reach Europe. As different forecasts indicate, the Kazakhstan-Russia corridor could lose some 10-15% of Chinese freight per year to the new China-Uzbekistan route – a significant number considering the massive amount of goods that move between between Europe and China.

What is crucial here is that the only viable route to ship freight to Europe from Uzbekistan is across the Caspian to Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Black Sea. Another possibility would be sending goods via the Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, then Iran and Turkey. However general insecurity along this route makes the Caspian option more promising.

These infrastructure changes in distant Central Asia as well as steady growth of shipments from China will further boost the fragile South Caucasus transport and energy corridor, which struggles to compete with enormous trade routes which go through Russia and elsewhere.

What makes the Caspian routes more interesting is the progress made in port development in Azerbaijan and Georgia. The ports of Baku and a small city of Alat have notably improved their infrastructure over the past several years. Located to the south of Baku, Alat is particularly promising as an estimated transshipment of the new port complex is potentially up to 25 million tons of cargo and 1 million TEU per year.

Similar trends of improving infrastructure take place along the rest of the South Caucasus corridor. In March, the Georgian government granted the APM Terminals a permit to start the expansion of Potin port. Essentially the project, which will add more than 1000 local jobs, involves the construction of a separate new deep-water multifunctional port (officially still a part of Poti port).

The project consists of two major phases: first stage of $250 million will take nearly 2-2,5 years to complete and will involve the development of a 1 700-meter-long breakwater and a quay with a depth of 13.5 meters. A 400-meter-long multifunctional quay for processing dry bulk cargo and further 150 000 TEUs will be added; the second stage envisages a 300-meter-long container quay. If all goes as planned, 1 million TEU yearly container capacity could be expected. What is more important for the infrastructure of the eastern Black Sea region and the geopolitics of transcontinental transshipment, the expanded Poti port would have the capacity to receive Panamax vessels.

Expansion of Poti will have regional implications. The port already enjoys the role of the largest gateway in the country and a major outlet for Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s trade with Europe. For instance, liquids, passenger ferries, dry bulk and container traffic go through Poti. Moreover, Poti port also serves as an alternative route for exporting wheat from Central Asia to the Black Sea and elsewhere.

As the work on the Poti expansion speeds up similar developments are taking place in Batumi. In 2019 Wondernet Express, Trammo and the government of Georgia announced plans to build a new terminal with total investment cap of 17,5 million euros. More importantly, the new facility will store up to 60 000 tons of mineral fertilizers coming from Central Asia through Azerbaijan.

From a wider geopolitical perspective, both port expansions enjoy US government support as American business interests are deeply intertwined. PACE terminals, a company which operates in the port of Poti for almost 30 years, is partially owned by a US-based company. This connection raises a possible longer-term vision of Poti’s and Batumi’s development as gateways not only for Georgia, but generally for the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Overall, these connectivity trends will reinvigorate Trans-Caspian shipping. Moreover, though considered by many as unrealistic, the dormant Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), could gain traction. There is more to the story. I have mentioned the US support for the Georgian ports. Europe and Turkey share an identical position. All parties are interested in breaking Russia’s grip on gas export routes from Central Asia. Support for the east-west corridor across the South Caucasus has been present since the break-up of the Soviet Union, but rarely there have been such promising trends as there are now: steadily increasing China-Europe shipping; Chinese Belt and Road Initiative’s expansion into Central Asia; gradually improving rail-road and ports infrastructure in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

On a negative side, much still remains to be done. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, through which the new China-Uzbekistan route goes, Chinese cargo has to be shipped by road which complicates shipment operations. Nearly the entire 400 km of the Kyrgyz section of the railway still needs to be built. So far, no solution is in sight as difficult mountainous landscape and Russian opposition complicate the issue. But the overall picture, nevertheless, is clear. Central Asia is gradually opening up, shipment across the Caspian increases and the expansion of the Georgian ports takes place creating a line of connectivity.

Author’s note: first published in Caucasuswatch

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