Central Asia - priority of foreign policy of Uzbekistan
Tashkent, Uzbekistan (UzDaily.com) – Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ilkhom Nematov in an interview with Gazeta.uz spoke about the priorities and main tasks of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy in Central Asia, why the attempts to create an integration process in the region were unsuccessful and the reasons previous problems in relations with neighboring countries.
- What problems have been in relations between Uzbekistan and the states of the region before?
“The current situation in relations between Uzbekistan and neighboring countries until 2016 urgently required a review of the whole range of issues. The question arises: “Why?”
Because long-standing disputes, sometimes even “confrontation” on such issues on which, with a sound approach, reasonable solutions could be found, led not only to disagreements, but also - very often - to border incidents.
The main reason for the disagreement was the lack of compromise in issues of water use, the use of transport communications, delimitation of state borders between Uzbekistan and neighboring countries and the crossing of border points. The main reason for the disagreement, I repeat, was the lack of compromise.
If you paid attention, our president, speaking to officials in Tashkent region two years ago, said: “There is huge ice accumulated over the past 25 years between Uzbekistan and the Central Asian states. In order for this ice to melt, we will have to do a lot together with our neighboring countries.”
- What changes have occurred in the policy of Uzbekistan in relation to the countries of Central Asia?
- Over the past three years, at the initiative of the President of Uzbekistan, an exchange of high-level visits with all countries of the region took place. During these visits, decisions were made on global issues that were of mutual interest to the countries of Central Asia: in the areas of security, economics, investment, culture and the environment.
As a result, over the historically short period, enormous changes have taken place for the better in relations between Uzbekistan and the countries of the region. That is, today I can directly tell you that we have excellent relations with all countries of Central Asia. Those problems that were before 2016 are completely removed. The ice that has formed over 25 years between Uzbekistan and the Central Asian countries can be said to have completely melted over the past three years.
Political dialogue has strengthened between the leaders of Uzbekistan and the countries of the region. Personal trust between presidents has strengthened. Today, we can say, an unprecedented increase in trade with all countries of the region is observed. At the end of 2019, we reached US$5.2 billion in trade with Central Asian countries.
My observations show that if, until 2016, the annual commodity circulation of Uzbekistan with the countries of the region averaged US$100-150 million, then, according to the results of last year, commodity circulation with all countries increased by more than 50% on average. With Kyrgyzstan, trade grew 8 times, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan - 5 times, and with Kazakhstan - increased by US$1 billion.
As a result of Uzbekistan’s open, very constructive, thoughtful and pragmatic policy towards Central Asian countries, solutions were found to very complex, confusing issues, such as water use, delimitation and demarcation of state borders between Uzbekistan and neighboring countries, the use of transport communications and crossing state borders.
We signed a border agreement with Kyrgyzstan on 5 September 2017 during the state visit of the President of Uzbekistan. On 10 March 2018, a border treaty with Tajikistan was signed. As a result, all restrictions at the border points were lifted.
If five years ago the Uzbek-Kyrgyz state border was crossed by 200-300 people a day, today it is more than 30 thousand a day. After signing the agreement with Tajikistan, all 17 border points began to function fully. They used to be closed. Today, the Uzbek-Tajik border crosses 20 thousand citizens a day. These are the changes that have taken place in relations between Uzbekistan and neighboring countries.
If five years ago it was said that Uzbekistan is a brake on the integration processes of Central Asia, today this label has been completely removed from the country. Because today Uzbekistan is actively promoting integration processes in the region. Today we can say that relations between Uzbekistan and the countries of Central Asia are developing on the basis of mutual respect, consideration of mutual interests and mutual benefits. These three pillars of our relationship play a major role in solving all problems.
- Attempts to create a dialogue platform for the countries of Central Asia were made earlier, but failed. What was the reason, in your opinion?
- After the collapse of the Soviet Union in Central Asia, various organizations were created, but they had no prospects.
In 1993, the first such organization was created - the Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC) with the participation of three states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan joined this organization in 1998, after the end of the civil war and the establishment of peace in the country. This organization lasted until 2002.
There are various political, economic, environmental, transport issues, as well as security issues in the Central Asian region. And the name of the CAEC limits the range of issues discussed to the economy.
Therefore, in 2002, at the initiative of Uzbekistan, in order to expand the range of issues raised, the CAEC was transformed into the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO). It lasted until 2005, and on 6 October 2005, it was decided to merge this organization with the EurAsEC (Eurasian Economic Community, abolished in 2014 in connection with the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union - ed.) The decision was made by agreement of the heads of state in St. Petersburg.
Why did these regional organizations not have prospects? The main reason is the lack of participation of all countries in the region. Turkmenistan, due to its neutral status, did not participate in these organizations. If you look at Central Asia as a whole organism, it will function normally when all organs work normally.
Translated into a diplomatic manner, Central Asia consists of five states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. If Uzbekistan does not participate in any regional organization, then not a single question, be it of a political nature, economic nature or humanitarian nature, will be resolved effectively. Non-participation of one country in a regional organization does not allow it to fully function.
- Is it worth hoping that the current initiative of regional coordination will be more successful and why?
- An important platform for discussing issues of cooperation and sustainable development of the region was the initiative of our president - the Consultative Meeting of Heads of Central Asian States. I am sure that the consultative meeting has a great perspective, because all the countries of Central Asia participate in it.
The main result of the first meeting, which was held in Astana on 15 March 2018, was the search for new opportunities for the sustainable development of the region and improving relations between the countries of Central Asia.
The second consultative meeting was held on the initiative of our president in Tashkent on 29 November 2019. After the Tashkent meeting, the rapprochement of the countries of Central Asia became irreversible.
Following the results of the last meeting, a joint statement was signed with all heads of state. This document includes all the agreements between the heads of the five Central Asian states on security, trade and economic cooperation, tourism development, youth policy and, naturally, the issue of Afghanistan was raised. Because for all countries of Central Asia, the settlement of the Afghan issue is crucial. Because the main threat to Central Asia today comes from Afghanistan.
In Tashkent, we have also signed the rules of the consultative meeting. According to the regulations, the meeting of the heads of state of the consultative meeting of Central Asian countries will be held once a year. The specific date, agenda and issues that will be discussed in the upcoming meeting are agreed through diplomatic channels.
For example, we planned a second meeting in April 2019, but the situation demanded that we postpone it; it took place on 29 November. A third consultation meeting was scheduled for August this year in Kyrgyzstan. If the pandemic situation improves, it can be organized in the fall. It all depends on the situation with the spread of coronavirus.
Now we are working on the third meeting in Kyrgyzstan. Documents to be signed as part of this meeting are being developed online. The first meeting of experts we held on 20 February in Bishkek, then there was still an in-person meeting. The second meeting was held online on 22 June.
- The forecasts for water supply in Central Asia are disappointing: glaciers are melting, rivers are becoming shallow, the population is growing rapidly. Which organization will serve as an effective platform for responsible planning, water resources management and quality control in Central Asia and Afghanistan? What needs to be done to ensure that downstream countries have enough water in the summer?
- In Central Asia, Amudarya and Syrdarya rivers are the source of water. We are located between these two rivers.
In Soviet times, there were no problems; everything was planned centrally. We, the downstream countries, supplied the upper countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, gas and other energy resources. When necessary, we bought surplus. When the Soviet Union collapsed, naturally, the principles of a market economy became normal and certain problems arose.
Uzbekistan uses a large amount of water in Central Asia because we have a large population and economy. The water demand in the region is constantly growing: the population is growing, the economy is expanding, industry and agriculture are developing. On the other hand, water sources are declining.
Today, thanks to the open and constructive policy of Uzbekistan, we have resolved this issue. If for a long time we prevented, it could be said, the construction of some facilities in neighboring countries, for example, the Rogun hydroelectric power station in Tajikistan or the Kambarata-1 and Kambarata-2 hydroelectric power plants in Kyrgyzstan, we do not have these problems today. Thanks to the good neighborly policy of Uzbekistan, these issues have been removed. We even expressed our readiness to participate in the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric station. We agreed that all the facilities that will be built in Central Asia take into account the interests of neighboring countries.
Naturally, there are years of low water, there are years of high water. The construction of the Rogun hydropower plant, as our specialists informed me, was planned on the initiative of the Uzbek leadership in the 70s in order to provide water for the growing season of cotton in the dry years by using Rogun’s water reserves. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the project became outdated, so there were some problems. Now there is no such problem. The Tajik leadership assures that they did not create any problems and will not create them for the downstream countries in the future.
We also have agreements with Kyrgyzstan on water use. For example, Toktogul hydroelectric power station is the largest hydroelectric power station in Kyrgyzstan. It accumulates 19 billion cubic meters of water. We resolve all issues on the basis of mutual benefit and mutual respect.
In addition, it is very important for us to think about water conservation issues. In December last year, the President of Uzbekistan held a meeting with relevant structures. Then he set the task to establish good relations with developed countries in order to study their experience in water conservation. That is, we must attract water-saving technologies to Uzbekistan, including drip irrigation. It is also very important for providing water to agriculture, industry and the population.
- How did the incident in Sokh affect Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations? Will the situation affect the acceleration of the process of delimitation and demarcation of borders?
- I want to answer right away that this will not affect our relations, which today have a growing character. During a speech to an asset of the Ferghana Region on June 5, the president said: “In recent years, we have managed to resolve many problematic issues on the border with neighboring countries. Events in Sokh should not affect our friendship with the Kyrgyz people, our mutual trips and general plans. We need to be calm, patient, compassionate. Neighborhood - for thousands of years. Our peoples must live side by side and respect each other.”
Exactly six days later, on 11 June, President of Kyrgyzstan Soronbai Sheripovich Jeenbekov, speaking to the people of Aravan region, said the following words: “With the advent of Shavkat Mirziyoyev between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, friendship and good neighborly relations strengthened. There is a good saying: a close neighbor is better than a distant relative. Kyrgyz and Uzbek peoples have lived side by side for centuries. Our fathers maintained unity and were close to each other. Our countries are close to each other not only geographically, we have one story, one religion, one language and similar traditions and customs. We strive to maintain good neighborliness and mutually beneficial relations, we will solve all problems, this requires patience and time. For the future of our children, we will continue the policy of strengthening friendship with neighboring states.”
The statements of the presidents are similar, and this suggests that the recent Sokh events will not have any negative impact on bilateral relations.
I have been to Sokh many times. It has beautiful nature, mild, pleasant climate, fertile land, people are hardworking and patient. Sokh is provided with gas and electricity. Last year, as part of the Obod Mahalla program, a school, a kindergarten, modern residential buildings were built in the center of the district, roads were repaired, a “one window” branch was built (public services center - ed.)
Currently, on behalf of the President, 500 billion soums are allocated for the comprehensive development of Sokh district in the coming years, new jobs are created. In all sectors of the economy, 98 new projects will be implemented.
- How are relations between countries of the region developing in a pandemic?
- I’ll tell you directly that mutual assistance and joint measures to minimize the consequences of the spread of coronavirus have proved the correctness of Uzbekistan’s open and constructive policy towards Central Asian countries.
Despite the threat of a pandemic, today there is active cooperation between the countries of the region. Heads of state constantly communicate by phone. I thought so, over the past four months, the President of Uzbekistan has talked with the heads of state of the region 16 times.
There is a saying "a friend is in need." From the very beginning of the spread of coronavirus infection, countries began to provide humanitarian assistance to each other. Uzbekistan sent assistance to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In response, our neighbors, for example, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, sent humanitarian aid to restore the Sardoba reservoir.
The created atmosphere of friendship, fraternity and good neighborliness helps in a pandemic to develop normal relations with the Central Asian countries and between them as a whole.
- What new challenges will Uzbekistan face in Central Asia? Will a pandemic affect plans?
- Speaking about new tasks, I want to note that the President of Uzbekistan in his message to the Parliament on 24 January outlined the priorities of the country’s foreign policy. The first priority of foreign policy of Uzbekistan, he called the development and continuation of constructive policies in relation to the Central Asian countries.
Naturally, we will continue to develop the relations that have developed today, strengthen political dialogue with all countries of the region, and attach great importance to economic cooperation. The task was set to bring trade with Kazakhstan to US$5 billion, with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to US$1 billion. This is our main concern.
With regard to economic diplomacy, the president poses great challenges to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Firstly, attracting investment. Secondly, an increase in the export of goods produced in Uzbekistan. And finally, an increase in the number of tourists coming to Uzbekistan.
If the economy develops, then everything will develop. Not a single country in the world has developed without attracting investment. For example, Germany after the Second World War was completely destroyed. Thanks to investments, it is today the most developed in Europe.
Or tourism. For example, in Chicago there are high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. There are places of entertainment for tourists, infrastructure is created. When I was there, I was told that more than 30 million tourists come there annually. This is subject to domestic tourism.
The number of tourists in Uzbekistan, of course, is growing. At the end of 2019, more than 7 million tourists came to Uzbekistan. But unfortunately, the pandemic has made adjustments to this trend.
- In February of this year, it was planned to introduce the Silk Road visa regime in Central Asian countries. At what stage is this work, given the plans of Uzbekistan to resume tourism, as soon as possible? How did the pandemic affect her?
- This initiative was proposed to facilitate the arrival of tourists in the Central Asian countries. If a citizen of a foreign country has a visa of Uzbekistan, then he has the right to visit Kazakhstan. And if a citizen of a foreign country has a visa of Kazakhstan, then he can come to Uzbekistan without any problems.
Unfortunately, the pandemic also thwarted these plans. But I can say that the document is on the way. In the near future it should come out, if we coordinate this visa regime with Kazakhstan, there were certain issues. When we finally agree on this document, we will work to ensure that it applies in other countries of Central Asia.
- What are the prospects for public diplomacy in Central Asia and how can it help governments to improve relations?
- The role of public diplomacy in improving relations between the countries of Central Asia is very important. Here, the most important thing is our culture, it is complementary. We have similar traditions and customs, there is one religion, there is no language barrier. If we speak two languages with Tajikistan, culture, history, traditions and customs are still very close.
2018 was declared the Year of Uzbekistan in Kazakhstan. Within its framework, we held more than 80 cultural, sporting events, cinema days, various festivals. And 2019 was the Year of Kazakhstan in Uzbekistan. Many cultural events were organized. This is popular diplomacy.
Over the past three years, we have held many cultural events with Tajikistan. The same is with Kyrgyzstan.
Especially after the opening of the borders, favorable conditions were created for the population living in the border areas. The fact that the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan per day crosses more than 20 thousand people, between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan - more than 30 thousand - is also popular diplomacy.