Russia’s President Putin rounded off another trip of frenetic diplomacy with a stop-over in Uzbekistan’s historic former capital Samarkand on his way back to Moscow from the G20 summit in Hangzhou.
Putin’s visit to Samarkand came after confirmation of the death of Uzbekistan’s longstanding leader Islam Karimov.
Putin’s visit obviously was not just a courtesy call, though he was careful to observe the proprieties by giving personal condolences to Karimov’s family – a highly important symbolic step that will draw favourable notice in a conservative and traditional society like Uzbekistan.
Putin’s main purpose will however have been to establish contacts with the new Uzbek leadership and to try to ascertain as much as he can about their policies and about the future of Uzbekistan’s relations with Russia.
Putin seems to have achieved his purpose. Whilst in Samarkand with Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev who, following his appointment as Chairman of the Commission set up to arrange Karimov’s funeral, is now widely expected to succeed Karimov. Indeed the very fact it was Mirziyoyev who met Putin in Samarkand – representing Uzbekistan in a meeting with the President of Russia – is the strongest possible sign to date that he is indeed Karimov’s successor.
Equally important from Putin’s point of view was what Mirziyoyev had to say about Uzbekistan’s relations with Russia. In what look like carefully chosen words, after thanking Putin for the medical help Russia provided to try to save Karimov, he described Uzbekistan’s relations with Russia in these words
“Your visit today conveys a great deal to us, and we are grateful to you for this. You are standing by us as a real friend…..We can say now that Uzbekistan has always considered and will always consider its relationship with Russia as a strategic partnership and Russia as an allied country.”
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The words “strategic partnership” have increasingly become a euphemism in international relations for “alliance”. Mirziyoyev however went a step further by referring in the same sentence to Russia as an “allied country”.
Both Putin and Mirziyoyev of course know that at various times since Uzbekistan achieved independence and whilst Karimov was President relations between Uzbekistan and Russia absolutely could not be described in that way. On the contrary there were periods when relations between Uzbekistan and Russia were quite tense, with Uzbekistan tilting strongly towards the US, hosting a US military base, and joining US sponsored anti-Russian regional groupings such as GUUAM.
In the later stages of Karimov’s life relations between Uzbekistan and Russia became much warmer – a fact Putin indirectly alluded to when he said
“Islam Karimov and I have established a very good personal relationship, a trusting relationship, especially in recent years….Indeed, Islam Karimov has laid a very solid foundation for relations between our countries, and built a strategic partnership. He clearly implied he saw developing relations with Russia as the best course of action for Uzbekistan and its people to achieve their full potential, an attitude we have always appreciated.”
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Putin here was also alluding to a key factor which lay behind the warming of relations between Uzbekistan and Russia in the final years of Karimov’s rule. Not only did Russia – in contrast to the US – provide solid political support to Karimov in the face of challenges from his regime, but Karimov gradually came to realise that good relations with Russia – and China – are critical for Uzbekistan’s economic development.
Uzbekistan’s key economic problem is that its principal export – cotton – is insufficient to cover its import needs. It has therefore felt obliged to operate a highly controlled economy with tight import and currency controls to sustain its balance of payments. Uzbekistan with its large population however needs a growing economy to provide jobs for its people, a fact which even the most self-interested elite understands is essential to maintain stability.
Despite its problems Uzbekistan is however potentially a rick country. What it needs is heavy investment to turn its economy round, and close reciprocal trading arrangements with its key trading partners.
In this part of the world that investment and those arrangements can only realistically come and be reached by agreement with the two great Eurasian powers – Russia and China – whether through remittances from Uzbek guest workers in Russia, or direct investment via such institutions as the ones the Russians and the Chinese are busy setting up via the Eurasian Union and the Silk Road project.
It is no coincidence that Uzbekistan’s economy began to grow at a higher sustained rate (its annual growth rate in recent years has been as high as 7%) as soon as it began to move closer to Russia and China.
As Uzbekistan’s Prime Minister – and therefore as the official with overall responsibility for the economy – Mirziyoyev will know all this, but just to make sure Putin gently reminded him
“He (Karimov) clearly implied he saw developing relations with Russia as the best course of action for Uzbekistan and its people to achieve their full potential, an attitude we have always appreciated.
You have just recalled that during my last visit to Tashkent, he invited me to see the monument to Alexander Pushkin, to lay flowers. He spoke in detail about when and how he made the decision to move that monument, and why it should be there – so that people could come and sense the bond between our cultures, our peoples, our common history. We cherish it, and we certainly hope that all that was started by President Islam Karimov will be continued.
For our part, we will make every effort to continue along the path of our mutual development, to support the people of Uzbekistan, the Uzbek leadership; you can count on us in full measure as the most reliable friends.”
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The warm exchanges between Putin and Mirziyoyev suggest that there is a clear understanding on both sides, and that the Uzbek leadership will indeed henceforth give priority to relations with Russia and ultimately China.
If so then the ambivalences of the Karimov era may be past, in which case it is possible and perhaps even likely that Uzbekistan will gradually move towards integrating itself with the Eurasian institutions such as the Eurasian Union from which up till now it has held aloof.