Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Uzbekistan, on October 19, resulted in more signed agreements, worth larger sums of money, than any other bilateral meeting the Central Asian republic’s President Shavkat Mirziyaev had held to date. A number of long-term and short-term strategic projects, the largest of them an $11 billion nuclear power plant, along with momentous agreements between the two countries’ institutions of higher learning will collectively have a long-lasting impact on Uzbekistan’s future development.
President Putin’s trip to Tashkent was his first state visit to Uzbekistan following Mirziyaev’s initial visit to Moscow, in April 2017, as president. In addition to these annual top-level visits, bilateral diplomatic relations have continued to busily develop in the background. As Mirziyaev himself noted, the two sides held 80 meetings, at various levels, in the past year alone (Kremlin.ru, October 18). Most importantly for Uzbekistan, over the past two years Moscow agreed to concessions to Tashkent that heretofore had only been available to full members of the major Russia-led regional integrationist organizations—the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Specifically, Russia opened its borders to agricultural products from Uzbekistan, which encouraged their trade turnover to grow by 30 percent in 2017 and again by the same percentage in 2018 (Kremlin.ru, October 18). Russia also began selling military weapons to Uzbekistan at domestic prices, the only non-CSTO country in the post-Soviet space that currently enjoys this privilege (Kremlin.ru, October 18).
Putin’s visit concluded with the signing of 785 agreements and memorandums, together worth $27.1 billion—the largest such package since Mirziyaev’s rise to power (Kun.uz, October 19). In comparison, Mirziyaev’s state visits to Paris earlier this month and to Washington, DC, in May each resulted in around $5 billion worth of contracts (President.uz, October 8; Kun.uz, May 20). Even Mirziyaev’s trip to Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner, China, resulted in “only” $23 billion in contracts (President.uz, May 15, 2017).
Among the hundreds of deals that were reached, the largest single agreement signed by Russia and Uzbekistan regarded building the first nuclear power plant (NPP) in Central Asia—a project evaluated at $11 billion. Tashkent justifies the NPP as an environmentally friendly project that will save domestically produced natural gas (President.uz, October 19; see EDM, July 10). The head of Uzbek State Energy organization reasoned that the NPP will ease reliance on hydrocarbons and provide cheap and reliable energy (Kun.uz, June 27). Meanwhile, the head of the “Uzatom” state agency explained that, with the NPP, Tashkent is preparing for the doubling of energy consumption by 2030, 15 percent of which will be covered by the new nuclear plant and will also save 14 million tons of carbon dioxide emission (Kun.uz, October 12).
Within the framework of Putin’s visit, Tashkent also hosted two unprecedentedly large-scale meetings for lower-level officials and private-sectors members. The first brought together 82 Russian university presidents to meet with their counterparts from Uzbekistan—80 presidents of the 85 existing Uzbekistani colleges took part (Marifat.uz, April 24; Kun.uz, October 20). The meeting resulted in the signing of 100 cooperation agreements, allowing for the opening of several branches of Russian colleges in Uzbekistan, in addition to other types of cooperation (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Kun.uz, October 16).
The second meeting, an interregional forum dedicated to economic cooperation, featured over 1,000 delegates from 18 regions and 180 companies in the Russian Federation. Uzbekistan is eager to further expand agricultural exports to Russia, and its domestic entrepreneurs were focused on finding as many Russian partners as possible during the meeting (Sputniknews-uz.com, October 18). Mirziyaev is heavily pursuing the policy of pushing business cooperation down to the regional level from the previous republican level in order to force Uzbekistan’s regions to become more self-sustainable and show greater initiatives in attracting business partners. The large business meeting with Russian counterparts was thus designed to expand such cross-border regional cooperation.
Several days prior the latest Putin-Mirziyaev summit, the militaries of both countries agreed to allow each other the use of their countries’ airspace (Podrobno.uz, October 12). Official explanations for this agreement claimed that those rights were limited to Russian military cargo transport flights over Uzbekistan (without landing). But even that restricted use may effectively mean that Uzbekistan is agreeing to Russia’s use of its airspace for military operations. Such agreements usually also mean increased military exercises between air forces. Indeed, Russia and Uzbekistan held their first bilateral military exercise in 2017, after a 12-year pause; and a further expansion of joint military maneuvers should not be ruled out (Kun.uz, July 3, 2017; see EDM, October 3, 2017). Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that Uzbekistan most likely put an expiration date on the above-mentioned agreement and probably insisted on a number of limitations to ensure its airspace does not de facto fall under Russian control.
When it comes to the scope and monetary value of the concluded agreements, Putin’s October visit to Tashkent has superseded all other bilateral meetings Mirziyaev has had during the last two years of his presidency. Notably, each university in Uzbekistan emerged from the meeting on academic cooperation paired with a Russian institution; and the 1,000-person business delegation from Russia was likely the largest that Uzbekistani entrepreneurs had ever seen visit their country. Since the passing of former president Islam Karimov, Mirziyaev continues to press ahead on cautious cooperation with and growing receptiveness toward Russia. At the same time, Tashkent is reaping the benefits of this bilateral cooperation without having had to join any of the key Moscow-led regional groupings. Nevertheless, with or without Uzbekistan’s participation in these organizations, clearly Russia’s footprint in the military, energy, economy and education spheres is set to grow.