Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are Turkic energy-rich and geopolitically critical states in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, which have effectively upheld their independence in the post-Soviet space. Faced with unresolved conflicts, they are looking for urgent solutions to regional crises in their own neighborhoods, just as they are seeking to expand their transit and trade capacity in respective regions in light of renewed interest in the revival of the Silk Roads that would effectively connect the dynamically developing China and the EU. The high level of existing political relations, in part predicated on the above considerations, thus allows Tashkent and Baku to exploit their joint economic potential in earnest, further strengthening their political relations and sovereignty. However, in the absence of opening their economic and political systems, the existing economic relationship may fall short of maturing into a fully-fledged economic partnership capable of large scale, transformative energy trade, and transit initiatives in Central Eurasia.
September 27 marked the second visit by Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliev to Uzbekistan since 2004. Meeting with Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, Aliev emphasized the high degree of bilateral political relations, while calling for a boost in their lagging economic relationship (www.ru.trend.az, September 29; www.rian.ru, September 17).
During the meeting, both leaders once again reaffirmed their mutual political support on issues of regional concern, insisting on the urgent resolution of major regional conflicts in Central Eurasia. They also agreed to support each other in regional and international forums, including in the framework of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), among others (www.ru.trend.az, September 29).
For Baku, this means securing Tashkent’s support for Azerbaijan’s position in the conflict with Armenia over Karabakh and other territories, rendered uncompromisingly by Uzbekistan over several years. “It is my firm conviction that nobody in the South Caucasus is interested in the resumption of military hostilities…Uzbekistan’s position on this issue remains the same. Territorial integrity is a sacred concept,” affirmed Karimov (www.regnum.ru, September 29).
Tashkent’s strong support prompted Aliev to extend his gratitude to Karimov: “We are very grateful to Uzbekistan and to you personally for Uzbekistan’s compelling stand on the settlement of the Armenian-Azeri Karabakh conflict.” Addressing Karimov, Aliev also declared Baku’s unequivocal support for any regional initiatives undertaken by Tashkent: “I would also like to assure you, that Azerbaijan, as before, will always support any Uzbek initiatives in all international platforms” (www.1news.az, September 29).
For Tashkent, in turn, cooperation with Baku allows it to strengthen Uzbekistan’s position as an independent state in the post-Soviet space, as well as to secure support for its own security policies in Central Asia. Its “6+3” regional initiative is a case in point (www.ru.trend.az, September 29). Tashkent has long pushed its security formula for stabilizing Afghanistan, which thus far appears to have received only token attention from regional actors. The “6+3” initiative seeks to engage six countries neighboring Afghanistan and Russia, US, and NATO to address the conflict in Afghanistan and related security challenges for the broader region (www.ru.trend.az, September 29). However, US plans for military disengagement from Afghanistan has prompted Tashkent to reach out to regional partners, including Azerbaijan, to secure support for this and other security undertakings aimed at resolving the Afghan dilemma.
Yet, while political relations between Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are on a firm footing and advance their regional security agendas, their economic cooperation lacks a strong foundation. As Aliev remarked: “…it would be desirable for the bilateral economic relations to at least approach the level of political relations, which, in my mind, are at their very peak” (www.1news.az, September 29).
Currently, Uzbekistan has more than 30 joint ventures involving Azerbaijan. The trade turnover, while growing before the global financial crisis, has declined substantially, reaching in the first half of this year $5.42 million –an almost double decline from last year (www.rian.ru, September 17; www.abc.az, September 24). During their meeting, both leaders pledged to boost bilateral trade and investment in the framework of the adopted economic program for 2011-2015. They also agreed to support regional transit and communication projects as part of overall efforts to revive the Great Silk Road, while particularly underlining the importance of building the 105 kilometer Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project linking Azerbaijan with Turkey via Georgia and developing logistics centers in Uzbekistan (www.regnum.ru, September 29; www.ru.trend.az, September 29; www.news.day.az, September 23).
Baku and Tashkent are clearly looking for ways to elevate their relationship to a higher level by pursuing more dynamic economic relations. The Aliev-Karimov meeting, for instance, further made explicit the two countries’ growing interest in new markets and transit routes to facilitate energy and other commodity exports. The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) is already relying on new eastern routes and exporting 10,000-15,000 tons of oil products to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (www.news.day.az, September 23; www.news.az, October 5).
Transit initiatives offer a number of trade benefits to Baku and Tashkent (as well as others in the broader region), heightened by the rise of China and India, as well as uncultivated transit and trade potential across Central Eurasia in all directions. As Uzbekistan enables Azerbaijan to pursue eastward routes across Central Asia, Baku allows Tashkent to pursue westward routes that link Central Asia with South-Central Europe and the Mediterranean via the South Caucasus. It is no coincidence that Aliev’s visit also led to the agreement between Baku and Tashkent to develop multi-modal rail tracks (www.news.day.az, September 23; www.abc.az, September 24).