Since Shavket Mirziyoyev’s succession of Islam Karimov as president in 2016, concerns have been mounting regarding the apparently growing ties between Russian and Uzbekistan. Indeed, Uzbekistani-Russian cooperation has been intensifying, reinforced by multi-day official visits by both President Mirziyoyev to Russia in April 2017 and Russian President Vladimir Putin to Tashkent in October 2018. If listing countries in a certain order is any indication, Russia was at the top of Uzbekistan’s foreign-partners list when President Mirziyoyev gave his latest state-of-the-nation address: “Uzbekistan will cooperate with Russia first of all, then with China, the United States and the EU [European Union]” (Kun.uz, December 28, 2018). Nevertheless, for now Uzbekistan is not showing tendencies of significant dependence on Russia; rather the country is simultaneously accelerating its engagements with other partners.
Current Uzbekistani-Russian relations represent a continuation and expansion of previous projects and several firsts. The fuel and energy sector has traditionally been the dominant area in bilateral relations (Russia.uz, accessed March 5). To date, the most significant project is a $10 billion nuclear power plant, to be commissioned by Russia in 2030. According to estimates, this facility will produce 15 percent of Uzbekistan’s electricity (see EDM, October 22, 2018). In addition, the Syrdarya thermal plant, which currently produces one-third of Uzbekistan’s electricity, is to be modernized by a Russian company that first produced this plant’s now-outdated machinery back in the 1980s (Uzdaily, February 15). And a year ago, Russia’s LUKOIL commissioned the $3.6 billion Kandym Gas Processing Complex in Bukhara (LUKOIL, April 19, 2018).
A notable novelty in bilateral relations in recent years has been the First Interregional Cooperation Forum, held in autumn 2018, and organized jointly by a number of ministries and organizations from both countries. The event featured over 1,000 business leaders, government officials, and Russian university directors. Around the same time, a no-less important milestone was a joint military exercise involving the Armed Forces of Russia and Uzbekistan—the first such exercise since 2005 (see EDM, October 22, 2018).
Russia’s prominent position in the Uzbekistani economy is gradually eroding but continues to be important. In 2018, Russia was Uzbekistan’s second-largest trade partner, after slightly ceding the top position to China. That same year, 18 percent of all foreign trade turnover was with Russia, while 20 percent was with China. Also in 2018, 17 percent of all exports from Uzbekistan were purchased by Russia (22 percent by China), and 18.5 percent of all imports to Uzbekistan came from Russia (18.3 percent from China) (Stat.uz, December 2018).
Viewed in isolation, Uzbekistani-Russian relations may appear expansive. But Tashkent’s cooperation with Moscow is actually not particularly more impressive than with other key international powers. The pragmatic approach of the leadership of Uzbekistan recognizes Russia’s voluminous contribution to Uzbekistan’s economy, but views other countries and international entities as equally significant partners to improve the business climate and boost the domestic economy.
President Mirziyoyev recently stated that he welcomes investments and technology from the United States because US investors ensure accountability and stave off corruption and fraud (Kun.uz, May 23, 2018). To this end, the US-registered investment company Epsilon Development LLC is reportedly planning to invest $2 billion in five natural gas fields in Uzbekistan (Forbes Kazakhstan, February 28). Germany is another country the president has spoken about with similar reverence: “Had anyone asked me what country I would want to work with most, I would say Germany because Germans do not cheat, they are tenacious, and have established a good system. Germany is a knowledge-based economy” (Kun.uz, August 4, 2017).
Last month (February 2019), Tashkent hosted the largest ever Uzbekistani-British business forum, with 55 British companies in attendance. The event resulted in the signing of deals worth $210 million (Uzbekistan 24 TV, February 28.) Earlier, a similar Uzbekistani-German forum concluded with deals worth 4.5 billion euros ($5.1 billion), which also included loans to Uzbekistan’s commercial banks (Uzbekistan 24 TV, January 15). The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has recently extended its largest loan to date in Uzbekistan—$240 million—which will be allocated to expand the Talimarjan thermal power station in the Kashkadarya Region. Earlier, the Asian Development Bank pledged a $450 million loan toward the same project (Podrobno.uz, January 14).
Russia certainly has been and will long remain a major player both in Uzbekistan and throughout Central Asia. Indeed, Russia is Uzbekistan’s major strategic partner (see EDM, June 23, 2004). Moreover, no other countries are likely to outpace the level of engagement of Russia and China in Uzbekistan when it comes to the scope, quantity and monetary value of relations.
Nevertheless, there is no indication that Russia currently wields significant control or overwhelming influence in Uzbekistan. The Uzbekistani leadership, both pre- and post-Karimov, has consciously avoided heavily leaning on or becoming dependent on Russia. In economics, Russia undeniably has the upper hand in bilateral relations with Uzbekistan; but even here, China has become a serious competitor. And in the past two years, Tashkent has shown that it considers US and European partners to be no less important for Uzbekistan’s development.
So far, the Uzbekistani leadership is aware of the fine line between economic cooperation and political interference. And for now, at least, Tashkent will continue to keep Moscow at arm’s length.