On October 2, while on an official visit to Tashkent, the chairperson of Russia’s Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament), Valentina Matviyenko, unexpectedly announced Uzbekistan’s supposed intention to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) (RIA News, October 2). Days later, another Russian politician, Farid Mukhamedshin, a deputy chair of the Federation Council Committee on International Relations, made an equally significant pronouncement, asserting that Uzbekistan will likely acquire observer status at the EEU in early 2020, to coincide with Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s planned trip to Moscow (Interfax, October 7).
Tashkent’s reply was delayed, indicating how uncoordinated and even unprepared the Uzbekistani side is to what appears to be a coordinated information campaign employed by Moscow to influence decision-making in the Central Asian republic. Two days after Matvienko’s announcement, Tashkent’s official response was handled by Senator Sodiq Safoev, chairperson of the parliament’s upper chamber. In effect, Safoev confirmed Matvienko’s statement with the caveat that Tashkent has not reached a final decision on its membership in the EEU. Safoev specified that Tashkent indeed has been contemplating joining the organization and, therefore, has been studying possible economic-political losses and benefits from this union since Mirziyoyev came to power three years ago. To address the larger question of whether EEU membership might bolster Russian revanchist sentiments and thus challenge Uzbekistan’s sovereignty, Senator Safoev assured that Moscow had not been asserting any pressure and that national interests were a priority for Uzbekistan regardless what organization Tashkent joined, including the Eurasian Union (Kun.uz, October 4).
The most senior Uzbekistani politician to come out against his country’s possible membership was Alisher Qodirov, the head of Milly Tiklanish, one of Uzbekistan’s five major political parties. Qodirov outright said that the EEU operates with a hidden political agenda to recreate a second Soviet Union (Kun.uz, October 10). Overall, the anti-EEU expert community inside Uzbekistan is largely muted. Those few who speak out bemoan Tashkent’s lack of transparency on such a consequential matter to the country. Most importantly, the expert community as a whole tends to raise concerns about whether Russian political pressure would negate any economic benefits that come from membership (Podrobno.uz, October 4; Kun.uz, July 30).
The pro-Russia community in Uzbekistan, in contrast, welcomed Matviyenko’s announcement, calling it long-awaited (good) news. It quickly listed various advantages that would come from acceding to the EEU, including the greater opening of regional (member state) markets for Uzbekistani products, as well as being able to rely on the combined economic weight of the EEU in negotiating third-country trade agreements. That community is excited at the prospects of both greater regional integration as well as closer relations with Russia. But they dismiss the potential threat of Russian dominance in Uzbekistan’s political life or outright deny it (Anhor.uz, Vesti.uz October 2).
Tashkent’s official explanation regarding the prospect of joining the EEU is simple; and President Mirziyoyev himself outlined it during his speech before the 20th Senate Assembly, in June 2019 (see EDM, July 25). Mirziyoyev specifically expressed his anxiety at finding new markets for Uzbekistani products outside the post-Soviet space, summing up, “Whether we like it or not, Russia and the [other] EEU countries are our major partners, with whom 70 percent of our transactions take place” (Kun.uz, Jun 21.) That statement has so far been the only time the president spoke on record regarding the Eurasian Union.
Though Tashkent has not reached a final decision on membership in the EEU, there is no doubt of Tashkent’s seriousness on this intention. Tashkent did not deny Russian Senator Matviyenko’s statement, but rather attempted to justify such a “rational move.” The drive to join this Moscow-led regional bloc has likely come from President Mirziyoyev himself, or at least with his full support. And the final decision on membership will be tied to the results of an ongoing government-commissioned report that will weigh the relative economic opportunities and losses for Uzbekistan. As Uzbekistan’s Senator Safoev noted, debates on membership have moved beyond internal deliberations and are now at the level of a joint working group, co-headed by Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Uzbekistani Presidential State Advisor Ravshan Gulomov (Kun.uz, Oct 4).
More clarity on whether Tashkent, indeed, becomes an observer to the EEU will come when the presidents of both countries meet again in early 2020. But even before the final decision is reached in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s secondary role in this bilateral relationship is quite obvious. News about the process has been persistently broken by Moscow, indicating how unprepared Tashkent appears to be in the continuing negotiations.
Regional pro- and anti-EEU groups exist both inside and outside Uzbekistan, with the proponents welcoming the economic prospects of membership in the bloc, while the other group points to Moscow’s political traps inherent in the arrangement. No matter what route Tashkent ultimately chooses, Uzbekistan’s government has opened a Pandora’s box: Moscow appears ready to make any concessions necessary to ensure Tashkent will find it extraordinarily difficult to reverse its decision.