Much has been written about the political course pursued by the second president of post-Soviet Uzbekistan, Shavkat M. Mirziyoyev. Mirziyoyev, who succeeded I.A. Karimov in September 2016, has championed a thrust toward innovation that has been a welcome development for Central Asia, where stagnant politics — at play in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — have so far impeded internal reforms and obstructed regional cooperation. Rather than the liberalization of the domestic political landscape, it is the modernization of Uzbek authoritarianism that ought to be seen as Mirziyoyev’s ultimate end. While this policy is likely to reproduce in Uzbekistan the long-term authoritarian stagnation that has been detected elsewhere in the region, it also has major short-term implications for Uzbekistan’s immediate neighborhood and, most importantly, for other key constituents across the wider Asian geopolitical space.
Mirziyoyev’s posture on the advancement of Central Asian regionalism is a breath of fresh air. The policy of regional engagement pursued by the Uzbek leader – who abandoned his predecessor’s isolationism while maintaining his predilection for preserving equidistance from external centers of power – has opened arbitrarily closed borders and re-invigorated regional transport networks by renewing previously abandoned bus lines, train connections, and flight routes. Data on reciprocal investment initiatives and commercial relations between the Central Asian republics confirm that connectivity from below is having a positive impact on the region’s real economy, particularly on the intensification of bilateral cooperation between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s key economic actors.
The placement of Central Asia at the core of Uzbek foreign policy represents a correct assessment formulated by the regime in Tashkent: Mirziyoyev and his associates understand that their country – the only state that shares borders with the other four Central Asian republics – sits at the region’s epicenter. Consequently, they have implemented a policy of regional engagement that directly addresses this unique geographical position. Beyond the recovery of an Uzbek-Kazakhstani economic partnership, the normalization of Uzbekistan’s ties with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rectified the abnormal hostility of the Karimov years, bringing about a series of positive developments in areas such as people-to-people linkages, cross-border trade, and, to a lesser extent, joint investment projects. As it rejuvenated regional relations at the heart of Eurasia, Uzbekistan’s “return to Central Asia” reduced the geopolitical relevance of cross-Caspian cooperation—an area where very little progress has been made since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Moreover, an integrated Central Asia has the potential to contribute further to the progressive strengthening of relations between Asia’s different sub-regions, facilitating the creation of truly continental flows of people, markets, and investment. In this context, Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy stance appears more congruent with wider processes encompassing the Asian geopolitical space, such as the large-scale infrastructure development funded by China under the Belt and Road umbrella.
The combination of the Uzbek regime’s revision of its foreign policy courses and the advancement of Chinese-led integration has boosted bilateral economic linkages between Uzbekistan and China in the forms of renewed energy cooperation and enhanced agricultural ties. Beyond bilateralism, Uzbekistan appears ready to return to a central role in the Belt and Road infrastructural network: the relinquishment of Karimov’s isolationism unlocked the potential intrinsic to Uzbekistan’s geography, re-opening trans-regional transport routes that were closed before the establishment of a new regime in Tashkent. Here, the development of a specific strand of South-South connectivity plays a central role, namely that which pertains to the expansion of the Gulf-Central Asia relationship. As a semi-independent spur of the Belt and Road framework, this route may prove decisive in unlocking commercial access to the sea for goods traded overland across Asia.
Post-Karimov Uzbekistan appears to be Central Asia’s most appealing destination for Gulf investment. Trade relations between the parties are flourishing within the context of Mirziyoyev’s controlled opening; there is a visible expansion in the activity of Saudi, Emirati and, to a lesser extent, Kuwaiti investment funds in Uzbekistan, foreshadowing an intensification of Gulf capital injections into the Uzbek economy.
While the renunciation of Karimov’s isolationist foreign policy is the most visible facet of Mirziyoyev’s new policy course, continuities with prior policies remain conspicuous. The regime’s firm commitment to preserve Uzbekistan’s independence vis-à-vis the Great Powers – Russia and China, in particular – is certainly the most prominent of these continuities. Tashkent, for instance, seeks to strengthen Sino-Uzbek ties by maintaining a healthy degree of economic closeness with China while avoiding the establishment of a debt trap. The experience of Turkmenistan, for all intents and purposes a Chinese client-state after the construction of the Central Asia-China pipeline, may be closely watched by Mirziyoyev and his associates.
More intriguing is the management of the relationship between a rising Mirziyoyev and the Kremlin in the late Putin era. So far, Uzbekistan has not expressed any interest in returning to Moscow’s orbit, yet it has strengthened its economic ties with Russia after the stalemate of the Karimov years. This interactive framework is a policy area in which Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy may be tested more decisively. It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will cooperate with Mirziyoyev’s balancing act, which seeks economic benefit with very little multilateral entanglement.
Thus, there is a calculated mix of continuity and change in the policies selected by the new regime to internationally-orientate post-Karimov Uzbekistan. The continuity part can be traced to Mirziyoyev’s sustained efforts to preserve a significant degree of independence in his dealings with the Great Powers. In its most visible departure from Karimov’s foreign policy course, though, Uzbekistan’s renewed emphasis on regional relations has returned the Uzbek state to the center of critically important regional and continental networks.
The two pillars of Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy – Uzbekistan’s “return to Central Asia” and its continuous balancing act with the Great Powers – have experienced a certain degree of success since the new leader’s ascension to power, reinforcing the international position of the regime in Tashkent. It therefore seems likely that, at least in the medium-term, these postures will continue to define the international dealings of post-Karimov Uzbekistan.
Luca Anceschi lectures in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow (United Kingdom), where he also coedits Europe-Asia Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @anceschistan.