By S. Frederick Starr
October 30, 2022
The meetings by heads of state in Issyk-Kul and Tashkent earlier this summer showed clearly that America’s abrupt departure from Afghanistan last year and its long-term neglect of Central Asia did not mark the end of history. Quite the contrary.
SINCE THEIR independence from the USSR, the five Central Asian states that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been the object of great power dreams. Russia, with steady persistence, has tried to lure them back into its sphere of influence, if not of direct control, through economic and security alliances. The United States and Europe have worked to develop them as market economies, and to implant civil society and democratic institutions there. Meanwhile, China assigned them key roles in its Belt and Road Initiative and loaned them billions to develop economic strengths that complement Beijing’s own. Applying Julius Caesar’s classic divide et impera maxim, all these major powers have offered rewards for cooperation and withheld them from the recalcitrant. As a result, the Central Asians risked becoming mere objects of great power maneuvers and not subjects in their own right.
This summer, the Central Asians themselves took two steps to overcome this fate. First, on July 21 the presidents of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, meeting at Issyk-Kul in the Kyrgyz Republic, signed a far-ranging agreement to coordinate their efforts by forging a web of institutional links. These cover areas as diverse as trade, economics, social policy, ecology, medical research, and security. Such a regional consultative structure is urgently needed. Until now, Central Asia has been the only major world region that does not have its own web of institutional ties, i.e., a structure for formulating common policies and organizations capable of implementing them. This left the region at the mercy of major powers and of neighboring states, all of which have proven adept at playing Central Asians off against each other.
Furthermore, on July 26 the same regional states, supported by senior officials from several dozen other countries worldwide, including the United States, Russia, India, the European Union, and China, convened in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, for the purpose of expanding contacts with the new government in Kabul. Their immediate goals were to eliminate threats from extremist bands operating from Afghan territory and to identify changes in Taliban policies that would open the door to broader interaction between Afghanistan, its Central Asian neighbors, and the world. These meetings covered areas as diverse as information, finance, and women’s and minority rights. Their longer-term objective was to improve relations to the point that the Central Asians could open direct transport corridors through Afghanistan to Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia, and Iran.
Whether these two ambitious initiatives will succeed is an open question. Their very existence, however, reflects the Central Asians’ determination to shape their own destiny and to emerge as a world region with linking institutions comparable to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Baltic Council, or other regional bodies worldwide.
WHY, THREE decades after gaining independence, have the Central Asian states suddenly focused on linking arms and collaborating? Three very different developments gave rise to this important movement. First, the unplanned and abrupt American withdrawal from Afghanistan left the Central Asian countries facing a chaotic and potentially dangerous neighbor to the south. Besides threatening a rise of instability across the region, the tumult in Afghanistan extinguished the hope of opening southward trade routes that would give the Central Asians direct access to the Indian subcontinent and the booming economies of Southeast Asia. The importance of that potential “door to the south” cannot be overestimated. Without it, all Central Asia would be left under Russia’s economic and political thumb and unable to constrain China’s economic incursions. Only with such a corridor to South Asia would these countries be able to affirm their own sovereignty and independence while at the same time establishing balanced and constructive relations with all the major political and economic powers.
Second, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine sent a shock wave across all Central Asia, not least because, like Ukraine, all the states in that region had only recently freed themselves from Russian rule and now feared that Moscow was trying to impose it anew. This was no mere paranoia on the part of the new sovereignties. Had Vladimir Putin not compared himself to Peter the Great, who expanded Russia’s territory by conquering neighbors? Had Dmitry Medvedev, head of Russia’s Security Council and former Russian president, not announced that the attack on Ukraine was but the first step towards reassembling all the lands that had formerly been part of the Soviet Union? Central Asians had already established contacts with the West, but those links did not suffice to enable them to counterbalance pressures from the north and east. The obvious next step was to create new economic and political links with South and Southeast Asia. But this requires reopening links of communication and trade that have lain dormant since the rise of the Soviet Union.
The third factor that gave rise to the new spirit of regional vitality on display at Issyk-Kul and Tashkent was the rise of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as president of Uzbekistan. His predecessor, Islam Karimov, had solidified Uzbekistan’s independence by walling the country off from its neighbors, including the other four Central Asian states and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan advanced, but at the price of the resentment of its regional neighbors and the hostility of the West, which condemned its heavy-handed treatment of its own population. Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s former prime minister, brought a sharp change of course after his election in 2016. In a series of dramatic moves, he instituted legal reforms, set about developing a market economy, and loosened many long-standing controls on the Uzbek populace. Most important, he declared peace with all Uzbekistan’s neighbors, opened cross-border contacts and trade, and began systematically reaching out to the other Central Asian states. By so doing, he launched the movement that bore fruit in Issyk-Kul and Tashkent.
What was actually accomplished in the region-wide protocol—formally known as the “Agreement on Friendship, Neighborliness, and Cooperation for Development of Central Asia in the 21st Century”—that the five presidents agreed upon in July? The document includes thirty-two sections that are designed to “consolidate their efforts” for mutual benefit. Of course, it commits signatories to respect existing borders, to not interfere in the internal affairs of other partner countries, and to resolve differences peacefully (sect. 2). But it goes far beyond this. Thus, section 5 calls for mutual support in the face of threats to the “independence, sovereignty, and territorial wholeness” of any member state. Backing up this call, the protocol (sect. 6) commits the signatories to abstain from joining any military bloc that might threaten any of the five states, and to forbid their territories to be used by any foreign state for activities directed against any of the other member states.
Nor were these mere words. Section 7 calls on the parties “to realize mutual action to develop collaboration in military and military-technical sphere on issues of mutual interest.” This parallels Article V of the Washington Treaty that governs the actions of NATO members, which states that an attack on any NATO member is to be considered an attack on them all. Section 7 also commits the signatories to coordinate their actions with respect to all other international and regional organizations to which they may belong. Among threats requiring such coordinated action are specified: terrorism, extremism, separatism, international criminal groups involved with narcotics and arms, and human trafficking. However, the same logic would extend to all other threats to the sovereignty of any member state. The goal, states the protocol, is to establish all of Central Asia as a “zone of peace.”
The many other chapters of the protocol commit members to develop structures for cooperation in legislative and judicial matters, transport, logistics (sect. 14), and all activities affecting trade and investment. The document then goes on to commit members to joint action with respect to the reconstitution of the depleted Aral Sea (sect. 19). Topping off this ambitious agenda is the call for closer links among the academic institutions of member states (sect. 20, 21), structured exchanges of teachers and specialists, the sharing of fundamental and applied research (sect. 24) in diverse fields, including medicine and technology, and the development of common information systems (sect. 23). Tourism also claims a place in the document (sect. 27), which calls for region-wide tours supported by common visas.
One may object that the five presidents papered over important differences between the languages, histories, and cultures of the signatory states. Anticipating such criticism, they went out of their way to affirm that Central Asia constitutes “a single historical and cultural space” (sect. 25), in which diverse peoples have fruitfully interacted and collaborated for millennia. Their agenda called for studying and making known these neglected commonalities. Moreover, the presidents acknowledged that within the borders of each country are linguistic, cultural, and religious minorities. On this delicate issue, they all agreed to support such minorities within their borders and enable them to thrive without compulsion from the national governments (sect. 26).
Three of the presidents signed the protocol at the Issyk-Kul meeting, while the other two—Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan and Serdar Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan—gave assurances that they would sign at the next meeting of the group. The former evidently wanted first to resolve the conflict on the Tajik border with Kyrgyzstan, while the latter, in office for only three months, wanted first to consult with his colleagues in Ashgabat. Both assured their colleagues of their support for the project.
S. Frederick Starr is founding chairman of the Kennan Institute and chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in cooperation with the Development Strategy Center
Forum on Uzbekistan's Constitutional Reforms
At his inauguration after being re-elected President in November 2021, President Mirziyoyev announced the imperative of constitutional reform. This month, he presented the basic outlines of these reforms, which will be put to a nationwide referendum. The reforms intend to modernize the country’s basic law, with the aim of bolstering rights and develop the social nature of the state. A panel of Uzbek and Western experts will provide an initial analysis of these amendments and their implications.
When: Thursday July 7, 2022, 9:00-11:00 AM EST
Svante E. Cornell, Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
Eldor Tulyakov, Executive Director, Development Strategy Center
Uzbekistan’s Reforms in Regional Perspective
Dr. Johan Engvall, Deputy Research Director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency and Senior Fellow, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
Constitutional Reform in the New Uzbekistan
Prof. Mirafzal Mirakulov, Doctor of Law
Judicial Reforms in the Constitutional Amendments
Mjuša Sever, Co-founder and Director of Regional Dialogue, a Slovenia-based NGO with a branch office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The Rule of Law: Constitutional Guarantees for the Rule of Law, Protection of Personal Rights and Freedoms
Senator Shukhrat Chulliev, member of the Constitutional Commission and deputy chairman of the Judicial Committee of the Senate of Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan
Political Reforms in the Constitutional Amendments
Anthony Bowyer, Advisor for Europe and Eurasia, International Foundation for Electoral Systems
Improving the Constitutional Foundations of Parliamentary Control, Ensuring Freedom of Speech and Access to Information
Ilkhom Abdullaev, member of the Constitutional Commission, chairman of the Committee on Innovative Development, Information Policy and Information Technologies of the Legislative Chamber of Oliy Majlis
Social Reforms in the Constitutional Amendments
Dr. Farrukh Irnazarov, Co-Founder at RANSIF Group and Central Asian Development Institute, and Rumsfeld Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
Topical Issues of Building a Welfare State in the Context of Constitutional Reforms
Dr. Gulnoza Sattarova, Head of the Department of the Institute for Problems of Legislation and Parliamentary Studies under Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan
The Meaning and Implications of Uzbekistan’s Constitutional Reforms
Dr. S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
By Mamuka Tsereteli, Ph.D. and Anthony B. Kim
April 25, 2022
America’s partnership with Uzbekistan has become more relevant than ever. This former Soviet state is an ally against Russia, has an emerging market-based economy, and possesses significantly undervalued natural assets.
Capital Tashkent’s relationship with Washington entered what has been called “a new era of strategic partnership” during President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s historic first visit to the White House in 2018.
More recently, during his March 9 meeting with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored, “We appreciate the strategic partnership between Uzbekistan and the United States, the work that’s being done through that; very much welcome the strong humanitarian support that you’ve been providing to the Afghans on one hand and now Ukrainians on the other.”
In his recent speech to Uzbeki lawmakers, Komilov said that Uzbekistan does not recognize the pro-Russia separatist-controlled districts in Ukraine’s Donbas region and called for a “peaceful solution” to end Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Indeed, the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship has gained greater strategic importance with the passage of time. The United States was among the first countries to recognize Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1992 and has maintained growing bilateral relations in the 30 years since.
Uzbekistan is strategically located and the most populous country of Central Asia. Though it still has a long way to go, the country has been transitioning from a command-and-control economy to a market-based economy, propelled by a wide range of reforms, particularly since 2017.
According to The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom, the Uzbekistani economy has grown notably over the past five years. Economic freedom has also advanced during the same period. With large increases in scores for investment freedom and financial freedom, Uzbekistan has recorded a 3.4-point overall gain in economic freedom since 2017 and is in the middle ranks of the “Mostly Unfree” countries.
Also notable is that the country, which is the eighth-largest producer and the 11th-largest exporter of cotton in the world, has eradicated systemic forced labor and systemic child labor, according to new findings by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization. That progress has resulted in the end of the international boycott of Uzbek cotton.
Going forward, emerging economic challenges further complicated by an elevated level of uncertainty will require significantly accelerated reform efforts for Uzbekistan to fully realize its economic potential.
The country is making progress in reforming its governance and public services, however, taking steps that are having an impact on the lives of ordinary citizens and making it easier for businesses to operate there.
It is also strategically better positioned than other countries of Central Asia to meet evolving new challenges: It does not share borders with Russia nor is it a member of either the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which means it is significantly less dependent on Russia than many other former Soviet states.
But mitigating these emerging risk factors will require a new, even more dynamic economic strategy.
First and foremost, the government needs to further strengthen macro-economic stability and ensure structural reforms by supporting the private sector and reducing the role of the state in the economy. That includes boosting the privatization of state assets in all sectors.
Privatization, as well as tax and regulatory reforms, should be focused on attracting more foreign direct investments from a wide range of countries. Companies with solid investment plans, management, and technological know-how should be given priority. Uzbekistan has significantly undervalued assets, and with the proper packaging and government incentives, it should attract sizable foreign investment.
While the future success of Uzbekistan will rest in large part on the shoulders of Uzbeks themselves, America’s continuing strategic support remains essential for forwarding the reforms Uzbekistan has been charting.
Fundamentally, America’s economic engagement with Uzbekistan will be best exercised through constructive private-sector engagement that can be the catalyst for a sustainable and comprehensive economic transformation for the nation.
As this year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Uzbekistan, it is in America’s interest to push forward this opportunity to enhance practical bilateral trade and investment with this vital partner in Central Asia.