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Uzbek push for stronger ties may change face of Central Asia

Big diplomatic shift after past isolationism welcomed by region, world

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev speaks in Russia April 5, 2017.   © Reuters

SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan -- Uzbekistan's efforts to forge improved relations with its neighbors -- representing a sharp turnaround from its past isolationism -- could significantly increase Central Asia's influence on the international stage.

Earlier this month, Uzbekistan hosted an international conference on security in Samarkand, the country's second-largest city. During the two-day meeting, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed to regularly hold regional summit meetings among the five Central Asian nations.

The move to enhance regional ties, and even to take a lead role in such cooperation, marks a major diplomatic shift for the country, one year or so after the death of former President Islam Karimov, whose foreign policy was characterized by resolute independence.

With the region's most populous country taking the lead in expanding cooperation, the five nations of Central Asia could have a greater voice against two influential superpowers: Russia and China. 

Leaders from the four other Central Asian nations -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan -- have all agreed on the regular regional meetings, according to Uzbekistan, and the first such gathering could be held as early as next year.

This will mark the first roundtable to discuss regional issues among Central Asian nations without the influence of superpowers, as these former Soviet Union republics are typically members of China- or Russia-led alliances, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Karimov, who died in September last year, had ruled Uzbekistan with absolute power over a quarter of a century. He was extremely cautious about establishing close relations with other economies. During his roughly 27-year regime, Uzbekistan was involved in frequent disputes with Kyrgyz and Tajikistan over border issues and water resources.

In contrast, Mirziyoyev, who was elected last December, appears to be making the restoration of ties with neighboring countries his top goal.

Every possible direction

Soon after taking office, Mirziyoyev toured Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. In September, he made the first presidential visit to Kyrgyzstan in 17 years, and held bilateral talks with his counterpart, Almazbek Atambayev. Mirziyoyev is also actively approaching the Tajikistan government. 

Uzbekistan's foreign minister Abdulaziz Khafizovich Kamilov insists that strengthening cooperation with surrounding countries is essential for solving security issues and border disputes, as well as promoting the development of transportation infrastructure in the region. The Central Asian nation appears to be keen on building an environment that could help lure foreign money,  eventually expand its economy.

The country is also moving to modernize its economy, recently liberalizing its foreign exchange system.

China's Belt and Road initiative also represents a promising opportunity for Uzbekistan, pushing the country to expand links with its neighbors for the development of relevant infrastructure networks.

Mirziyoyev also wants to improve his country's damaged international reputation on human rights abuses, and to restore relations with the Western economies. Diplomats from European countries have welcomed the ongoing changes in Uzbekistan as positive signs for the entire region's stability, although the future of democratization and liberalization efforts remains uncertain.

Despite a busy schedule since taking office, the president has visited Russia, China and, in September, the U.S. His efforts to secure communication with superpowers -- without leaning toward a specific country or region -- could hint at a careful strategy to keep his regime independent from any power bloc. 

During an interview with The Nikkei, foreign minister Kamilov denied speculation that Uzbekistan is considering joining the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- although a majority of Central Asian economies have joined the regional frameworks, both led by Moscow. 


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