“The issue of integration should neither be considered as a solution to the migration problem, nor should it be confined to it, since migration is a negative phenomenon, while nations usually unite on the basis of positive drivers,” says Uzbek political scientist Farhod Tolipov, director of non-governmental scientific –educational institution “Bilim carvoni” (“Caravan of knowledge”).
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In early October, the discussion about the possible entry of Uzbekistan into the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was again intensified with the help of the Chairman of the Council of the Federation of the Russian Federation Valentina Matvienko. The latter, after meeting with President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev as part of her visit to Tashkent, said that “the issue of Uzbekistan’s joining the Eurasian Economic Union was being worked out.”
Her statement marked the beginning of an active discussion of this issue among experts, politicians and users of social networks within Uzbekistan, as well as among its neighbors in the Central Asian region. The public in Uzbekistan turned out to be heterogeneous in their positions: there are supporters and opponents, as well as those who call for considering other ways for cooperation with the EAEU, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
Uzbekistan is the largest country in Central Asia, the first in terms of population, the second in terms of GDP, and one of the key partners of the international community in resolving the “Afghan issue”.
Along with other countries in the region, Uzbekistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Commonwealth of Independent State (CIS). Moreover, in different periods it was part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a military association and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), however, under the previous president Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan ultimately chose to remain outside of these associations due to its “non-alignment” policy.
Nevertheless, Uzbekistan and Russia, the latter being one of the key leaders of the above associations, are linked by close economic, trade and humanitarian ties, which received a new impetus with the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The editorial board of the regional analytical platform CABAR.asia addressed a well-known political scientist and international expert, Farhod Tolipov, director of Bilim Karvoni Nongovernmental and Noncommercial Organization, with questions about what further steps Uzbekistan will take in the light of official statements that there are elaborations for the country’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union.
CABAR.asia: How do you comment on the latest statements by politicians in Russia and Uzbekistan about the possible entry of the latter into the EAEU?
Farhod Tolipov: Kremlin put Tashkent in an uncomfortable position, when it is difficult to openly object to a great power, a strategic partner and ally, but it is also impossible to agree immediately. The resonance caused in society, as well as in political and expert circles by this “sensational” message, of course, forces Tashkent to voice its attitude towards it. And this position has been carefully voiced already: Uzbekistan will study all the pluses and minuses of a possible entry into the EAEU, but will, when time comes to make a decision, proceed from the perspective of its national interests.
So far, a peaceful formula has been found: an observer status in the EAEU.
How do you see the work of the EAEU through the eyes of an expert from Tashkent?
In politics, especially in international politics, there are situations de jure and de facto. De jure – that is, in documents and agreements – the principle of equality is, of course, respected. But de facto, it is obvious that with the clear dominance and leadership of Russia, the EAEU member countries are absolutely not equal in both economic and political weight. A number of cases are known when this superiority gave the Russian leadership the “right” to speak and make decisions on behalf of all members of the organization without first obtaining their consent.
In addition, many advocates, so to speak, of the “theory and concept of the EAEU” basically try to justify the expediency of joining this association with arguments indicating the role of Russia exclusively, the importance of cooperation with it, as well as explicit or implicit dependence on it (for example, by exaggerating the problem of labor migration).
The economy never went in isolation or even ahead of politics. Political motivation is always present in the creation of a particular international organization, as well as in deciding on the entry of a new state into it. It is necessary to look at things realistically and not close our eyes to the political component of the EAEU, not to mention the fact that there is also a geopolitical dimension of the issue.
Several million citizens of Uzbekistan work in the territory of the EAEU member countries – Russia and Kazakhstan. Does Tashkent consider the issue of entry from this point of view?
The integration issue should neither be considered as a solution to the migration problem, nor should it be confined to it, since migration is a negative phenomenon, while countries usually unite on the basis of positive drivers. In addition, the migration problem is quite successfully being resolved at the bilateral level. Integration springs from other incentives and not from the migration dependence of one country on another, which, with such integration, will only be highlighted, underlined and solidified.
What is the interest of Russia in the entry of Uzbekistan into the EAEU?
I still see no reason to exclude the presence of a geopolitical component of this process. But this is not a confrontation in the truest sense of the word. Gaining allies, partners, creating buffer zones around the perimeter of its vast borders (another form of the concept of “gathering the lands”) is an important strategic task for Moscow, especially against the background of its international isolation due to sanctions and rivalry with the United States in world politics. Our region, as the center of the historic Silk Road, has always been at the epicenter of the geopolitical ambitions of world powers. Apparently, in the future we will still be accompanied by geopolitical turbulences.
The format of associations like the EAEU requires handing over certain part of the authority from member countries’ governments to the organization’s headquarters. Is Uzbekistan ready for this?
No, not ready. At least that was so during the rule of Karimov. That is why, until recently, Uzbekistan refrained from active membership in multilateral formats. But the resumption of participation in regional structures will again actualize the issue of delegation of authority. Therefore, I believe that the countries of Central Asia should, so to speak, learn how to delegate authority to supranational bodies, primarily within the framework of their regional structure – in a small group of five states – before experiencing the pains of delegation of authority to a larger, more complex structure not free from geopolitical overloads and consisting of unequal members.
In order not to be subjected to the imposition, as you say, of political decisions within the framework of the EAEU, it would be strategically more important and a priority to first fully launch the process of the Central Asian regional association and ensure its irreversibility. And only then together, that is, already after being a regional integration bloc, build relations with other organizations and even great powers.
How will other foreign policy partners of Uzbekistan react to the start of the discussions on this issue?
The opinion of the West is, of course, important for Tashkent, especially since, unlike other major actors, the West will definitely express its assessment of this event. I think that from a geopolitical point of view, the West, Turkey and China are not interested (to varying degrees and for various reasons) in Uzbekistan joining the EAEU.
On the other hand, thanks to Mirziyoyev’s efforts, Turkmenistan began to abandon self-isolation in the region and began to participate in regional summits. This gave hope that Turkmenistan will finally return to the family of Central Asian countries.
Therefore, the possible entry of Uzbekistan into the EAEU may again put Turkmenistan, as well as Tajikistan, which in many respects try to follow Uzbekistan’s example, in an ambiguous position.
Will the authorities take into account the opinion of the expert community and the general public when deciding on this issue? A number of public figures expressed their point of view, there are active discussions in the Uzbek segment of social networks.
What we are observing now is a lively and complex discussion process; struggle of positions not only among parties, but even among experts and analysts. For parties, by the way, this is a good test of their political viability and maturity, since so far they have remained rather impersonal and non-independent entities of the political system.
I think a number of circumstances lead us to the conclusion that the most important, crucial decisions will be made less and less in private, by a narrow circle of elites.
Mirziyoyev’s reforms are taking on an unprecedented scale. They are increasingly liberating public interest and public discourse on various problems of the country’s development – from democratic choice and the protection of human rights to robotization and the importance for the country of the 3rd, 4th or other global technological revolution.
Based on this, I am almost sure that experts will be able to contribute to the process of developing a decision on Uzbekistan’s accession to the EAEU. This is also confirmed by such moments as recent statements by the representatives of the authorities and political parties explaining the state of affairs, as well as their official positions on this issue.
On the whole, a model of adoption of new key laws, major programs and other important documents, when their draft texts are published for the wide public discussion and for making new proposals, is more and more prevalent in the country.
It seems that this issue of joining or not joining the EAEU will not be resolved without wide public proper discussion. Moreover, the public and political resonance from it is already expanding.
Is a referendum possible on this issue?
A qualified decision does not contradict the idea of a referendum. In fact, the debate has already begun. Look at social networks, publications on some sites and interviews in Uzbek newspapers – this issue is already widely discussed there. In addition, political parties also began to express their differing positions on this issue. It is necessary to conduct a series of programs on television with the participation of experts.
* The main article used a collage from the website eurasian-studies.org
“This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project”