“Not only can Uzbekistan elevate relations to a new level but also contribute to the formation of the EU’s strategy in the region” – expert Zainab Dost, writing specially for cabar.asia, speaks about new trends in EU-Uzbekistan relations.
Relations between the European Union (EU) and Uzbekistan are on the verge of an interesting stage of development, thanks to a new dynamic in Uzbekistan’s domestic and regional policies. In the new EU strategy for the region, which should be approved in 2019, Uzbekistan may receive considerable attention as a key country. Over the past year and a half, a number of meetings have taken place both at the highest and functional levels. Obviously, Brussels plans to move away from the tactical policy of 2007-2013 and start a long-term strategy though much will depend on the degree of Tashkent’s openness and transparency. Not only can Uzbekistan elevate relations to a new level but also contribute to the formation of the EU’s strategy in the region.
Contours and horizons of the new EU strategy
The change of power in Uzbekistan, as well as the alteration of previous policies in the region, dovetails with the EU’s natural interest in Uzbekistan. The intensification of bilateral visits and negotiations in the last two years further exemplifies this association.
The new dialogue has allowed Uzbekistan and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to resume cooperation after a long hiatus. As of November 2017, the EBRD allocated $120 million dollars for three separate projects. It might also potentially invest another $300 million by the end of 2018. Uzbekistan also signed a framework agreement with the European Investment Bank (EIB) for public and private sector projects regarding infrastructure, energy and energy conservation. One of the latest developments is the approval of a $5 billion debt package for regional cooperation, including the railway improvements.
Figure 1. Key areas of cooperation between the EU and Uzbekistan
At this time, the EU is considering a new strategy for 2019, where Uzbekistan may receive attention as a key country in the region. This is due to its strategic location, population, economic potential, and recent course to strengthen regional cooperation. Tashkent’s recognition of needed changes in domestic policy and establishment of neighborly relations immediately increased its potential as a partner both at both the bilateral and regional levels. As noted in a recent Europe-Central Asia Monitoring report, “Uzbekistan’s inclination to develop good relations with its neighbors provides an opportunity for the EU to revamp its strategy’s regional dimension.”
Europe is interested in the region’s stability and development. In addition, leading countries are considered prospects for connectivity, i.e. the region’s ties with China, and the region’s potential to once again become a Silk Road between Europe and the Far East. Depending on Tashkent’s reforms and flexibility in relations, the agenda and forms of cooperation can be modified in future. In the near future, emphasis will be on developing and maintaining the economy and using soft power. Even though the EU economy is experiencing difficulties, the budget for Uzbekistan is 168 million euros from 2014-2020. However, in general, cooperation can face certain challenges.
EU soft power: strengths and nuances
Speaking about the EU’s foreign policy in the country and region at large, observers unanimously affirm that Europe has a certain advantage in what is called “the struggle for the hearts and minds of people” thanks to the attractiveness of its standards of development, history, culture, education, and business. This is evident from the fact that one of the most successful projects in Uzbekistan was investing in human capital strengthening. The EU project “Strengthening the Capacity of Small Business Leaders and Private Entrepreneurs in Uzbekistan” attracted 600 candidates of which 152 gained internships in European companies last year.
The efforts of the EU in education reform are also regarded positively in Uzbekistan. According to Ambassador Eduard Stiprais, this was carried out via the Tempus and Tacis programs, which included 80 initiatives with a total budget of 32 million euros, as well as 25 Erasmus+ projects worth 9 million euros. The EU could promote cooperation between local and European universities as well as open new universities and support local educational institutions. Demand for such training will be high. It is a direct opportunity to train local specialists in the humanities and engineering sciences (both in grants and on a contract basis) for potential European capital in the country.
The contribution to education is relevant not only from the perspective of business prospects but also due to analysts’ comments who state that the West’s soft power in the region is at historical lows. The crisis of liberalism, events in Ukraine, international politics, and the recognition of the rights of people with non-traditional orientation lead to the fact that Europe can be perceived negatively in Uzbekistan. Some Uzbek television programs are criticized for values that are “foreign to the Uzbek mentality”, meaning European/Western individualism, clothing, music, and/or cartoons. On social media, statements by religious individual routinely criticize the European style of clothing worn by some pop stars and also dictate which educational specialties people should not study. Gynecologists were subjected to particular criticism. Strangely enough, the state was noticeably absent in curbing such discussion. Perhaps, the EU needs to take into account these views in carrying out its policies. In this respect, the EU can take the initiative to conduct trainings with state TV and radio employees in order to improve their image and achieve a higher quality of journalism and broadcast coverage.
Tashkent’s factor in the regional game
Like playing basketball, having the ball often determines the dynamics and outcome of the game. Speaking in May 2017 about the forthcoming creation of the Trade and Investment Council, the EU Ambassador Stiprais stated that there are no problems on the EU’s end, which effectively put the ball in Uzbekistan’s court. It can be assumed that, similarly, the future of investment depends on Uzbekistan’s initiatives and reforms at the national level. Uzbekistan’s Development Strategy for 2017-2021 lists the following areas as priorities: improving the system of state and public construction, ensuring the rule of law and reforming the judicial and legal system, economic development and liberalization, development of the social sphere, ensuring security, interethnic harmony and religious tolerance, and implementing a constructive foreign policy.
The above goals are needed and justified, but it is not so much the adoption of laws, strategies, and decrees as much their implementation on the ground. For example, we can recall that soon after re-election, President Mirziyoyev promised that Uzbekistan would lift visa restrictions for citizens of 27 countries, including Austria, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Finland. This mainly concerned citizens over the age of 55, among whom there are true connoisseurs of the history, culture, and architecture of ancient cities. However, shortly thereafter, it was announced that the measure was postponed until 2021.
Such inconsistencies in actions are explained not only by ineffective execution of decrees and differences in the approaches of government departments but also by the presence of fear and trepidation prevailing in people’s mentality and even that of institutions. Analyzing social media shows there is disagreement among ordinary people and intellectuals where some welcome innovations and the opening of the country to the world while others are afraid of the consequences. It is likely that similar contradictions are prevalent in the higher echelons of power. It should be noted that, on a personal and interpersonal level, excessive fear blocks development and progress. The latter was especially characteristic of the country until very recently; therefore, the most important task of the new government should be the rejection of excessive control practices.
Stumbling blocks in cooperation
The observance of human rights and rule of law are traditionally stumbling blocks between Tashkent and Brussels. It is likely they will continue to be areas where the parties disagree in their assessments.
Dialogue with Tashkent on human rights has resumed both with the EU, UN, and even with independent human rights organizations. However, depending on the situation, the participants may find themselves held hostage to previous frictions. An example of disagreement may be the exchange of criticism between Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Swedish authorities in May 2017 when the Ministry stated that it had warned the latter in advance of an Uzbek citizen who committed a terrorist attack in Stockholm. It further accused some EU countries of granting asylum to those whom Tashkent considers terrorists. In their returning salvo, the EU representative in Tashkent noted that the deportation was postponed for technical reasons and that Uzbekistan cries wolf all too often by labeling political opponents and dissenters as terrorists. Apparently, the parties will have to show flexibility in this matter.
Finally, the EU will look at the rule of law as a guarantee for its investments. At this time in Uzbekistan, there are modifications and arrests, which testify not only to fighting corruption but also the construction of a power vertical loyal to the new government. On the other hand, the president is signaling a departure from the use of force. However, the change in the chairmanship of the National Security Service and its evolution to the State Security Service does not constitute a complete refusal of previous methods. Although the President has repeatedly spoken about the incompatibility of the siloviki and corruption with the rule of law, getting rid of them will not be an easy task, especially when the governmental systems are still permeated throughout. If only the form changes, but not content, this can be an unfavorable element in relations between the EU and Uzbekistan.
Prognosis and recommendations
After a very sluggish strategy from 2007-2013, the EU is reviewing its policy in Central Asia. The EU is especially drawing attention to the region’s value due to China’s One Belt – One Road initiative, which is expected to contribute to the region’s infrastructure development and even its “resurrection”.
Depending on Uzbekistan’s efforts to further develop the country and open itself to international business, relations with the EU can take on a completely different aspect. Kazakhstan has been the EU’s primary partner in Central Asia and, most likely, judging by the volume of trade, will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, the fall in energy prices forced Kazakhstan to reconsider its policy and economic course, which again draws attention to regional cooperation where dialogue with Uzbekistan is no longer a difficult task. Uzbekistan is no longer isolating itself from its neighbors and is declaring the benefits of cooperation and overcoming differences on many issues, including water, energy cooperation, and the construction of new transport corridors.
Uzbekistan is also attractive to the EU because of its independent policy and distance from Russian-led Eurasian integration projects. In a new round of tensions between Russia and the West, this has a certain significance. Consequently, the EU’s focus will be on Tashkent and its regional strategy. As was stressed by Federica Mogherini in Samarkand in 2017, the EU can support the region in its integration initiatives if the regional governments have such a desire.
At the bilateral level, the EU will focus on development projects and other soft power elements. Priority will be given to supporting the rural population and poverty reduction, as well as developing entrepreneurship and innovations. In carrying out its normative policy, Brussels is fixed in supporting Tashkent in technical education and culture exchange. The respective parties also need to strengthen their mutual positive image by involving both public and private media along with civil society representatives.
The EU expects Tashkent to complete planned domestic reforms, improve the functioning of state bodies, and ensure the rule of law to increase investment attractiveness. After eliminating the compulsory collection of cotton by children, Uzbekistan needs to set itself the goal of completely abandoning similar work by budget employees and introducing decent wages for cotton growers in order to accelerate the departure from monoculture into multi-faceted agriculture. Positive steps in this direction are being made but they need to be hastened.
Due to the fact that Uzbek officials note a possible rise in prices and difficulties for the population in carrying out reforms, European countries and institutions like the EBRD may be able to provide additional funding or other assistance for specialized projects. To do this, emphasis will be placed on developing a legal culture as a foundation for attracting capital, creating jobs, and preventing brain drain. Perhaps the EU will apply China’s tactic of using the “tied aid” tool, which is when investment are made under special condition only for China. For EU players, these conditions could be the provision for all agreements such as the inviolability of private property, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and respect for human rights. In turn, the EU should prevent money laundering via certain Baltic banks, as well as help Uzbekistan recover illicitly acquired funds and ensure their fair redistribution to socially-oriented entrepreneurial projects.
In light of Tashkent’s fear of radical changes, it will be interested in liberalizing the economy rather than politics. Nevertheless, the state should take into account the importance of improvements to the legal and judicial spheres, ensuring real media freedom, increasing the welfare of the population, and creating self-aware conditions to fight radicalism in the long term. Providing people with work, decent pay, and rights & freedoms (including the right of people to free movement both within the country and outside it) are important conditions for society’s progress. In order to attract coveted EU investors and enhance its global economic potential, Uzbekistan should depart from previous management methods.
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Author: Rafael Sattarov, independent political analyst (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of cabar.asia.