On Tuesday, April 19, 2016, Carleton University hosted a roundtable discussion with His Excellency, Bakhtiyar Gulyamov, Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the United States, and Mr. Kadambay Sultanov, Head of Americas Department. Joining them were graduate students in Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian studies, business representatives and diplomats from the Russian Embassy.

This event presented an opportunity to revisit some of many popular beliefs concerning the Central Asia States. Authoritarianism, political instability, and corruption are often the first words that come to mind when discussing the 5 “Stans” of Central Asia. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to life a new type of states, one that experts have often defined as ‘”young states” or transitioning countries”. This terminology has been both a timid adaptation of state theory to complex societies born out of the communist dismay, and institutional shields coating authoritarian regimes from international scrutiny.

Yet Ambassador Bakhtiyar Gulyamov was careful to avoid these two traps.  ‘’We overcome this transition period’’ he said. This distinction, coming from the government itself, marks a renewed commitment to transparency. Accordingly, the Ambassador’s speech was about results. 

“Uzbekistan has, from a historical perspective, made substantial progress, but there is still a lot to be done. Two key areas of progress were identified: state democratization and civil society. 

Kadambay Sultanov, Head of Americas Department, renewed Uzbekistan’s commitment to the 5 principles of transitioning societies: 1) putting the economy before politics, 2) consistency in policy implementation, 3) commitment rule of law, 4) strong social protection, 5) gradual transition to market economy.

Since the Andijan incident, most western governments have been wary of Tashkent for fear of political backlash. While there was no mention of the incident during the roundtable by the ambassador, key reforms in state government concerning parliamentary oversight and state democratization were mentioned. The Prime Minister said and Mr. Kadambay Sultanov, is now elected by the parliament. This important constitutional change was accompanied by the introduction of a vote of no confidence, meaning governments may be dissolved without the President’s consent.

Whether or not these measures will bring about real democratic changes, it does confirm Tashkent’s commitment to painting a welcoming profile for investment.

Among the economic successes listed by Mr. Kadambay Sultanov was Uzbekistan’s major import substitution. ‘Uzbekistan now produces 96% of its food. The country plans to reconstruct of to 10 major power plants in the next 5 years, with the objective of becoming just as independent in electricity production.

These developments offer a stark contrast with Stratfor’s intelligence profile. ‘’Continued crackdowns on alleged Islamist militants could lead to growing blowback and instability’’ the firm says, show an ongoing pattern of authoritarianism rather than an overture to reform.

Among the country’s chief economic challenges, falling commodity prices for the country’s two largest exports – cotton and oil. Ambassador’s announcement concerning the construction of oil refineries confirms the seriousness of the crisis. Development of natural gas consumption means to make up for the losses in exports.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, to the East, are two struggling economies which own goals pose an existential threat to Uzbekistan. Lacking the complementary resources of their bigger neighbor, both countries seek to build a major dam that would ultimately deny water access downstream. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, says Ambassador Bakhtiyar Gulyamov are not ready to consider an alternative. Despite our proposals, they have refused to hear anything else. But the dams pose another type of threat, he added. The planned barrages at Narynsky And Rogun…. Are in the middle of Central Asia’s biggest seismic rift.

Uzbekistan is also one of the few states in Central Asia who reneged joining the Eurasian Union; an economic zone that many see is a Russian attempt at rebuilding its influence in Central Asia. When asked to comment on its refusal to join, Ambassador put it quite roundly. “We don’t need it, he said. The Eurasian Union has nothing to offer”.

This position is the key to Uzbekistan’s survival in a region increasingly dominated by cheap Chinese products. Besides, with the ruble depreciation, countries linked to the Eurasian Union can only increase their dependence on the Russian economy, and thus become more vulnerable to Chinese’ own exports diversity.

But Russia isn’t the problem. ‘’Earlier this month wrote Asia Times, Russia wrote off Uzbekistan’s $865 million debt. Moscow’s decision put an end to a long saga of bilateral financial claims and counter-claims, some dating back to early 1990s.’’ What is more, Russia withdrew its support for the Verkhne-Narynsky, in part because the arrangement meant for preferential loans which Russia was hesitant to grant considering the slow pace of land allocation by local authorities.

A long-time zone of privileged Russian influence, the region is now increasingly connected to China. Chinese manufactured goods are now flooding Central Asian markets, with Kyrgyzstan a major re-exportation hub in Central Asia. This enormous competition promises to be a major hindrance to the growth of indigenous manufacturing.

The menace posed by Beijing is chiefly economic, although the sheer weight of China’s influence will call for sound fiscal policy and clever balancing in foreign policy. This major geopolitical shift is no threat to central Asian governments. Beijing has based its entire engagement with the region on non-intervention, stability, and non-interference.

Pierre-Olivier Bussieres is a Junior Research Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada. Pierre holds a Master of Arts (M.A) in Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies from Carleton University. He is currently Desk Officer for the Montreal Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, and Editor-in-Chief for Republic of the East. He previously worked as a Research Assistant at Carleton University’s Centre for Excellence in European Studies, and Parliamentarians for the Americas. In addition to his M.A, Pierre obtained a Practical Certification in Foreign Intelligence Assessment from the Canadian Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at Carleton University.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

 

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