The first strategic steps of the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev: Geopolitics, economics and regional cooperation


The recent official visit of the new Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev to Kazakhstan turned out to be "significant" by opening a new page not only in bilateral relations between the countries but also creating conditions for unfreezing the potential for regional interaction. The geopolitical and economic motives of the first strategic steps of the Uzbek president cannot be underestimated.


New axis in Central Asia - Strengthening the regional balance

It is interesting that President Mirziyoyev chose the creation of a "zone of the most favorable conditions" for his country along the perimeter of Uzbekistan as the main priority of his foreign policy based on the principles of reasonable pragmatism. This priority was followed when he selected the first countries to visit after being elected - Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, as the main "axial countries" for Uzbekistan to enter the world. Through Turkmenistan, the Uzbek leader expects to access the West, so the two leaders focused on the development of a transport corridor through Turkmenistan to the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus and the EU, as well as the possible direction to the Persian Gulf through Iran.

Kazakhstan is considered by Uzbekistan not only in the broad context of bilateral brotherly relations as Tashkent sees its northern neighbor as a strategic bridge towards China through Uzbekistan's participation in the Silk Road Economic Belt trade and transport corridor initiated by Beijing, and as a kind of "intermediary" for the development of the northern direction, strengthening security guarantees from Russia on Afghanistan by providing favorable conditions for the transit of Uzbek cargo through the territory of Russia, as well as creating comfortable conditions for Uzbek labor migration.

Uzbek president expects difficult meetings with his Russian and Chinese counterparts on a number of strategic directions that require flexible positioning. The interests and strategies of these two great powers in Uzbekistan are diverse in spheres (security as a priority for Russia and the economy as the goal of "China's march to the West") and divergent in terms of the potential of influence (narrowing the Russian responsibility and, on the contrary, increasing the zone of influence of the PRC) are interfaced, whereas in Kazakhstan this diversity in practice increasingly acquires the features of a geopolitical clash. In this respect, it is very important that Shavkat Mirziyoyev gains support and good personal contacts with President Nazarbayev, who is quite experienced in international politics, and his close colleague Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who represent a carrier of "axial construction" for the entire region. It seems that before the visits to Russia and China, the Uzbek president discussed with Nazarbayev the possibility of an integrated, coordinated approach to the major regional players - Russia and China. And this strategy seems successfully planned evolutionary integration of Uzbekistan into the mosaic of the region in the post-Karimov epoch.

Kazakhstan could reduce the degree of geopolitical tension around its borders due to the apparently divergent interests of Russia and China in the region by strengthening cooperation with Uzbekistan. The equivalent position of Uzbekistan from large centers of power with special strategic relations, both in formal and substantial plans with Kazakhstan, provides two leaders with a unique chance to play in tandem for the benefit of both their own states and the region as a whole.

It is believed that Kazakhstan's resources in blocking the plans of Russia and China and their correlation in Central Asia are rather limited and stipulated by the known "red flags". Kazakhstan is currently heavily "clamped" by Russia, through involvement in the poorly calculated and so far ineffective project of the EAEC, and by China, which has tied the country to the Silk Road Economic Belt with a multitude of investment commitments and unclear prospects regarding the traffic load of the under construction transport infrastructure. In addition, the uncertainty of the position of the West regarding the relation is perceived by many like that the peripheral Central Asia provides a certain time resource before a new "Great Game" can be initiated in the region. The entirely unclear strategy of the "cynical risk assessment" of Donald Trump and the "cautious groping" of the region's opportunities on the part of the EU plays into the hands of the authoritarian leaders of Central Asia who are not very concerned about the observance of the democratic order.


Doubled potential

Until recently bilateral relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan had a big unrealized capacity, and as Kazakh President stated: "only in a short period since Mirziyoyev came to power, the volume of bilateral trade has increased by 30%." The contracts concluded in Astana are estimated at almost 1 billion USD. The Uzbek leader expressed interest not only in the opportunities provided by the Kazakhstan market but also in the transit potential of Kazakhstan, whose infrastructure is now seriously changing and opening up new huge and wealthy world markets.

This was well demonstrated by the Kazakh-Uzbek business forum featuring 500 businesspeople from both sides and an exhibition of economic achievements of Uzbekistan. The active involvement of some isolated population of Uzbekistan, 33 million people in the open market of Central Asia opens up solid prospects for the formation of an attractive independent growing regional market. This can qualitatively change the subjectivity and specialization of the entire Central Asia not only as a "raw material appendage" or a transit zone but also to update the agro-industrial and technological potential, as well as the region's consumer capabilities.

Kazakhstani entrepreneurs see great potential for cooperation by combining the opportunities of both countries to enter into the two huge markets: the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation. The Deputy Chairman of the Board of the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs "Atameken" Nurzhan Altayev, speaking at the Kazakh-Uzbek forum stated: "these are huge markets that are very difficult to master only by Kazakh entrepreneurs because the requests that come from these countries are very large by volume. And, of course, cooperation between our brother countries, businessmen from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, will give a great opportunity to enter these markets." Perhaps ahead is the creation of new powerful joint ventures that can strengthen economic ties in the region.

The peculiarity of the strategic vision of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who led the government of Uzbekistan for 15 years, is his "imprisonment" on solving specific social and economic problems without "political rhetoric". Moreover, as the second president, he still has to prove his worth in the eyes of the people who elected him (and also the elite) and to find his place in the political history of the country. Therefore, he will do everything to justify the expectations of the electorate and implement those economic projects that he has not yet managed to realize, being on the sidelines. He has a serious "safety margin" and carte blanche from the electorate to initiate a variety of socio-political and economic innovations both within the country and within the region, with a view to solving long-overdue problems.


Regional cooperation

The diverse development of the region, which the first president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov adhered to, and the sharpness with which he defended the national interests and sovereignty of the country, is a good initial platform for the second president. On this platform, it is possible to build a further strategy for the promotion of Uzbekistan already in the regional table of ranks.

The first foreign policy steps of the new Uzbek leader prove the progressive and tactically verified movement in this direction. He intends to solve one of the serious problems of the region which is the issue of fair and rational division of transboundary water resources between "regional players" by consulting with his "natural allies" in this matter. It is no surprise that the first visits to neighboring countries were paid to the countries of the lower reaches of transboundary rivers, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which have a similar position with Uzbekistan.

If Uzbekistan, which until recently adhered to the preferences of the bilateral format in international relations, initiates multilateral diplomacy, this will open new opportunities for regional integration.

Today Central Asia faces a number of very acute tasks of joint development that can and should be in the focus of attention of the new Uzbek president and which he can actualize jointly with other leaders of the region, because these tasks could not be resolved before, due to the nature of the character and vision left by President Karimov. The first task is focusing on the region itself which is seeking opportunities for integrated solutions of important issues for all Central Asian countries, such as: water and energy regulation, agro-industrial cooperation, the creation of a Central Asian free trade zone, addressing environmental issues, free migration policies and a common labor market, coordinated response to common security challenges, the formation of regional social capital and the revival of the overall cultural potential. These goals can be fully achieved if there are political will and purposeful steps of leaders towards each other.

Uzbekistan at the current stage has a sufficient field for strategic maneuvers. It seems that this opportunity cannot be missed, and this is realized by ordinary people, as well as political, economic and cultural elites throughout the region. Central Asia is quite capable of becoming one of the possible real points of stability and growth, contrary to the pessimistic expectations of many foreign experts, who have repeatedly predicted the collapse and degradation of the region. For that reason, the opening of Uzbekistan can give the region a new breath and certain foreign policy maneuver.