Fresh Wind Down the Silk Road (I)

BERLIN/TASHKENT (Own report) - To secure its influence in Central Asia in rivalry to Russia and China, Berlin is taking new initiatives toward Uzbekistan, the most populous country in the region. Among the five post-Soviet Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan has been Germany's key partner for the past 25 years, even hosting a Bundeswehr base over an extended period of time. Now the German government seeks to reinforce it position in Uzbekistan by expanding economic relations. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in office since one year, is initiating a neo-liberal policy in his country. At the same time, Russia's rise in influence in the economic and military sectors, alongside China's greatly enhanced economic advances has put Germany under pressure. If Germany does not want to lose ground in Central Asia, it must act quickly.

A new Initiative

The German government is taking new initiatives to reinforce its relations with Uzbekistan. Last summer, the German-Uzbek Intergovernmental Working Group for Trade and Investment met for the first time in five years. The initial working group meeting had been in 2012, with the stated objective of "laying the foundations for further deepening (German-Uzbek) relations," as the German ambassador had declared at the time.[1] The 5-year pause, that followed this announcement indicates that Berlin's hopes for enhancing influence in Tashkent have, so far, been unsatisfactory. However, now the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (OA) is sensing a "fresh wind." The committee considers that "since his inauguration, the new President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has been submitting Uzbekistan to a reform treatment" to "become more competitive." The committee concludes that in seeking to "modernize and diversify its economy," this will provide an opening for a neo-liberal policy and the wish for closer "cooperation with German companies."[2] All of this is in Germany's interests.

Liberalization Aid

Already back in September 2016, when the new President was inaugurated, German media had hopes that Mirziyoyev would take his country on a neo-liberal course. "If Uzbekistan does not reform, a serious social collapse can be expected in the next ten to fifteen years," an Uzbek political scientist was quoted in a public-service radio broadcast in late 2016. "In any case, observers and analysts," he continued, welcomed "the modest indications of an opening, already alluded to by Shavkat Mirziyoyev."[3] In March, in an exchange of notes on the 25th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that, over the past two and a half decades, Germany and Uzbekistan have established multifaceted ties in economy, security and culture, "based on trust." "The German Government is therefore ready to support Uzbekistan in "strengthening the powers of the parliament," but above all, in "liberalizing the economy."[4]

The First Neo-Liberal Opening

The first wave of a neo-liberal opening had been introduced in Uzbekistan already back in 2001. In 2000, soon after the IMF closed its office in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, because of the government's "unwillingness to reform," the IMF returned - simultaneously with the arrival of a massive western military presence in Central Asia, following September 11, 2001.[5] At the time, Uzbek President Islam Karimov signed a "Letter of Intent" with IMF representatives, stipulating the habitual steps of liberalization.[6] This partnership did not last long. In May 2005, after several days of hefty protest demonstrations, repressive forces massacred several hundred demonstrators in the Southern Uzbek city of Andijan. The exact number of victims remains unknown. It is believed that the neo-liberal measures imposed by the IMF were the primary contributor to the Andijan insurgency.[7] The government in Tashkent, abruptly turned its back on Washington; US units had to vacate their Uzbek bases. German troops, on the other hand, were allowed to remain in Termez, Southern Uzbekistan, because the German government had refrained from public criticism.[8]

Eastern Military Integration

Germany's new efforts to reinforce its influence in Uzbekistan are not happening by chance. The "Dushanbe Anti-Terror 2017" anti-terrorism drills began in late May, in several of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. It was the first maneuver of this kind, carried out under the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center's supervision. The Center has existed for fifteen years. Uzbekistan participated in the preparations for the exercises. This is noteworthy, because, five years ago, Uzbekistan withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance, which is dominated by Russia. Experts surmise that Uzbekistan’s limited involvement in "Dushanbe Anti-Terror 2017" could indicate a gradual move away from its 2012 foreign policy concept, which opposed the country’s involvement in any military alliance.[9] Uzbekistan's return to CSTO, or an intensified integration into CIS military structures would constitute a serious setback for Germany's efforts to enhance its influence in Central Asia - and new points in favor of Russia.

Closer Economic Ties

A similar development can be observed at the economic level. Already on his first state visit to Russia, in April 2017, Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan's new head of state, signed US $12 billion in economic deals. The contracts include oil and gas supplies, as well as the planned construction of a metallurgical factory in the Uzbek capital Tashkent.[10] In April, the Russian Duma approved an agreement simplifying the delivery of military goods to Uzbekistan and the repairs by Russian companies of Uzbek systems.

Railroad to China

China's steadily growing economic influence is also a factor. In Uzbek foreign trade, the People's Republic of China has already caught up with Russia, previously Uzbekistan's leading trading partner, and is expanding its investments. For example, during President Mirziyoyev's visit to Beijing, in May, Chinese companies announced, they were prepared to invest up to US $3 billion in Uzbek hydropower plants.[11] China is also preparing to integrate Uzbekistan into its "New Silk Road" project. The construction of a railway line from Western China's Xinjiang Province, across Kyrgyzstan, into Eastern Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley, signifying closer economic ties to the People's Republic of China is in planning. If Berlin does not want to completely lose out, time is running short for Germany to achieve effective success.

[1] "Wirtschaftliche Beziehungen haben hohe Priorität bei der Zusammenarbeit zwischen Usbekistan und Deutschland". UzReport Interview mit Botschafter Dr. Aristide Fenster. 07.12.2012.
[2] Eduard Kinsbruner: Frischer Wind auf der Seidenstraße. 20.07.2017.
[3] Edda Schlager: Wie weiter nach Karimov? 03.12.2016.
[4] Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Angela Merkel exchange congratulatory messages on diplomatic relations' 25th anniversary. 14.03.2017.
[5] David L. Bartlett: Economic Recentralization in Uzbekistan, in: Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, Jg. 42 (2001), Nr. 2, S. 105-121 (hier: S. 105).
[6] Martin C. Spechler: Economic Reform in Authoritarian Uzbekistan, in: Michael Gervers/Uradyn E. Bulag/Gillian Long (Hg.): Traders and Trade Routes of Central and Inner Asia: The "Silk Road", Then and Now, Toronto 2007, S. 235-251 (hier: S. 247).
[7] Bernardo Teles Fazendeiro: Uzbekistan’s 20th Anniversary - Independence and Relations with the United States and Germany, in: Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst 13 (2011), Nr. 18, S. 7.
[8] David X. Noack: West- oder Ostanbindung?, junge Welt 16.12.2016.
[9] Edward Lemon: CIS Anti-Terrorism Center Holds First Military Exercises in Tajikistan, Eurasia Daily Monitor (Jamestown Foundation), Jg. 14, Nr. 75, 7. Juni 2017.
[10] Experts: Shavkat Mirziyoyev's visit to Russia was super successful. 06.04.2017.
[11] Usbekistan steckt 2,7 Milliarden US-Dollar in die Wasserkraft. 14.09.2017.