Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev attends a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana, Kazakhstan March 23, 2017. Photo: Mukhtar Kholdorbekov/Reuters
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Photo: Reuters / Mukhtar Kholdorbekov

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev won US$6.5 billion in US contracts during his Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump on Wednesday as the United States forges an enduring alliance with the strategic Central Asian nation.

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The Trump administration, through Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the president and chief executive of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Ray Washburne, have welcomed Miriziyoyev with America’s sweetest carrot: billions of dollars in contracts with big businesses such as conglomerates GE and Honeywell; agricultural-machinery giants Deere & Company and Case New Holland; and the 130-year-old Baltimore, Maryland-based maker of dredging equipment Ellicott Dredges Company.

The US sees Uzbekistan as a strategic partner both in terms of lessening US military involvement in Afghanistan and by curbing China’s ambitions in Central Asia via its Belt and Road project to re-create the ancient Silk Road.

The Trump administration is combining the carrot of US private-sector trade deals with the “stick” of a threatened US-China trade war to check China’s growing expansion in Central Asia and Africa.

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During a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Ross warned that the US economy was so large that it could weather any trade war.

On its part, Uzbekistan took the extraordinary step of hosting a historic news conference titled “Uzbekistan: Progress in the Field of Human Rights” at the National Press Club headlined by Sodiq Safoyev, first deputy chairman of the Uzbek Senate and a former foreign minister.

Miriziyoyev, who took over as president after the death in 2016 of the dictator Islam Karimov, has made concrete strides in releasing dozens of political prisoners, outlawing forced labor, and opening the country to Western news media, Safoyev said.

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Real and perceived human-rights abuses have had the negative impact of overshadowing the Central Asian country’s success in winning major foreign investment such as by General Motors with its automotive manufacturing venture and Munich-based truck and bus giant MAN.

Uzbek steel and mining tycoon Alisher Usmanov is also one the biggest – and arguably most successful – investors in Silicon Valley via early investment in Facebook through his Digital Sky Technologies venture capital firm.

It is understood that some in the US government would like to enlist Usmanov in helping persuade Uzbek mining groups to start operations in neighboring Afghanistan. The move would help bring much-needed stability to Afghanistan by creating jobs and sustainable economic growth in diverse parts of the mineral-rich nation.

Uzbekistan is also seeking to diversify it dependence on commodity cotton sales by attracting Western textile companies such as Baltimore-based Under Armour or Winston Salem, North Carolina-based HanesBrands to the country.

In the meantime, agricultural giants Case New Holland and Deere & Company unit John Deere will sell and assemble specially purposed cotton-picking vehicles to modernize the Uzbek cotton industry, which has depended for decades on forced “voluntary” labor, said Carolyn Lamm, a partner in the law firm White & Case and chairwoman of the American Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

Uzbek Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov said the country was also reforming its cotton sector by leasing state lands to private-sector operators, thus diminishing the need to shanghai its citizens for the annual harvest of the country’s White Gold.

Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth-largest producer of cotton (1 million tons of fiber for 4-5% of global production), which accounts for around 17% of the country’s exports and a large share of its foreign-currency reserves.

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When asked if Mirziyoyev’s moves to reform the Uzbek economy and civil society were a “silent revolution” – in contrast to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution or Georgia’s Rose Revolution – Davletov stated that it was not a revolution, but an “evolution.”    

Peter K Semler is the chief executive editor and founder of Capitol Intelligence. Previously, he was the Washington, DC, bureau chief for Mergermarket (Dealreporter/Debtwire) of the Financial Times and headed political and economic coverage of the US House of Representatives and Senate.