Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev attends a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana, Kazakhstan March 23, 2017. Photo: Mukhtar Kholdorbekov/Reuters
New Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev has held talks with Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters / Mukhtar Kholdorbekov

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Moscow on November 19 at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin resulted in a joint statement on information technology and a slew of documents on trade and economic cooperation, but its strategic significance cannot be lost on regional capitals. 

Putin’s talks with the visiting Uzbek leader soon after his re-election on October 24 significantly impact the situation in Afghanistan and regional politics. 

Russia and Uzbekistan have turned a page. The warmth at the personal level between the two leaders and the manifestly relaxed tone of their exchanges is a departure from the era of Mirziyoyev’s predecessor Islam Karimov. 

Shavkat Mirziyoyev is an amiable personality and his four years in power have greatly eased Uzbekistan’s tense relationships with its neighbors. Having been in politics since the 1980s and held the levers of executive power as prime minister for the previous 13 years under Karimov’s stern eyes, Mirziyoyev is steeped in the art of the possible. 

He came to power with a determination to reboot Uzbek-Russian relations. The candor with which he has told Putin that “the outcome of the presidential election in Uzbekistan was one of the positive results of our cooperation” must be taken at face value.

In fact, Putin called Mirziyoyev and congratulated him a full two hours before the election results were announced in Tashkent.  

Mirziyoyev’s course correction has meant a willingness to integrate with Uzbekistan’s big neighbor. Karimov bristled at Moscow-led integration processes and suspected dubious intentions behind them, with a paranoid outlook. 

Mirziyoyev’s consolidation of power, which is not easy in the steppes steeped in clan struggle, shows that he can be firm and farsighted as a politician. The manner in which he eased out Rustam Inoyatov in 2018 – who belonged to the powerful Tashkent clan – from the position of security czar and “kingmaker,” a position the gray cardinal held for 23 years, speaks for itself. Mirziyoyev hails from the Jizzakh clan.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev could seek to substantially improve Uzbekistan’s relations with Russia. Image: Office of Shavkat Mirziyoyev

Putin told Mirziyoyev at their meeting last week: “Uzbekistan is not only a close neighbor but also an ally, this is how we regard Uzbekistan. It is a major regional country, with which we have many links, both historically and in the current period.”

In turn, Mirziyoyev acknowledged: “I believe we have things to discuss because now we have a completely different level of relations. We are intensifying our integration in all areas and it is intensive.” 

It remains to be seen whether Mirziyoyev will strategically reorient Uzbekistan toward Russia by joining Moscow-led regional bodies the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), or simply settle for a pragmatic, constructive, mutually beneficial, accommodative relationship with Moscow. 

The prospects are improving. Karimov was obsessed with Uzbekistan’s perceived destiny as a regional hegemon and national-security state, whereas Mirziyoyev has shifted the focus to the Central Asian collective and from economic autonomy to regional cooperation. 

Alongside this, Mirziyoyev has opened the economy to foreign investment. His reform of the Uzbek currency by eliminating its de facto dual-exchange-rate system opened access to international capital markets and a series of Eurobond sales.

Mirziyoyev is a technocrat by training, a graduate of the famous Soviet-era Tashkent Institute of Irrigation and Melioration, holding a PhD in technological sciences. 

Putin, of course, has been quick to respond, leading to a spike in bilateral trade and investment. The new dynamism in Russian-Uzbek economic relations has strengthened Mirziyoyev’s political base.

In the first nine months of 2021, bilateral trade hit US$6 billion. That surpasses the $5.6 billion for 2020. Agreements worth $9 billion with companies from Russia were signed on the sidelines of Mirziyoyev’s visit, including 141 investment projects worth $7.4 billion and 455 export deals worth $1.6 billion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is no doubt pleased with the new relationship. Photo: AFP / Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

Of course, it can only help that Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born Russian oligarch –estimated to be worth $18 billion with vast investments in mining and metals industries, telecom and internet companies and sponsor of the famous soccer club Dynamo Moscow – is related by marriage to Mirziyoyev.

As in any ancient society, family kinships lubricate political authority in that part of the world. Incidentally, Usmanov, who owns the Kommersant newspaper, is known to be close to the Kremlin too.   

The situation in Afghanistan would have a bearing on the trajectory of Russian-Uzbek security cooperation.

Given the unceremonious withdrawal of US troops from the region and the acute security threats emanating from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the Central Asian states have looked toward Moscow as a provider of security.

Thus, Uzbekistan’s non-aligned foreign policy notwithstanding, Tashkent no longer defines its strategic autonomy in autarchic terms, as in the Karimov era. 

Among the Central Asian states, Uzbekistan is closest to Russia in its attitude toward the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Uzbek officials are maintaining intense contacts with the new authorities in Kabul and building momentum into economic cooperation.

On Monday, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan signed a defense agreement, putting behind their simmering rivalry. 

Tashkent’s refusal to provide bases for the Pentagon to conduct “over the horizon” operations in Afghanistan reflects these broad tendencies in Uzbek regional strategies under Mirziyoyev. Tashkent is positioning itself to perform a pioneering role in constructively engaging the Taliban government in Kabul. 

Evidently, this meshes with Russian and Chinese thinking and dovetails into Pakistan’s drive to legitimize the Taliban government. Mirziyoyev and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan have struck up a cordial relationship. In the process, Uzbekistan is fast emerging as the regional hub in connectivity once the railroad to Tashkent from China via Kyrgyzstan takes shape.      

Putin has brilliantly handled the new thinking in Tashkent. Russia’s focus on adding content to the relationship, eschewing overbearing attitudes, recognizing Uzbekistan’s legitimate interests – Uzbek migrant labor in Russia remitted home close to $700 million in the first quarter of this year alone – and fostering an equal relationship based on trust and mutual respect – such an approach is proving fruitful. 

A girl is silhouetted against the sun standing next to Uzbek flags in Tashkent. Photo: Agencies

The comfort level has improved to a point that the Kremlin is in no hurry to push Uzbekistan to join the EEU as a full member (rather than remain as “observer”) or to rejoin the CSTO (which Karimov had quit). The two countries held their first joint drills in 2018 in more than 12 years in Uzbekistan’s Jizzakh region.

In regional terms, the current trajectory of Russian-Uzbek ties will have a salutary calming effect on the intra-regional equations in Central Asia. The intra-regional politics has become discernibly more relaxed.

From the Russian perspective, Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev has become a credible buffer vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.