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 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. At the time, Uzbek President Islam Karimov signed a “Letter of Intent” with IMF representatives, stipulating the habitual steps of liberalization. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.