The 10th anniversary Asian conference of the Valdai Discussion Club will be held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in partnership with the Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan (ISRS). The organisation of this significant and important forum fits well with the general context of Russian-Uzbek bilateral cooperation, which has developed dynamically over the past three years, as well as the trustworthy interaction of the two countries on many issues which are relevant to the international agenda.
Without a doubt, this new course of action is closely connected with Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev; his strategy is to strengthen regional cooperation and modernise the country. Earlier, various projects in the field of security, economics and civil relations in post-Soviet Central Asia were limited by an exceptionally high degree of mistrust between the countries of the region, due to the negative stereotypes (ethnic and social) that exist in their societies.
Now we see how the picture is dramatically changing, almost all along the perimeter of the borders of Uzbekistan. The country is building constructive relations with its neighbours. This approach is fully in line with the national interests of Russia, which hopes to see the spirit of neighbourliness and partnership triumph in the historically and politically important region.
It is important that under Uzbekistan’s new leadership, large-scale bilateral political and economic cooperation projects are tied in with the strengthening of civil connections between the societies of the countries. Naturally, a key element in strengthening social ties is cooperation in the field of education. It allows us to create a solid guarantee of friendship and mutual understanding for the future, for new generations. And now, under the new President of Uzbekistan, a number of large-scale joint projects have been launched. One of them was the new branch of MGIMO University in Tashkent, which opened its doors in September 2019 in cooperation with the University of World Economy and Diplomacy under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan. It is important that the new branch offers both undergraduate and graduate programs. This will make it possible to attract Uzbek students to joint programmes at different levels of their professional development: both undergraduate students, as well as older, more mature people pursuing a graduate education. Naturally, the work of the MGIMO branch will strengthen cooperation between Russian and Uzbek educators in a number of disciplines, including international relations, law and economics. This ultimately has important political significance; the leading experts of the two countries will be able to better understand the specifics of our states and societies, and accordingly, their related policy change recommendations will become more realistic.
Equally important is the strategy of the new leadership of Uzbekistan regarding the tourism sector. Some of Central Asia’s most striking historic architectural is located in Uzbekistan: in Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and other places. Earlier, the influx of tourists into the country and their impressions of the trip were often undermined by the rigidity, unfriendliness, and occasional corruption they encountered when dealing with the local customs officials, currency exchanges, police, and logistics issues. A significant number of negative reviews related to these encounters during trips to Uzbekistan could be found in many international online tourist forums. This has directly influenced the image of the country as a whole in terms of international public opinion.
Now the situation is changing. “Normalisation” and bringing government relation towards tourists to understandable international standards can significantly increase the flow of holidaymakers into Uzbekistan. This will lead to a tangible positive impact on the economy of the country as a whole: both by creating new jobs, and by increasing sales and taxation. Georgia can serve as an example in this respect. Thanks to the simplicity and friendliness of its regulatory practices, the country has managed to attract a significant number of Russian tourists in recent years, despite the complexity of political relations. Because of strong bilateral ties and political cooperation, Uzbekistan’s potential is much higher.
An important element of civil relations between Russia and Uzbekistan, which can significantly affect the perception of our countries in the public opinion (both positively and negatively), is the presence of a large labour diaspora of Uzbeks in Russia. According to various statistics, Uzbekistan either accounts for the largest number of foreign migrants in Russia, or it is tied with Tajikistan. We must say openly that Russia is directly interested in the influx of labour migrants. Their activities have largely contributed to the implementation of major infrastructure and economic projects in many cities throughout Russia. This practice is also beneficial for Uzbekistan, both due to financial transfers from migrants earning money in Russia, and in terms of reducing tension in the local labour market.
Therefore, mutual perception is a key issue. On the one hand, Russian public opinion has praised the pro-Russian position openly taken by many migrants in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis. Starting in 2014, the general attitude towards migrants in Russia began to improve significantly. The feeling that these labourers in Russia identify with its foreign policy and support it in conflicts has played a key role here. On the other hand, elements of xenophobia persist in certain marginal strata of Russian society, and there is room for joint explanatory and educational work. However, this is a two-way street. In fact, every Uzbek labour migrant is a kind of citizen ambassador to Russia. From how these workers behave to how they communicate, Russian public opinion will judge Uzbekistan as a whole. Here help is needed at the state level and at the level of informal structures, elders, leaders of public opinion, etc.
If we return to the general spirit of Russian-Uzbek relations, the new leadership has sought to enhance trust. Uzbekistan behaves with dignity in its relations with Russia; it keeps its word and does not offer unrealisable promises. In its political discourse with Russia, the Uzbek leadership rarely resorts to politicised accusations, blackmail or extortion in seeking economic advantages, which sometimes happens with a number of other partners. High-profile bilateral scandals, such as the “MTS case”, are in the distant past.
It is also important to note, that a tangible increase in confidence regarding bilateral relations has partly been due to the fact that Russia never had any exaggerated expectations regarding Uzbekistan; there was no long history of integration, no unfulfilled promises. Therefore, Russia is sincerely glad that the new leader of Uzbekistan has chosen to pursue a responsible course of action by adopting an open, neighbourly policy, and for its part, Moscow is ready to assist it in every way.I will express my personal opinion: Uzbekistan is lucky to have President Mirziyoyev. The strengthening of our bilateral relations is now a significant factor, which will yield peace and stability throughout Eurasia.