The political and business influence of Uzbekistan in neighboring Afghanistan continues to grow. In late September, the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev called on the UN to create a special commission on Afghanistan and signed various agreements with his Afghan counterpart during his official visit to this country.
The good neighbor
At the end of September, Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed creating a committee on Afghanistan while speaking at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly. According to this proposal, such a committee should facilitate the socio-economic development of Afghanistan through dialog with the people of the country.
As he noted, Uzbekistan already involves its neighbor in the regional economic integration processes via the construction of large infrastructure projects including the Surkhan-Puli-Khumri power transmission line and the new railways from Mazar-i-Sharif to the ports of the Indian Ocean.
This statement demonstrates the intention of Uzbekistan to create a “belt of security, stability and good neighborliness” according to some experts. For the first time, this goal was announced in 2017 in the Strategy on Five Priority Areas of Development of the Republic of Uzbekistan. As Rustam Burnashev, a professor at the Kazakh-German University, told Kursiv, Uzbekistan announced the possibility of moving away from the system focused on the socio-economic and cultural-historical criteria formed in the Soviet era.
“The new principle of regional policy is not the historical background or geographic location, but pragmatic criteria that connects some countries in the region,” Burnashev said.
At the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2017, President Mirziyoyev identified Central Asia as the main area of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy interests, the expert reminded. Three years later, Shavkat Mirziyoyev stated that Uzbekistan considers Afghanistan as an integral part of its regional belt of good neighborliness to address key regional issues related to the economy, ecology and security.
“Over the past year, the rhetoric of Uzbek diplomacy has changed and now Afghanistan is considered not as a threat to the region, but a place of opportunities. Afghanistan is part of the Central Asia region, Uzbek officials insist. And many experts noticed this U-turn in the political rhetoric of Uzbekistan. These changes are just amazing,” Bakhtiyor Ergashev, director of the Ma’no Center for Research Initiatives, wrote on Facebook.
According to Andrei Serenko, director of the Analytical Center of the Russian Society of Political Scientists, President Mirziyoyev uses the Afghan agenda to strengthen the role of Uzbekistan as a participant and important mediator in the creation or modernization of trans-regional transport and logistics networks.
“Today Uzbekistan has become a key partner of Afghanistan in Central Asia and CIS, and its initiatives are far ahead of what other regional players or Russia suggest. For Mirziyoyev personally, this means expanding the space for political maneuver in acquiring new allies and partners, primarily among those countries that have been involved in Afghani issues for the past 15 years,” Andrei Serenko told Kursiv.
Economy brings peace
Official data shows that Uzbekistan conducts a very active economic policy towards Afghanistan. In the first six months of 2020, the trade turnover between the two countries increased by 24% to $332.9 million, despite the pandemic and quarantine restrictions. The volume of railway traffic increased by 50.7%, breaking the bar of 2.2 million tons.
Thanks to a common border, Uzbekistan has become the biggest flour exporter to Afghanistan, outranking Kazakhstan, which is a traditional leader in this market. Moreover, Uzbek millers produce flour from Kazakhstan’s grain and sell it at home and for export. Uzbekistan also increased the export of pharmaceutical products to Afghanistan up to $1.5 million.
Both sides are interested in this economic cooperation that was confirmed by the Deputy Chairman of Uzbekistan’s Cabinet of Ministers, Minister of Investments and Foreign Trade Sardor Umurzakov, who met with the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani.
Among issues they have discussed were the joint projects in the energy sector, the construction of road and railway infrastructure, the creation of logistics centers, and modernization of the Afghan customs. Two sides also discussed cooperation in a number of industries and modernization of Afghan enterprises.
The parties planned to sign an agreement on preferential trade between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Also, during this official visit of the Uzbekistani delegation, Afghanistan and the Asian Development Bank signed a contract on $110 million financial support to the Surkhan-Puli-Khumri power line project.
“Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his team cheered the visit of the Uzbek government delegation to Kabul as well as the announcement of new joint Afghan-Uzbek projects. By such initiatives, Tashkent shows its support for the Ghani administration, which, of course, strengthens the position of the Afghan government not only in the country and the region but also in an extremely difficult negotiation process with the Taliban. The current political model of Afghanistan is more preferable for Uzbekistan and other countries in the region,” Andrei Serenko said.
They speak one language
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan cooperation is not limited by the economy and also covers culture and humanitarian areas. For instance, during his trip, Sardor Umurzakov and President Ghani took part in a conference dedicated to the celebration of Uzbek Language Day, which is an official event in Afghanistan.
As Uzbekistan’s deputy prime minister noted, his country considers the ongoing strategic projects with Afghanistan as a unique symbolic bridge connecting two countries.
“In 2018, a multidisciplinary educational center for boys and girls from Afghanistan was opened in Termez. In 2019, more than 100 young people were trained as nurses, railway workers and specialists in Uzbek language and literature. Currently, more than 200 Afghan boys and girls are studying at this center. I believe this is much more important than dozens of military bases that some countries built in Afghanistan,” Bakhtiyor Ergashev said.