Increased competition on the post-Soviet space – especially between Uzbekistan and its close neighbors - might have implications for Russia’s foreign policy in Central Asia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured right) attends the funeral of Uzbekistan's former President Islam Karimov, September 6, 2016. Photo:  

On Feb. 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin started his trip to Central Asia. He is expected to pay a visit to Kazakhstan to discuss the Syrian civil war as well as the current state of Russian-Kazakh relations. Ever since Astana became a mediator in the Syrian peace talks, Kazakhstan has loomed as a more important priority for Russia.

Afterwards, Putin will visit Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to discuss military cooperation and Eurasian integration projects, but he will skip Uzbekistan, one of the key regional stakeholders in Central Asia. The reason is that Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the new Uzbek president, will come to Moscow in the near future.

Also read: "What policy will Trump pursue in Central Asia?"

The new Uzbek leadership is hoping to establish closer cooperation between Moscow and Tashkent. Personal chemistry between Putin and Mirziyoyev will determine the development of the bilateral relations between the two countries. This could be important for both Russia and Uzbekistan in terms of maintaining long-term security cooperation.

Many experts argue that Tashkent under Mirziyoyev will step up its collaboration with Moscow. For example, Uzbek political expert Rafael Sattarov points to the new Uzbek government’s numerous connections with Russia.

“New Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov has close ties with circles in Russia both politically and economically,” Sattarov told Russia Direct. “Likewise, the Kremlin has some channels of unofficial influence through Uzbek oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who is a relative of Mirziyoyev.” [According to January 2015 Forbes website data, Usmanov is Russia's richest man, with a fortune estimated at $14.7 billion, making him also the world's 58th richest person — Editor’s note].

However, Uzbekistan’s close ties with Russia don’t necessary mean that it will be pro-Russian. In contrast, Tashkent will try to diversify its foreign policy to establish good working relations with other global stakeholders, including the United Sates, the European Union and China, according to experts.

The new Uzbek president will follow the same neutrality policy pursued by his predecessor Islam Karimov. As a result, Mirziyoyev’s tactics and strategy could lead to non-alignment with any military and political blocs. The country is expected to pursue foreign policy independence.

However, it remains to be seen if Uzbekistan will step up its cooperation with the United States and, specifically, the administration of President Donald Trump. A lot depends on Washington’s priorities in Central Asia.

“Any pro-Russian politician might easily turn into pro-Chinese or pro-American if Uzbekistan needs international loans or security guarantees,” Sattarov highlighted.

However, in this case, Tashkent will have to put things in order to create the necessary political and economic environment within then country. Specifically, Mirziyoyev will have to be more decisive in conducting liberal reforms, which are uncommon for Uzbekistan, a country with a paternalistic mentality and a rigid authoritarian vertical of power. He has already made several important political moves shortly after he came to power.

One of his first decisions was the creation of the government’s online reception office to receive complaints from ordinary people on Uzbek officials and day-to-day problems. Moreover, he announced that 2017 would be the Year of Dialogue between the people and the authorities. At the same time, he promised to alleviate the tax burden on business and encourage entrepreneurial activity in the country.

However, these measures don’t seem to address one of the key problems hampering business activity in Uzbekistan — the absence of a currency conversion system. It means that there are two foreign currency rates in the country — the official rate and the unofficial black market rate that is twice as much as the rate established by the authorities. Moreover, there is the imposed currency control regime in the country. Naturally, all these problems affect the investment climate in Uzbekistan and, thus, its economy. That’s why currency reform is urgently required.

However, according to pundits, the reforms undertaken by Mirziyoyev don’t intend to liberalize the system; rather, they seek to maintain the domestic and foreign policy status quo.

Also read: "Will Central Asia become a field of rivalry or cooperation?"

The authoritarian nature of Uzbekistan regime might be another reason why establishing close ties with Western partners could be difficult. The new Uzbek leader has been persistently lobbying his interests and appointing those loyal to him to key positions in the government. But according to experts, this is natural for a country with paternalistic traditions. 

“In Uzbekistan, rival political groups have always consolidated around the country’s Politburo. In such an environment, Mirziyoyev has to decrease the influence of competitors and opponents, who might gain political heft through propaganda and financial resources,” said Sattarov, implying that political rivalry could be a headache for an authoritarian leader.

By the same token, Mirziyoyev has been trying to minimize the influence of Uzbekistan’s law enforcement agencies, as indicated by the conflict of the president and the head of the country’s National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov.

Finally, tensions with close neighbors — other former Soviet republics such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — might also produce a negative effect on Uzbekistan, a country that is trying to diversify its foreign policy and establish friendly relations with other countries.

On the one hand, the Uzbek leaders failed to establish personal chemistry with their counterparts from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (after the power transition they at least normalized relations). On the other hand, their differences result from the conflict of interests.

In the case of Dushanbe, Uzbekistan has been against the construction of a Tajik hydroelectric power station on the Amu Darya river, which connects both countries. If implemented, this project would affect the environment and Uzbek farmland located down the river, according to Uzbek authorities. However, Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan tensions are rather political in their nature and related to territorial disputes. After the 2010 inter-ethic clashes between Uzbek and Kirgiz people in Kyrgyzstan, the relations between countries were stuck in a downward spiral.     

The good sign is that Uzbekistan is trying to maintain good relations and strategic cooperation with other neighbors — Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. However, experts don’t rule out the possibility of a new rivalry with the latter.

For example, Danyar Kosnazarov, the founder of a Kazakh think tank, argues that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan might find themselves entwined in a rivalry despite Tashkent’s pragmatism. It is a matter of competition between the authoritarian leaders of these countries.

“The might compete for establishing their leadership in the Central Asian region, driven by political, economic and geopolitical calculations,” Kosnazarov said.

Russia (as one of the key stakeholders in the region) should take into account all these hidden nuances of the Central Asian political landscape to successfully navigate there. And Putin’s presidential trip to the region will show to what extent the Kremlin is serious in its intentions.