Crossroads Asia

Uzbek Parliament Approves EAEU Observer Status

The parliament of Uzbekistan approved observer status to the EAEU. Could it be just a deferment on membership?

Uzbek Parliament Approves EAEU Observer Status

On April 28, the parliament of Uzbekistan with a majority vote approved the government’s proposal to become an observer state to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Of the 132 members of parliament who were present to vote, 86 voted for, 32 voted against, and 14 abstained. Observer status allows Tashkent to participate in open EAEU meetings when invited by the members and receive non-confidential documents, but the supposed economic benefits of the organization come only with membership. 

The EAEU issues coming up for parliamentary deliberation and a vote was an unplanned turn of events — the matter of membership and such decisions were seen as confined to the executive level. But in his state-of-the-union speech in January 2020, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced the transfer of the decision to members of the parliament to make it the peoples’ decision, “If they approve, we approve as well; if they disapprove, we will disapprove.” 

Mirziyoyev was arguably responding to an outcry led by independent media and bloggers concerned about the implications of EAEU membership on Uzbekistan’s sovereignty,

Such uncertainty from the administration as a result of parliament’s involvement could have impacted Mirziyoyev’s planned February 2020 trip to Russia, now rescheduled for July 2020. EAEU membership was the main agenda point for the original trip. 

Nevertheless, the parliamentary vote could simply be a deferral of eventual membership to abate the extant, but limited domestic and international criticism of Uzbekistan’s aligning itself with Russia. The executive branch, from which the legislative branch still takes cues, overwhelmingly leans toward acknowledging the supposed positive outcomes from membership. The argument for joining is filled with talk of sudden economic transformations, such as increased export opportunities, decreased transportation costs, the end of working permits for labor migrants and associated costs. In the existing environment, it is not surprising that the number of deputies who voted approvingly outnumbered those who voted against. 

Discussions on the disadvantages of Uzbekistan’s possible membership are not absent among members of parliament, but those opinions are in the minority. Earlier some members of parliament brought arguments against the membership, including the loss of jobs, unequal standing of member states, and an increase of prices to certain products as a result membership. There are also debates among deputies that Uzbekistan’s membership will end up being profitable only to Russia only with 99.6 percent of all trade in the union belonging to, and 94.4 percent of capital markets taking place in, Russia. As a result Russia is the rule setter and the dominant player. 

The approved parliament bill will go next to the Senate for a decision and then sent for signature to the president. The government of Uzbekistan will then send a formal request to be accepted as an observer to the Council of the EAEU, which should answer within 30 days. This timeline should wrap up by Mirziyouev’s July visit — one can imagine Uzbekistan’s observer status being ceremonially announced. Another event that could also happen in July, assuming Tashkent is following the paths described in its Concept of Social and Economic Development-2030, is the signing of a free trade agreement with EAEU. 

Uzbekistan’s enthusiasm about economic integration is apparent. The EAEU is not the only integration organization Uzbekistan is considering. Tashkent has also reengaged with the membership process to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the EU’s trade agreements. At the same time, it is obvious that the energy, manpower, and urgency thrown to the EAEU far outweighs those activities done to date for the WTO. The government of Uzbekistan is more enthusiastic about EAEU in part because of a narrow vision of its economic future as tied to Russia.