The ongoing Ukrainian conflict has reverberated across the global landscape, considerably altering the dynamics of international relations. Within this context, the relationship between the European Union and Uzbekistan has undergone a noticeable transformation, marking a pivotal shift in their interactions.
Diminishing Russian Influence and Changing Dynamics in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is a country that has long been under the ideological influence of Russia. This influence dates back to the 19th century, when Russia conquered the territory that makes up modern Uzbekistan and incorporated it into the Russian Empire. After the Russian Revolution, Uzbekistan became part of the Soviet Union, and Soviet ideology became even more pervasive.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Uzbekistan declared independence. However, Russian ideological influence has remained strong. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that Russia is Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner as well as the existence of the Russian diaspora living in Uzbekistan. Many modern Uzbek families predominantly speak Russian. Russian media are also largely represented in Uzbekistan and for decades have been a tool for Russian ideological dominance.
However, in the last years the situation has been changing. Russia’s prolonged dominance is raising concerns about eroding Uzbekistan’s distinct cultural identity and values, which are intrinsic to its resilience and collective memory.
Notably, the Ukrainian conflict has accelerated this process, even among those who primarily speak Russian. This shift in perspective signifies a growing awareness of Uzbek national identity, effectively challenging Russia’s ideological supremacy. Concurrently, a significant transformation has emerged within the media landscape, with a notable increase in anti-Russian content. Recent examples of this trend include the cancellation of a festival featuring Russian singers supporting the war in Ukraine and vocal support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
There are a number of reasons why Uzbekistan should lower Russia’s ideological influence. First, Russian ideology is often at odds with Uzbek culture and values. For example, Russian ideology is often secular, while Uzbek culture is traditionally Muslim. Second, Russian ideology can be used to justify Russian intervention in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs. Russia, for example, is still interested in preserving the Russian language as the country’s dominant language. Based on these factors, there is an acute need for awareness and construction of national interests and identity in Uzbekistan.
Elevated Uzbek-EU Relations Amid the War
Prior to the Russia-Ukraine war, the European Union and Uzbekistan had a relatively limited relationship, with the EU establishing a delegation in Tashkent in 2011. The ongoing war, however, has given a new boost in cooperation between the two sides.
For Uzbekistan, the need to ensure stable growth and integration into global development pathways is important. With that in mind, from the beginning of war, Uzbekistan started to strictly follow international sanctions taken out against Russian aggression, despite Uzbekistan’s deep political, economic and cultural ties with Russia. The foreign minister also issued a statement on Uzbekistan’s support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Uzbekistan is now strengthening its economic relationship with the European Union against the backdrop of anti-Russian sanctions. In September 2022, the Central Bank of Uzbekistan suspended the work of the Russian payment system MIR in Uzbekistan. The Central Bank commented on technical problems with the Russian MIR card as the official reason, but it was clear that the political and economic interests of Tashkent in complying with anti-Russian sanctions obliged the Central Bank to take this step. EU officials very positively noted the bold steps taken by the Central Bank of Uzbekistan on this issue and expressed their commitment to strengthen bilateral relations within the framework of sectional regulations.
This was followed by the visit of the EU Special Envoy for Sanctions David O’Sullivan to Uzbekistan in April this year. Important developments for further cooperation on the EU sanctions policy were discussed during his meeting with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and other key government bodies of the country.
Additionally, with the support of the European-Uzbek Association for Economic Cooperation and the EU Delegation to Uzbekistan, O’Sullivan met with large businesses in Uzbekistan on sanction policy regulations. His visit was an important step in strengthening bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and the European Union, since he will influence the EU’s future agenda with Uzbekistan.
Trade relations between the parties have also increased since the beginning of war, although the roots of the uptick predate Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In 2021, Uzbekistan joined the EU’s GSP+ system, which lifted tariffs on a number of important exports goods from Uzbekistan, including textiles, clothing, and plastics. This allowed additional opportunities to increase trade between the EU and Uzbekistan, making Europe an important export diversification partner for Uzbekistan. Trade turnover between Uzbekistan and the European Union stood at $3.9 billion in 2021. It increased by 15 percent the next year, rising to $4.5 billion in 2022, coinciding with the commencement of the military conflict in Ukraine.
Prospects for Continued Cooperation and Future Impacts
Further improvements in relations were observed during Mirziyoyev’s visits to European countries. In November 2022, the Uzbek president paid a visit to France, where, in addition to French President Emmanuel Macron, he met with the heads of major French businesses. At present, as a result of these meetings, French businesses are actively entering the Uzbek market and some of them have already started public-private partnership projects with the government of Uzbekistan.
Also, this year in May, Mirziyoyev visited Germany, where he held talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He also met with heads of leading German companies and banks. In addition, his visit to Italy in June of this year was also a fruitful step in strengthening alternative cooperation with European countries.
In addition, a momentous high-level meeting between Mirziyoyev and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, unfolded on October 28, 2022, in Tashkent. The deliberations underscored the paramount significance attributed to interregional collaboration, with a particular focus on strengthening ties between the two entities.
From this diplomatic tête-à-tête emerged the shared resolve to expedite the EU Strategy for Central Asia, accompanied by the exploration of joint initiatives. Among the central facets of this cooperative endeavor are the establishment of sustainable transport corridors and the harmonization of customs procedures, embodying a comprehensive approach to regional development.
The fruits of these protracted diplomatic contacts were evident in the conclusion of the final round of negotiations for the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA), a process that had been initiated in 2019 and reached its fruition in July 2022. As a harbinger of deeper collaboration, the formal signing of the EPCA’s definitive document is scheduled for 2024, during Mirziyoyev’s anticipated visit to Brussels, the administrative heart of the EU. This pivotal agreement is poised to foster a more profound engagement encompassing the realms of politics, economics, and security, propelling both regions toward closer alignment.
Clearly, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has emerged as a catalytic force, propelling the European Union and Uzbekistan into a deeper, more substantive collaboration. This symbiotic association is primed to persist and evolve over the coming years, carrying with it the potential to significantly influence not only the transformation of Uzbekistan but also the contours of Central Asia’s integration. Expanding cooperation with the EU will create alternative avenue for regional cooperation while diminishing dependence on Russian engagement.