Trade and transport routes topped the agenda as President Shavkat Mirziyoyev paid an official visit to France on November 21-22 after a busy fall hosting meetings to boost links between the EU and Central Asia.
The greater engagement between the geographically distant regions comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine incentivizes both to pursue closer partnerships and new trade routes.
Increasing trade turnover was one of the main commitments made at talks between Mirziyoyev and host Emmanuel Macron on November 22, the Uzbek president’s office said.
Mirziyoyev spent much of the visit drumming up investment for Uzbekistan, with a sales pitch painting his country as a stable investment opportunity in an unstable world.
“We are striving for Uzbekistan to be associated for the foreign investor above all with stability and predictability,” he told French business leaders.
Behemoths of French industry represented included aircraft manufacturer Airbus; water and waste management firm Suez; rolling stock manufacturer Alstom; renewables company Total Eren; utilities firm EDF; investment bank Natixis; and nuclear energy specialist Orano.
It was not revealed whether collaboration was discussed with Orano on building a nuclear power plant to resolve rampant energy shortages in Uzbekistan.
Tashkent signed an agreement with Russia’s Rosatom back in 2017, but might well end up seeking alternatives if that ends up as collateral damage from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Mirziyoyev singled out green energy, the food industry, the chemical sector, automobile production and electronics as promising areas for partnerships.
Tashkent wishes to capitalize on Uzbekistan’s participation in the EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences, which waives import duties for members.
Last year Uzbekistan was upgraded to the enhanced GSP+ status, allowing it to export 6,200 goods duty-free to the EU in return for good governance and sustainability commitments.
Tashkent wants to boost exports to the EU to $700 million next year, and double the number of products exported to 600, Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov told the recent EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference.
That would be a rise of over 40 percent on the €476 million ($488 million) it exported to the bloc last year.
Total EU-Uzbekistan trade stood at €2.8 billion in 2021, which is dwarfed by the $7.5 billion and $7.4 billion the country did in trade with Russia and China respectively.
Norov said Uzbekistan was well-placed to up exports of textiles, leather, carpets, furniture, jewelry and foodstuffs.
Mirziyoyev’s office offered a ballpark figure of €6 billion in business deals signed during his visit, without details.
Boosting alternative trade routes from Central Asia to Europe now that the shortest one via Russia has become unviable because of Russia’s war in Ukraine is crucial to meeting targets.
Norov highlighted the need to develop the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, or “Middle Corridor,” bypassing Russia and going across the Caspian Sea. The EU and Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan as well as Uzbekistan, are working to iron out bottlenecks, although that will take several years.
As Euromonitor International, a market analysis provider, remarked in a recent report on EU-Uzbek trade potential, “the absence of sea access and the long physical distance to the main manufacturing hubs in the EU could be hurdles constraining some of the growth potential.”
“Therefore, it will remain crucial to further develop water, land and rail connections to EU markets.”
Mirziyoyev also signed a three-year cooperation agreement running to 2025 with the French Development Agency, covering projects in agriculture, energy, water, transport, finance and the green economy worth a combined €1 billion.
The deals include a €161 million contract for drinking water infrastructure; a €1.5 million agreement for research into modernizing irrigation in the Aral Sea region; and a €30 million credit line to finance climate-friendly investment.