The leader of Uzbekistan’s next major official foreign visit will reportedly be to the United States.
Uznews.uz cited a press officer for President Shavkat Mirziyoyev as saying the trip is planned for September.
Watchers of the region will know that Mirziyoyev and US President Donald Trump have already met, on May 21, during the Riyadh Summit, which brought together leaders of dozens of Arab and mainly Muslim nations.
By the accounting of Uzbek media, Trump was positively impressed.
“Mirziyoyev met with US President Donald Trump, who expressed his opinion about reforms implemented in Uzbekistan and rated them very highly. The president of Uzbekistan stated that everything would be done in order to enhance bilateral relations to a new level and to strengthen political, economic, political and humanitarian relations,” Gazeta.uz reported.
The notion that Trump is aware of reforms in Uzbekistan — or even of Uzbekistan’s existence itself — strains credulity somewhat, but without an alternative White House accounting, Tashkent is at liberty to weave its own narrative.
Understandably enough, the photo of Mirziyoyev meeting a beaming Trump have been published in almost all the national press.
Under the late President Islam Karimov, US-Uzbek relations went through ups and downs. The golden age came in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The development is described concisely in a January 2016 paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Washington’s perspective on and engagement in the region changed dramatically after September 11, when US policy toward Central Asia 2.0 began to take shape. To be sure, there was continued interest in pursuing the long-term political and economic reform agenda of the previous decade, but military and security considerations became more important factors in US engagement in Central Asia,” the report observed.
Only a week after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, US military transport planes with troops and surveillance equipment flew to Tashkent to begin establishing a US military presence in the country. Eventually, the Karshi base, known popularly as K2, was set up by US forces to assist offensive operations in Afghanistan. The US substantially increased its financial support for Uzbekistan, and boosted security aid in particular.
That bonhomie all ended in 2005 with the bloody crackdown in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan. The bloodshed there was followed by firm criticism from Washington, which in turn prompted Karimov to order to closure of the K2 base.
Despite that sharp break, security dialogue has remained a cornerstone of bilateral relations, as testified by the frequent visits to the country by senior US military leaders. In late April, for example, the commander of United States Central Command, Joseph Votel, met with Mirziyoyev during a working visit in Tashkent
Political analyst Rafael Sattarov said that Mirziyoyev’s visit could mark a monuments turning point in bilateral relations.
“Mirziyoyev needs investments from the United States, but the investment climate is still not suitable for US business. Because of the child labor used in the cotton industry, there is no cooperation. As far as the energy sector is concerned, [Uzbekistan] is not as interesting as Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, for example. That is why the Uzbek president needs to work hard to attract US capital,” Sattarov said.
In her survey piece on US-Uzbek relations, political scientist Guli Yuldasheva notes that as of 2016, there are 158 companies operating in Uzbekistan with involvement from American investors. A total of 21 US companies are officially registered in Uzbekistan.
The biggest US-Uzbek joint investment is GM Uzbekistan, an automaker that churn out up to 250,000 cars every year.
Foreign policy experts will be scrutinizing the details of Mirziyoyev’s visit closely for clues about the broader strategic implications.
Trump’s foreign policy has yet to take firm shape beyond a vaguely articulated inclination toward isolationism, although that is probably to underestimate how erratic things have been so far. What has been refreshing for leaders like those in Central Asia, however, is Trump’s explicit lack of interest in the democratization and rights agenda nominally pursued by his predecessor.
At the same time — presumably in large part in reaction to the political and media clamor surrounding Russia’s purported meddling in the US election — the Trump administration has volubly signaled a deep hostility toward Moscow.
That was underlined most recently on May 23, during a US State Department briefing on President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request for the State Department and USAID.
“This budget will also allow us to counter Russian aggression and malign influence in Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia, and bolster US national security and economic interests in the region,” said Hari Sastry, director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources at the State Department.
As Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev seeks to carve out a more dynamic role in Central Asia — one focused on re-energizing the integration agenda by all appearances — it is difficult to understand how such doctrinaire positions will be negotiated.
Nevertheless, the Uzbek president has through the sequencing of his foreign visits relatively plainly spelled out where Washington needs to see itself in the pecking order. Immediate neighbors come first, followed closely by Russia and China.
Unless Mirziyoyev is able to come away with something firm from his trip to Washington, the United States will likely continue to play a bit-part.