This article is part of our special report EU-Uzbekistan relations on the move.
In a wide-ranging interview, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov discussed his country’s relations with the EU, the situation with “fraternal neighbour” Afghanistan, regional cooperation, and strategies for a ‘Third Renaissance’ of Uzbekistan.
Abdulaziz Kamilov has been the minister of foreign affairs of Uzbekistan since 2012. Previously, he served in the same post from 1994 to 2003.
He answered written questions from EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
What is bringing you to Brussels, and what are the highlights of the EU-Uzbekistan relations?
The agenda of my visit to Brussels is quite extensive. The main purpose of the visit is to hold the 16th meeting of the EU-Uzbekistan Cooperation Council [On 16 November]. We will discuss several topical issues of cooperation between our country and the EU. Among them are general and political issues, including the course of negotiations on the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) between Uzbekistan and the EU, discussion of the reforms underway now in the country, including justice and internal affairs, human rights and the rule of law; trade, economic and investment cooperation, connectivity and energy issues. We will also discuss important regional and international issues of mutual interest.
In addition, several bilateral meetings are planned with representatives of the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission.
I am sure that the planned events in Brussels will help further strengthen the positive trends in our cooperation with the EU and confirm the parties’ interest in continuing a constructive dialogue and mutually beneficial partnership in a wide range of areas to support the socio-economic and democratic reforms being carried out in Uzbekistan.
We consider investment, trade, cooperation in the spheres of financial and technical assistance, science, technology, education, ecology, tourism, health care and culture, and strengthening regional security as key areas of interaction with European partners.
Europe has traditionally been a source of advanced technologies, knowledge, investments, innovations for Uzbekistan. We consider the EU as an important partner in the formation and strengthening of democratic institutions, development of parliamentarism and support of civil society.
It is pleasant to note that relations between Uzbekistan and the EU have been increasing in recent years. European partners positively perceive and support the republic’s reforms, looking at Uzbekistan through different eyes than a few years ago. One might say they are rediscovering our country for themselves.
The reforms initiated by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the open, pragmatic and active foreign policy pursued by Tashkent have led to a significant increase in the level and dynamics of our cooperation with almost all foreign partners. At the same time, the European direction – building friendly, constructive, equal and balanced relations with the EU and its member states – has been put forward among the priorities of Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy.
These considerations formed the basis for the agreements on the development of the Expanded Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA), which was announced in November 2018. To date, nine rounds of negotiations have already been held, during which we’ve been able to agree on the political part of the draft Agreement, practically complete the sectoral section and make significant progress on the trade part of the document.
In April 2021, the European side granted Uzbekistan the status of a beneficiary country of the Generalised System of Preferences “GSP +”, which allows duty-free export of about 6,000 items of Uzbek products to the EU countries. We are confident that this is in the interests of both sides and will serve to strengthen bilateral relations further. In turn, Uzbekistan is taking the necessary measures to effectively fulfil its obligations under 27 international conventions.
The EU provides tangible support for Uzbekistan’s accession to the WTO, mainly through technical assistance.
Considering the fundamental reforms carried out in our country in the spheres of education, science and innovation, we are cooperating with the EU through Erasmus+ and Horizon-2020 programs. Currently, 22 joint projects are being implemented in Uzbekistan with 34 national higher educational institutions and 71 universities from 25 European countries. We welcome expanding network of branches of leading universities of European countries in Uzbekistan. Currently, three higher educational institutions are working jointly with the EU countries on 23 double degree programs.
I have to mention the importance of implementing the updated EU Strategy for Central Asia, adopted on 19 June 2019. An important feature of the updated Strategy is that it is based on three key areas, which generally correspond to cooperation priorities between Uzbekistan and the EU.
These are, first, increasing the stability of the Central Asian countries through supporting reforms, ensuring security, protecting the environment, the rule of law and democratisation; second, ensuring the prosperity of the countries of the region through economic development, education, research, regional cooperation; and, third, strengthening the institutional mechanisms of our interaction.
How have relations with Kabul been since the Taliban took power, and what positive joint action could Uzbekistan have with the EU to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe?
For centuries we have lived side by side with the Afghan people in a single cultural and civilisational space. Uzbekistan is linked with Afghanistan by centuries-old bonds of friendship, shared history, religion, customs and traditions.
Concerning this fraternal neighbouring country, we are pursuing a friendly policy based on the principles of mutual respect, equality, non-interference in internal affairs, and consideration of mutual interests.
Everyone knows that the Afghan war, which lasted for decades, harmed our ties with Afghanistan and posed serious regional and international security threats. The continuation of this situation has hampered the sustainable development of a vast region, including Central Asia, undermining its investment and economic prospects.
Therefore, promoting a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict and building pragmatic relations with the southern neighbour has been among Uzbekistan’s most important foreign policy tasks.
Uzbekistan established working contacts with the Taliban movement back in the 1990s and made a practical contribution to the initiation of the peace process in Doha. All this provided Uzbekistan with a unique role in the Afghan settlement.
The results of the High-Level International Conference on Connectivity between Central and South Asia, held in Tashkent on 16 July 2021, showed how strongly we are interested in Afghanistan becoming not an obstacle but a bridge between the two regions.
At present, the interim Taliban government that has come to power is seeking international recognition. This gives the world community a real opportunity to establish a constructive dialogue with the new authorities of Afghanistan to help the Afghan people return to a peaceful life. We must not allow the transformation of this country into the so-called “rogue state”, as was the case in the 1990s.
We should not isolate Afghanistan in this difficult time and leave the Afghan people alone with their most challenging problems.
The humanitarian situation in the country is close to catastrophic, but it is within our power to provide effective and emergency assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
As priority steps, we believe the world community possesses all the necessary tools for unfreezing Afghanistan’s international assets, lifting sanctions, and providing effective assistance in restoring the country’s entire banking system.
It is necessary to provide a humanitarian corridor to the country and do everything possible so that the people of Afghanistan do not starve and can survive the difficult winter period.
These measures will help prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis and increase the flow of refugees from Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan was among the first countries to send humanitarian aid to the Afghan people, including food, medicine and clothing.
We have also established a dialogue with the Afghan side on topical issues of cooperation. On 16 October 2021, the city of Termez hosted the first extended working meeting at the level of deputy heads of government of the two countries, during which trade and economy were discussed.
I want to emphasise that the Uzbek side is carrying out all these actions with one goal – to help the Afghan people restore the national economy and prevent the country from sliding into the abyss of ruin.
We continue to adhere to the position that a key aspect in the Afghan settlement is developing a post-conflict strategy. More active involvement of Afghanistan in regional economic processes should remain a priority for the international community.
We stand for the further implementation of socio-economic projects in the country, including energy and transport.
At the same time, we hope that the new Afghan authorities will do everything possible to fulfil their promises and international obligations, including the creation of an inclusive government, respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms, including the rights of women and national minorities, fight against international terrorism and drug trafficking, prevention of the deployment of various terrorist groups on the territory of the country, and the support of good-neighbourly relations with the countries of the region.
Even the slightest threat to other states should never again come from the territory of Afghanistan.
We think that the interim government of Afghanistan can take these essential steps so that this country could become an equal entity of interstate and international relations in the near future, part of the common civilised world.
There is no other way; only this can lead the Afghan people to progress and prosperity and Afghanistan to the long-awaited peace.
How do you assess regional cooperation in Central Asia, and what role can the EU play?
Achieving long-term stability and sustainable development in Central Asia is inextricably linked with strengthening mutual trust among the states of the region, development of regional political, economic, humanitarian cooperation, and the joint solution of common problems in the region.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has identified the development and strengthening of friendly, good-neighbourly and mutually beneficial relations with Central Asia as the main foreign policy priority of Uzbekistan.
In this regard, the leadership of Uzbekistan attaches high priority to the fundamental improvement of the political environment in Central Asia. Together with neighbouring states, Tashkent is pursuing a consistent and responsible foreign policy aimed at constructively resolving all regional issues that in the past gave rise to disagreements and created the impression of Central Asia as a fragmented and poorly integrated region.
We have made significant progress in resolving topical issues, primarily in the delimitation and demarcation of borders, rational and fair use of water and energy resources, free cross-border movement, development of the transport and communication systems, and cooperation in the field of security.
Let me stress that all these issues are resolved based on mutual trust, open dialogue, consideration of mutual interests and reasonable compromises. Due to the peculiarities of the culture, traditions and values of the countries of Central Asia, there is no alternative for us to such a pragmatic and mutually respectful approach.
Today, trade, investment, transport, industrial, cultural and humanitarian ties, cross-border and interregional cooperation, and interaction in the field of security are expanding between the region’s countries.
I want to draw special attention to the promising prospects for the development of economic integration in our region, a capacious and rapidly growing market of more than 74.5 million people. Over the past 10 years, the population of Central Asia has been increasing by an average of one million people annually. According to experts, if this region becomes a common economic space, then the possibilities of our countries to attract investors and participate in the international division of labour and international cooperation would significantly increase.
In this regard, it is essential to use and develop our experience of trade and economic interaction within the CIS and actively develop cooperation and study the experience of forming common markets of the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union, and other integration structures.
Speaking about other prospects for regional cooperation in Central Asia, it is important to note the following initiatives of Uzbekistan:
The first is to identify new growth points, new drivers of our development for the long term, including industrial cooperation, innovation and digital technologies, and the creation of long value chains.
Third, improving the region’s energy system, expanding mutually beneficial cooperation in the implementation of “green” energy and energy-efficient technologies.
Fourth – interaction in the field of strengthening food security of the region’s countries, including through the establishment of sustainable food production.
Fifth, joint initiatives to address environmental problems in the region and mitigate the consequences of the Aral Sea disaster and climate change.
Uzbekistan attaches great importance to developing a mutually beneficial, multifaceted strategic partnership with the European Union (EU), including within the framework of the CA-EU dialogue.
We consider it is important to continue this dialogue and cooperation, especially concerning the participation of European companies in the modernisation of the economy, technical and technological re-equipment of industries, development of agriculture, transport infrastructure, tourism industry, implementation of socially significant projects in Uzbekistan and other countries of the region.
Uzbekistan has set itself ambitious goals, speaking of a New Renaissance and New Uzbekistan. Many of the ideas are linked to strengthening democratic institutions and the use of digital technologies and green energy. Can you elaborate?
The main goal of the reforms being carried out in Uzbekistan is to lay the foundation for the Third Renaissance. Speaking about this new period of revival, about New Uzbekistan, we mean, first of all, transformations in the field of education and knowledge through large-scale democratic reforms.
As President Shavkat Mirziyoyev emphasises, the primary tasks are the development of education and fundamental sciences necessary to achieve overall progress. Funds invested in this area, in any case, will give results and, first of all, contribute to the implementation of our tasks to form a new economy of knowledge, innovation and technology.
And in this, we see one of the main promising areas of our interaction with the EU and European partner states. Europe can play a unique role in supporting the improvement of the education system in our country, increasing its quality and coverage. For example, through the Erasmus+ project, student exchange intensifies and opens new branches of European universities in Uzbekistan.
We are also convinced that strengthening cooperation with the EU is becoming one of the important factors in increasing the diversification and competitiveness of our economy, creating new jobs, and realising national objectives in the fields of research and innovation, agriculture, ecology, health and sustainable urban development.
In general, there are the broadest prospects for enhancing our interaction with the European Union in the interests of the peoples of Central Asia and Europe.