Uzbekistan’s New Leadership and Relations with China
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Uzbekistan’s New Leadership and Relations with China

Sep. 29, 2016  |     |  1 comments

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s long-serving first President, died on September 2, 2016, triggering a leadership transition in the Central Asian country. Karimov had ascended to the top of the country’s leadership hierarchy during the Soviet era when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the achievement of Uzbek independence in 1991, Karimov became the first Uzbek President, using “Soviet methods to govern the country.” As Steve Swerdlow, the director of Central Asia research at Human Rights Watch, notes of Karimov’s leadership: “He is the state and the state is him, and it has been that way for at least 25 years” (MacFarquhar, 2016).


Interestingly, the leadership transition in Uzbekistan appears to have triggered or accelerated succession planning in the region’s other autocracies: “Kazakhstan’s leader reshuffled his cabinet, Turkmenistan lifted a presidential age limit and extended presidential terms, and Azerbaijan is preparing for a September 26 referendum that will also consolidate presidential power” (Foley, 2016).


Following Karimov’s death, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who “has been Uzbekistan’s prime minister since 2003,” was elected by the Uzbek parliament to serve as acting President until presidential elections are held on December 4, 2016, of which he will be one of the candidates. Under the constitution, Nigmatilla Yuldashev, the Chairman of the Senate, should have become acting president; however, he supported Mirziyoyev’s ascension. The orderly transition of leadership highlights the work of Uzbekistan’s National Security Committee in ensuring a peaceful succession following Karimov’s long-anticipated death (Farchy, 2016; Putz, 2016; “Shavkat Mirziyoyev becomes,” 2016). As an analyst of Uzbek politics explains, the succession planning began in 2013 when the decline in Karimov’s physical and mental faculties became obvious:


“A wave of constitutional modifications took place in March 2014, when several articles were rewritten to give the Prime Minister powers and decision-making capabilities that used to be held by the President. At the same time, the Parliament received a new lever of power, as it now possesses the ability to cancel government decisions and potentially dissolve the government. This mechanism was thought out to isolate an increasingly diminished President from the decision-making process and to protect him from all outside pressure, while progressively distributing his power to other State institutions. Consequently, power players simply had to wait for the official death of Islam Karimov.” (Boulègue, 2016)


During his tenure as governor of Jizzakh and Samarqand Regions and then as Prime Minister, acting President Mirziyoyev has proved himself to be as tough as the late President Karimov, and “maybe even tougher.” For example, under his leadership, Mirziyoyev held “governors accountable for meeting cotton quotas” during the annual cotton harvests that involve the forced labor of “millions of citizens.” Observers do not expect Mirziyoyev to relax the “iron fist” that characterized Karimov’s leadership, and indeed Mirziyoyev himself has “pledged continuity with Karimov’s policies” and ordered the Uzbek government to “strengthen the security of the state.”


Continued repression may be expected given that Russia’s economic recession has led to unemployment and other economic difficulties in Uzbekistan, and the IMF estimates that Uzbekistan’s growth “will fall to 5 per cent this year — its lowest in more than a decade.” Among the key economic priorities of the Mirziyoyev regime are “lifting employment by creating 1m new jobs this year; and investing in infrastructure” (Farchy, 2016; Walker & Nardelli, 2015). These economic priorities indicate the continuity of the Mirziyoyev regime with the Karimov regime’s economic cooperation with China, especially with regard to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure development initiative.


One threat to Sino-Uzbek economic cooperation is terrorism, especially from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which has begun integrating into Middle Eastern terrorist networks.

In his message of congratulations to Mirziyoyev over his appointment as acting President of Uzbekistan, President Xi stated that China “firmly supports the Uzbek side on its path of development,” and noted that “thanks to the joint efforts the bilateral cooperation is developing dynamically in all spheres over the recent years, and as a result, there are a number of important achievements” (Azizov, 2016).

One such achievement is the 19.2 km Kamchik Tunnel through the Qurama Mountains that is a key section of the Angren–Pap railway line that connects the Uzbek capital Tashkent with Namangan, Uzbekistan’s second-largest city. The Kamchik Tunnel, which “is the longest of its kind in Central Asia,” was a major project of the China Railway Tunnel Group, and its construction had been financed with a USD 350 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. During his state visit to Uzbekistan in June 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping highlighted the Kamchik Tunnel as “a major outcome of the Belt and Road Initiative that China and Uzbekistan are jointly promoting, and also a new link in the friendship and cooperation of both peoples.”


Presidents Xi and Karimov also upgraded Sino-Uzbek relations to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership, and they expand their countries’ cooperation in key economic sectors including “high-tech, trade, investment, energy, transportation, agriculture and finance.” Other recent Sino-Uzbek economic cooperation projects include the “China Industrial Park covering the energy, transport, chemical and high-tech sectors,” as well as the Central Asia-China Gas Pipeline. China has also recently launched a major railway connection between China and Afghanistan in its New Silk Road across Central Asia, which “includes feeder lines to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, as well as the ancient Silk Road centers of Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan.”


In addition, Uzbekistan has “attracted Chinese investment in recent years, typified by a USD 15 billion bilateral energy deal concluded in 2013.” At present there are “over 600 Chinese enterprises operating in various fields in Uzbekistan, including energy, telecommunications, infrastructure construction and textiles” (Hart, 2016; Kava, 2016; Shepard, 2016; “Thriving economic relations,” 2016; “Xi’s State Visit,” 2016). China’s growing economic cooperation with Uzbekistan has become even more important for the Uzbeks given the reduction of Uzbekistan’s economic engagement with recession-hit Russia:


“China last year became Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner with $3 billion worth of trade done, leapfrogging Russia in the process. That was actually lower than in 2014, when the figure was $4.7 billion, but with Russia’s economy enduring an extended slump, the trend is unmistakable.” (“Uzbekistan & China,” 2016)


One threat to Sino-Uzbek economic cooperation is terrorism, especially from the Uighur militant East Turkestan Islamic Movement which has in recent years begun integrating into Middle Eastern terrorist networks, thereby expanding their operational reach into the countries of Central Asia. The August 30, 2016 suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, has been identified by Kyrgyz authorities as having been “ordered by Uygur militants based in Syria and carried out by a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (Clarke, 2016; Zhou, 2016). China and Uzbekistan are well aware of the security threat. Indeed, during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Uzbekistan, both Presidents Xi and Karimov “vowed to resolutely crack down on ‘the three evil forces’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism” (“Xi’s State Visit,” 2016).


The late President Karimov had a history of confrontation with Islamic militancy. He “crushed an Islamic insurgency after surviving an assassination attempt by Islamic militants in 1999,” and turned Uzbekistan into “a bulwark against the spread of any jihadist threat in the region.” Following the 1999 attack, Karimov vowed extreme measures to restore security to Uzbekistan: “I am ready to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, for the sake of peace and tranquillity in the country. If a child of mine chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.” His resolve was demonstrated several years later in 2005 when Uzbek security forces massacred hundreds of civilians in the city of Andijan who had been protesting the government’s crackdown on Islamic extremism (MacFarquhar, 2016; “How the Andijan killings,” 2005).


Karimov had accepted Russia and China’s invitation for Uzbekistan to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. While Uzbekistan has benefitted economically from its SCO membership, including the receipt of funding from the SCO Inter-Bank Association for the construction of a Tajik-Uzbek highway, the main purpose of the SCO is security cooperation, including the fight against the “three evil forces” of “extremism, separatism and terrorism” (Hiro, 2016; Lim, 2015). The SCO will be one of the key instruments through which the Chinese and Uzbek governments may cooperate to establish an environment in the post-Karimov era in which Sino-Uzbek economic cooperation can securely take place.


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