Turkey seeks to forge new bi-literal relations with Uzbekistan based on mutual economic and security interests

Ever since the fall of the former Soviet Union, the newly independent Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus have emerged as theatres important for Turkish foreign policy. Turkey has traditionally approached these regions within the scope of "Pan-Turkism" rather than the interior dynamics of Eurasian geopolitics. This approach has not proved very successful with some regional actors, first and foremost with Uzbekistan, the most populous and geopolitically the most significant country in Central Asia.

Therefore, mending the frayed relations with Tashkent will be one of Ankara’s main priorities as it hosts Uzbekistans President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The historic visit marks an improvement of relations between the two nations. Ankara will be aiming for a breakthrough after two decades in which diplomatic relations had been frosty under the late Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Uzbekistan’s geopolitical position in Central Asia

Given the geopolitical importance of Central Asia, Uzbekistan serves as a central node in the region, as well as the cultural cradle of Turco-Islamic history with its glorious cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Lying on the traditional silk route between East and West, Uzbekistan has also been the centre of commercial and economic activities attracting the attention of great empires throughout history.

With its historical legacy, favourable geographic location and rich in resources, Uzbekistan has once again emerged as a “geographical pivot” in the post-Soviet transitional era.

Uzbekistan’s central location between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan geographically renders the country as the single most important actor in conflict resolution.

The security outlook in the region shows that without stability in Uzbekistan, Central Asia is vulnerable to several sources of instability namely terrorism, separatism and foreign interventions.

With a population of 33 million, Uzbekistan is a comparably large consumer market. Its status as a developing country means that foreign direct investment is needed for economic growth. The country’s natural gas and gold reserves are reportedly the fourth largest in the world. Together with a remarkable amount of uranium and copper deposits, Uzbekistan represents a significant economic opportunity.

Economic cooperation as a means of thawing icy diplomacy

Against this backdrop, Uzbekistan serves as a gateway for the opening of Central Asia not only for Turkey, but for any great power that is keen to pursue its political, economic and security interests in the region.

The restoration of ties with Turkey will also help Uzbekistan to break out of its prevailing Karimov era isolationism. Today, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy is hemmed in between Russia and China, while its economy needs to be further developed. Turkey can play a significant role in helping Uzbekistan emerge as a strong economic partner in which both sides benefit.

Therefore, Ankara and Tashkent need to improve their economic relations. With nearly 700 Turkish companies already operating in Uzbekistan this shouldn’t be too hard. Trade volume as of 2015 stands at $1.2 billion, which can be further scaled.

More recently, Turkey’s commercial potential was restricted as many businesses operating in Uzbekistan were linked with the Confederation of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen (TUSKON) a Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) - affiliated association. The banned group, led by Fetullah Gulen, a self-exiled US-based cleric, was behind the failed July 15 coup. As a result, Uzbek authorities have put some restrictions on Turkish entrepreneurs and deported many Turkish investors from the country.

Now the parties are bracing for a new period in their relations. By setting out the ambitious goal to increase trade volume to ten billion dollars in the medium term. If the Uzbek state is able to implement further structural reforms in order to eliminate side effects of the so-called ‘Russian economic model’ it will significantly help in developing its government and society.

Turkey’s proposed economic partnership has been met warmly by the Uzbekistan government, led-by Mirziyoyev, who is eager to see foreign direct investment and increased international allies.

Security, another pillar in the relationship 

The normalisation of relations between Ankara and Tashkent is important not just for economic reasons, but also for the threat to the security of both countries arising from international terrorism.

Turkey has increasingly become a target for Daesh and Al Qaeda militants of Uzbeki descent, militarily trained in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the internationalisation of threats increases the need for security cooperation.

There have been several terrorist attacks in Turkey linked with Uzbeki nationals in the last two years. First, the bomb attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in 2016, where 42 people were killed, was carried out by three suspects from the former Soviet space, including Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The second terrorist attack, which targeted Istanbul’s Reina nightclub at a New Year's party and left 39 dead, was also carried out by an Uzbek citizen who was also a member of Daesh, Abdulgadir Masharipov.

These events show the necessity of increasing cooperation between Uzbekistan and Turkey on all levels. It also highlights the acute security concerns emanating from Central Asia that are as acute for Tashkent as they are for Ankara.

Turkey’s rapprochement with Uzbekistan also serves wider regional interests. Since 2012, Ankara has been a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). It has also sought support for a potential bid in the SCO, of which Uzbekistan is a member. This would deepen economic and security relations with the wider SCO members, which include Russia and China.

Many security threats in Turkey emerge from its Asian neighbourhood. With Ankara increasingly looking East, collaboration with SCO members is essential.

Looking to the future

Uzbekistan so far has constituted the weakest link in Turkey’s foreign policy in post-Soviet Central Asia, which many experts and analysts regard as the geopolitical heartland of Eurasia. A new chapter in Turkish-Uzbek relations is about to be opened by both countries as President Erdogan and his Uzbek counterpart Mirziyoyev meet today.

At this point, Uzbekistan’s rapprochement with Turkey would revitalise both countries’ aims and interests in Central Asia where Ankara and Tashkent have been acting as passive bystanders, contrary to their real political, economic and military potential.

Therefore, deepening Turkish-Uzbek cooperation would be a game changer, allowing both parties to build a more stable and long-lasting relationship.

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