It’s not a country that many Americans can find on a map, but Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the U.S. says that a raft of reforms enacted since 2016 make it worth another glance, especially from investors.
Already, companies like Honeywell, Coca-Cola and General Electric are expanding production in the Central Asian nation of 33 million people, which constitutes about half the population of the resource-rich region, the country’s ambassador to the U.S. said in Atlanta.
The ancient Silk Road nation, known for millennia of Islamic history represented in cities like Samarkand and Bukhara, is undergoing a modernization after a 20th century spent under Russia’s thumb, followed by nearly three decades of stagnation.
That process is being supported by American brands like John Deere and Boeing, whose Dreamliner 787s are on order from Uzbekistan Airlines. (The airline is the only one in Central Asia with a direct flight to the U.S. — to New York — and it has ambitions to enact a code-sharing arrangement with Atlanta’s Delta Air Lines.)
And the relatively new country, just 28 years old, is eager to woo more foreign investment to create jobs for its young population, about half of whom were born after the country gained its independence in 1991.
“We are undergoing our own ‘fall of the Berlin Wall’ moment,” said Ambassador Javlon Vakhabov during a speech at the Atlanta Council on International Relations. “We have initiated reforms that are very ambitious in aim and very extensive in scope.”
The country’s “new face” will be on display throughout the course of this year, as Mississippi’s governor leads a delegation of about 30 people to the country in May, followed by the first U.S. Commerce Department-certified trade mission arriving in the city of Navoiy in mid-June.
Later this fall, the Uzbek embassy will host an American-Uzbek chamber business summit in Washington, following up on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s visit to Tashkent, the capital, last October. Uzbekistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Elyor Ganiyev visited Washington to meet with Mr. Ross in April.
All this has been enabled by Uzbekistan’s new leader, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power in 2016 after the death in office of the country’s first president, Islam Karimov.
Mr. Mirziyoyev is aiming to counter a checkered history of repression, corruption and human rights abuses that have earned the country a place on “dozens of U.S. government reports” — most of them unflattering, according to the ambassador.
This systematic image cleanup effort has focused on improving governance, strengthening rule of law, reforming the judicial system, liberalizing the economy and improving social well-being, the ambassador added.
Some say the reforms are aimed more at economic liberalization than political progress, but either way, Uzbekistan has already shed some negative labels and climbed international rankings that measure attractiveness for business.
For instance, the country since 2015 has rocketed up the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings from No. 141 to No. 76. In 2018, the government issued its first international bonds, with the $1 billion target oversubscribed.
Uzbekistan has been recognized by the International Labour Organization and the U.S. government for successfully tackling the issue of child labor. President Mirziyoyev has removed tens of thousands of citizens from blacklists and pardoned nearly 3,000 political prisoners, along with passing a strong anti-corruption statute, the ambassador said.
Since 2016, the government has shuttered dozens of ministries and ordered those still standing to issue reports on their activities and hold press availability each week, including with newly approved foreign media outlets like Voice of America and Eurasianet, Mr. Vakhabov told Global Atlanta in an interview. The Uzbek president has met multiple times with President Trump, including at the White House last May.
“The main motto of (President Mirziyoyev) being in power is that people in Uzbekistan should no longer serve the government. The government of Uzbekistan should serve the Uzbek people,” Mr. Vakhabov said.
The country has even opened an innovation ministry, which helps government agencies improve their processes while working to skill up the young population in STEM and other future-facing sectors. The ambassador and his team visited Georgia Tech to explore collaboration on this front.
“Literally, Uzbekistan is opening to the world,” Mr. Vakhabov said.
Today our office welcomed the Ambassador of @Uzbek_Embassy @JavlonVakhabov to @CityofAtlanta. Exchanged on areas pertaining to smart cities, trade, housing, cargo, urban agriculture & entrepreneurship. Thank you @ACIRAtlanta for organizing our meeting. pic.twitter.com/QwpL8VAYoY
— Vanessa Ibarra (@Vanessaibarratl) April 26, 2019
Uzbekistan has much to gain from a change in outlook. The country is one of two “double land-locked” countries in the world, those that have to cross two other nations to get to the nearest sea port.
That’s a major challenge for exports and is one reason the country aims to play a constructive role in the ongoing reconciliation efforts between the government and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan hopes to build a railroad through Afghanistan and down toward Pakistan’s sea ports. Afghanistan is no longer seen as a “headache,” but an opportunity — putting Uzbekistan in line with the U.S.’s goals of stabilizing the war-torn country through economic growth. Uzbekistan hopes to boost bilateral trade with Afghanistan from $600 million to $1.5 billion in the coming years.
The ambassador stressed strong ties with Afghanistan despite Uzbekistan’s “regrettable” role in the Soviet invasion during the 1970s. Uzbekistan itself has a touchy history with Russia, which used the country mainly as a source of agricultural production.
“Moscow forced us to plant and pick more than 6.5 million tons of cotton per year. We have been forced even to plant cotton on the roofs of our houses,” Mr. Vakhabov said, though he noted that now Uzbekistan is among the top five producers in the world.
With recent labor reforms, the country hopes to enhance the output of the sector and break into international textile supply chains.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan doesn’t see any conflict between its growing connection with the U.S. and its strategic partnership with China. Even as Mr. Vakhabov was speaking, his president was in Beijing for the Belt and Road forum, a gathering of countries that have signed on to China’s massive infrastructure spree.
Speaking to Global Atlanta and other reporters after his speech, he said Uzbekistan is focused on how China’s plans will affect its economy, not the geopolitical ambitions the U.S. has warned against in opposing the project.
“Our goal is to diversify our transit routes. In this regard, One Belt One Road is in line with our own priorities,” the ambassador said.
Mr. Vakhabov said the U.S has not put pressure on Uzbekistan to influence China on the issue of its internment of Uighurs, who like Uzbeks speak a Turkic language and are predominately Muslim.
Either way, Uzbekistan’s policy is not to meddle in Chinese affairs, as the country recognized China’s territorial integrity, including with respect to Taiwan, in its strategic partnership signing a few years ago, the ambassador said.
“Our key principle that our foreign policy is based on, again, is non-interference into internal affairs and boosting good relationships with all great powers,” Mr. Vakhabov said.
The U.S. State Department removed Uzbekistan from its Countries of Particular Concern list for suppression religious freedom in 2018, though the bipartisan U.S. commission studying the issue has recommended that Uzbekistan be put back on the tier-one list of offenders including countries like China, Iran, North Korea and Myanmar.