For the first time in the first twenty years of life of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a Central Asian nation – Uzbekistan – will guide the organisation controlling both the post of Secretary General and the rotating Presidency.
This article will analyse the priorities outlined by recently re-elected Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and by the SCO Secretary General Vladimir Norov for the Uzbek Presidency 2021-22. Instances of hard and soft power have been raised by the Uzbek leadership, which seems to attempt a qualitative step forward for the SCO family, a “new page in the history of the SCO” as described by the Secretary General Norov. Will the charming Samarkand be the setting of a transformative moment for the Shanghai grouping? We argue that although Uzbek presidencies usually produce some form of change in the SCO framework, this sensationalist narrative represents more of a shift in Uzbekistan’s own self-representation and global prestige than a reform of the organisation.
On 17 September 2021, the Council of Heads of State of the SCO Member States during its 20th anniversary meeting in Dushanbe – Tajikistan – voted to assign the 2021-22 rotating Presidency to Uzbekistan. After stressing the concept of Central Asia as the core of SCO’s attention, Uzbek President Mirziyoyev detailed the priorities for the Uzbek Presidency. On 26 October in a press conference at the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent the official plan for the Uzbek Presidency was announced including more than 80 measures and activities that will culminate in the Samarkand summit of Heads of State of the SCO in late October 2022. Economic cooperation, regional security, relations with Afghanistan, digital and physical connectivity and cultural understanding are among the many points distilled by Tashkent and by Secretary General Norov as focal points for 2021-22.
The language of the economic proposals for the Uzbek SCO Presidency sounds very familiar to analysts of Uzbek liberal economic reforms after 2016, when Shakvat Mirziyoyev was elected as the second President of Uzbekistan after the sudden death of President Islam Karimov. While the latter had represented an alternative to usual post-Soviet shock-therapy liberalisation with gradual reforms and protectionist policies, Mirziyoyev is working towards opening Uzbekistan to the global market. Removal of trade barriers, technological innovation, sustainability and industrial cooperation are a central topic in Uzbek priorities for the SCO, whose members accounted for 44% of Uzbek exports and around 52% of imports in 2019 (OEC data). Projects for the development of physical and digital infrastructures are thoroughly discussed and regarded as pivotal to improve economic mobility. Secretary Norov suggested three priority corridors for connectivity programmes: an East-West one through Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China and two North-South ones from Russia to South Asia, one passing through Iran and Oman and another through Afghanistan.
As expected, Afghanistan was the main discussing point of the Dushanbe SCO summit and the connected SCO-CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) meeting on Afghan crisis, which was widely covered by international media. What is interesting to underline is that Uzbekistan’s rhetoric on the Afghan issue seemed to remain consistent with the country’s policy of engagement with the Afghan leadership. Differently from other Member States, such as China or Russia, that framed their Dushanbe interventions around an idea of a new Afghan crisis, the Uzbek President used very moderate words calling for a continued engagement with Afghanistan and its inclusion in the Central Asian regional dialogue. “Taskhent views Afghanistan not as a source of threats to peace and stability, but as a unique strategic opportunity”, SCO Secretary General Norov wrote in a comment for the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily. Uzbekistan apparently plans to maintain the leadership role it took since 2018 by promoting negotiations between different local and international actors in the Afghan political sphere.
The answer to many of these challenges seems to be connected to bringing state-to-state cooperation to a more pluralist civil society level, focusing on soft themes in the realm of education and cultural understanding. The Covid-19 pandemic represents the most relevant part of this people-to-people approach, with parallel focus on state-level measures such as common vaccine certificates and on scientific cooperation to fight the disease. In this context, a passage from Secretary Norov’s speech at the China Cultural Trade Development Forum states that “the cultural heritage of the SCO countries is associated with the names of great thinkers, outstanding scientists, and pioneers” and is particularly relevant to expose the quality of Uzbek foreign policy discourse.
As Bernardo Teles Fazendeiro writes in an article for Open Democracy, soft power manoeuvres are the real game changer in Uzbek international behaviour under Mirziyoyev. The latter, compared to the first President Karimov, Fazendeiro writes, “has prioritised dialogue over confrontation in the region, spoken of connectivity and showed openness to World Trade Organisation membership”. Uzbek focus on soft issues such as cultural heritage, tourism, international dialogue, liberal reforms and mutual respect is mirrored in the Uzbek plan for the SCO rotating presidency and fed into the Shanghai spirit rhetoric. The very choice of Samarkand for the next SCO meeting is a clear example of this attitude, as it allows the government to showcase the symbol of its grandiose Timuride past as a setting for its present leadership role.
Uzbek confidence becomes politically relevant when UN-related themes are touched upon in the Presidency plan. SCO member states, and Uzbekistan in particular, are not anymore framed as recipients of UN attention and targets of development plans. Instead, a new image is drawn of a community that is learning from member states’ best practises such as China’s successes in poverty reduction, often quoted by Uzbek leaders in its bilateral dialogue with China. Furthermore, Uzbek and Central Asian leading roles in the United Nations promoting declarations and initiative on international development and human security themes is used to project this prestige to the international arena. Moreover, the attention to the UN is probably linked to the most relevant symbol of international recognition for the many reforms that Uzbekistan has undertaken since the death of Islam Karimov, namely the appointment of Uzbekistan to the UN Human Rights Council for the first time in 30 years of membership. At the same time, at a national level, Mirziyoyev was just re-elected with a vast majority of around 80% of the votes and has interpreted the strong mandate by pushing a constitutional reform. Yet, these national and international successes are mirrored by a long list of criticisms of the Uzbek government that see many of the new administration’s instances of change and reform clash with continuities such as undemocratic elections, reports of inhumane conditions for political prisoners, expulsion of independent journalists and even a plot by Mirziyoyev to reform the constitution to remain in power. Besides, the SCO maintains many of its usual tensions such as the “friendly” coexistence of Russia and China and Indian tensions with both China and Pakistan, together with clashes between Central Asian member states. Both in the case of the Uzbek path of reform and its bold proposals for the SCO presidency, the “new page in history” seems to remain to the level of self-representation where words, ideas and style of communication shape an image of change that is not often supported by facts. Yet, this renewed confidence can surely be a positive sign for the country’s regional engagement and not only with the usual economic focus, but also in the field of both physical and human security.