Uzbekistan caught in tug of war with US and Russia
Uzbekistan possible accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) has sparked a minor dispute between the US and Russia.
US Trade Secretary Wilbur Ross asked an Uzbek delegation in Washington last month to reconsider the move to join the EAEU, adding that it could delay Tashkent’s accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused Washington of promoting unfair competition in Central Asia, adding that the Kremlin would continue expanding its role.
Last month Valentina Matviyenko, the chairwoman of Russia’s upper parliamentary house, the Federation Council, said during a visit to Tashkent that Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, had committed to making a decision on EAEU membership.
“We know that it had been announced, that the president of Uzbekistan has made a decision, and that the decision about Uzbekistan joining the Eurasian Economic Union is being worked out,” Matviyenko told the Uzbek rubber-stamp parliament.
If Uzbekistan – with the region’s biggest population – were to join the body, it would signal Central Asia firmly entering Russia’s sphere of influence. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are already EAEU members. Uzbek membership would mean 80 per cent of Central Asia’s population was inside the Russian-led bloc.
Prominent Uzbek businesswoman Aziza Umarova posted on Facebook: “I fear that we do not have enough qualified manpower to conduct negotiations with the Russians. From the experience of others, I would note that we will probably be unable to fight for technical regulations for our exports that would benefit us.”
The business chief, who has political ambitions, said the EAEU membership would isolate Uzbekistan and chain it to an economically troubled Russia.
“There would be no way back. Absolutely none. There could be no quiet divorce,” she argued, adding the ominous tag #backtoussr.
Washington is unlikely to jeopardise its ties with Central Asian states over their decision to join the EAEU.
The US priority in Central Asia is “resistant to becoming jihadist safe havens”, the US National Security Strategy recently reported. It is unlikely that the US will jeopardise its policy of containing the spread of fundamentalism over Tashkent’s decision to join a loose multilateral body run from Russia.
But Uzbekistan has renewed its efforts to join the WTO member after holding its last previous negotiation in 2005. In July this year, Uzbekistan submitted an application to restart negotiations on membership of the global trade body.
The Uzbekistan regime will want to retain US support in the process.
Losing Washington as a partner in the WTO accession process would be a setback. Most other EAEU members are already in the WTO and there is no reason why Tashkent should be forced to choose. But the fraught nature of the bilateral relationship between Russia and the US is forcing third parties into binary choices.
The Uzbek economy is in need of a boost. Picture credit: Eurasia Times