Uzbek leader makes first foreign trip

Uzbek leader makes first foreign trip

The Wedding Palace in Turkmenistan’s surreal capital, Ashgabat.

Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev surprisingly chose Turkmenistan as the destination for his first foreign visit after his “election” in December.

Mirziyoyev appears to be seeking a potential ally in Turkmenistan, which holds a long history of neutrality and isolation.

Uzbekistan appears to be coming out of international isolation with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) signing a memorandum with Tashkent this week to resume operations halted under the previous administration.

The EBRD is reportedly close to restarting work in Central Asia’s most populous nation.

However, shortly before Mirziyoyev’s visit to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Uzbekistan and China shelved a project to expand a pipeline to bring gas from Turkmenistan to China, in a major setback to Central Asian energy relations.

The Line D expansion would have taken a different route from the pipeline which already links Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on its way to western China. Instead, the plan was to pass through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in an apparent attempt to diversify transit countries and potentially open up fresh markets. But on March 2, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Uzbekneftegaz, the state-owned entities in charge of the project, indefinitely postponed construction.

It could prove a serious blow to Turkmenistan, which was hoping to boost its exports to China.

China is the largest market for Turkmenistan’s gas with rows over pricing in recent years ending all exports to Russia. But China is importing less than projected in 2016.

The failure to push ahead with Line D could intensify the regional economic crisis which has hurt the Turkmen economy since early 2015.

It is unclear what this does for Mirziyoyev’s much-hailed era of closer regional cooperation.

Kazakhstan’s economic minister Timur Suleimenov recently said: “The liberalisation in Uzbekistan will be a specific challenge for us: there will be a struggle for investments.”

Mirziyoyev could attempt to restore Uzbekistan to its previous role of regional dominance. Under the repressive rule of late president Islam Karimov, Tashkent largely surrendered its influence to Kazakhstan over the past decade, especially after it acquired pariah status following the brutal crackdown in Andijan in 2005.

It is unlikely that Uzbekistan’s human rights record will improve greatly.

The International Crisis Group reported: “Mirziyoyev did not merely inherit a system of governance built on tight, often brutal control and suspicion of change. He had an important part in creating and implementing it.”

Any agreement on renewed economic cooperation that might be signed during Mirziyoyev’s visit will look vacuous after the ditching of Line D.

Picture credit: Maxpixel

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