Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev (R) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev (R) pose for a photo with the documents after signing the joint declaration on the results of second Turkiye-Uzbekistan High Level Strategic Cooperation Council meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on March 29, 2022. (Photo: Murat Kula / AA)

Experts Respond: President Erdoğan’s Visit to Uzbekistan, Bilateral Relations and Regional Impact

To make sense of the Turkish president’s visit to Uzbekistan and its implications for bilateral relations as well as regional affairs, we hereby present the opinions of five leading experts.

The bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and Turkey have reached the level of strategic partnership in recent years. During that period, the two countries strengthened their political and economic cooperation, facilitating the emergence of additional opportunities. In this regard, Turkey and Uzbekistan, which are important members of the Organization of Turkic States, have more than tripled their annual trade volume over the last five years.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit on March 29-30, 2022 is expected to take his country’s relationship with Uzbekistan to the next level. During his visit, Erdoğan also attended the Uzbekistan-Turkey High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council’s second meeting. To make sense of the Turkish president’s visit to Uzbekistan and its implications for bilateral relations as well as regional affairs, we hereby present the opinions of five leading experts.

Prepared by
Gloria Shkurti Özdemir

Mehmet Yüce
Fırat Purtaş
İlyas Topsakal
Kutluk Kağan Sümer
Yaşar Sarı

Mehmet Yüce
Azerbaijan State University of Economics

Thanks to its geopolitical and geostrategic location, culture and civilization, and population and economic potential, Uzbekistan represents a crucial country for Central Asia and Turkey. Located at the heart of Central Asia, the country shares land borders with all other states in the region. Uzbekistan happens to be in the middle of the steppe, deserts, and mountains, and at the intersection of major transport and trade routes – which makes its location strategically important. Having been a center of Islamic civilization for many years, it brings together the intense richness of the Turkish, Persian, and Arab cultures. The Turkish-Islamic civilization’s development resulted in the emergence of many prominent figures in the fields of science, literature, philosophy, and the arts, including the Great Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Maturidi, Imam al-Bukhari, Baha’al-Din Naqshband, Ali Qushji, and Ali-Shir Nava’i – icons of the Turkish-Islamic world. Consequently, Uzbekistan – a key Central Asian country with more than 35 million citizens, its geostrategic location, its vast history, its rich cultural heritage, and economic potential – has a distinguished place in the Turkic world. A strong relationship between Turkey and Uzbekistan would build synergy in the Turkish-Islamic world and lay the groundwork for many significant steps. Therefore, President Erdoğan’s visit to Uzbekistan was rather important for creating the infrastructure for future steps and giving additional momentum to the relationship.

Over the years, Turkey’s relations with Uzbekistan, which occupies a distinguished place in the Turkish people’s hearts, experienced certain ups and downs in line with other developments. However, the bilateral relationship gained momentum thanks to the open policy of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan’s recently elected president, and President Erdoğan’s special efforts, and reached the level of ‘strategic partnership’ in 2017. In addition to creating an important opportunity for cooperation, the Turkish leader’s visit represented a strong statement of support for Uzbekistan – which became the target of negative propaganda and a policy of suppression from certain groups, which claimed that the country could experience something akin to the unpleasant events that unfolded in Kazakhstan. At the same time, Erdoğan’s trip built strong synergy for activating Uzbekistan’s potential that could allow that country to assume a leadership position in the region.

Moreover, the Turkish president’s visit should be expected to strengthen his country’s economic relations with Uzbekistan, a country with a large and dynamic population known for its spirit of entrepreneurialism, and contribute to efforts to increase their bilateral trade volume to $5 billion. At the same time, it is likely to promote stronger cooperation in the area of defense and give significant momentum to ongoing activities in the area of education.

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Fırat Purtaş
Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli University

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Uzbekistan coincided with the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Turkey, which was the first nation to recognize Uzbekistan’s independence, established diplomatic relations with that country by opening its embassy on March 4, 1992. The bilateral relationship was elevated to the level of “strategic partnership” with the conclusion of an agreement in 2017. During the visit, which took place on March 29-30, 2022, the two presidents attended the second meeting of the Turkey-Uzbekistan High Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Indeed, Presidents Erdoğan and Shavkat Mirziyoyev must be identified as the architects of the current chapter in bilateral relations, which continue to improve with great dynamism, that started in late 2016. After all, President Erdoğan visited Uzbekistan in November 2016, while Mirziyoyev was still acting president, and built a personal relationship with his counterpart. After that initial contact, the two leaders met many times during official visits and at international summits.

On October 25, 2021, Uzbekistan held a presidential election, in which Shavkat Mirziyoyev was re-elected for five years by receiving 80.1 percent of the vote. Having earned the world’s respect by implementing key reforms, the Uzbek president’s education, health care, economic and democratization policies receive strong support from his country’s population as well. Building the New Uzbekistan with a comprehensive reform program called the “Third Renaissance,” Mirziyoyev’s open and multi-dimensional foreign policy attaches special importance to cooperation with Turkey. Indeed, Turkey contributes to Uzbekistan’s development in many areas, starting with trade, investments, banking, tourism, health care, and higher education.

One of President Mirziyoyev’s top priorities has been to establish transport corridors between Uzbekistan, a land-locked country, and major ports – which, in turn, would strengthen that nation’s ties to the world. In this context, it is of vital importance for that country to participate in trans-Caspian transportation and energy projects. Uzbekistan, which joined the Organization of Turkic States in October 2019, thus focuses on promoting trade and mutual investments with fellow member states.

Cultural affinity is yet another important dimension in bilateral relations. The cultural policies of Turkey and Uzbekistan – which are part of the Turkic world’s integration-oriented organizations like the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY), the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-Speaking Countries (TURKPA), and the Organization of Turkic States – serve to reinforce mutual trust among them. Specifically, both Erdoğan and Mirziyoyev attach special importance to young people. Hence a series of joint initiatives intended to shelter the youth from extremism and radical movements, and give them access to high-quality education in sync with their own values. For example, Turkey is among the supporters of the Imam Bukhari International Scientific Research Center, an educational and research institution established in Samarkand. Turkey and Uzbekistan are also expected to jointly launch a university in the near future.

Uzbekistan monitored closely the Taliban takeover and the subsequent formation of an interim government in Afghanistan. Turkey and Uzbekistan, which work together on bilateral and multilateral platforms, have been engaging in active diplomatic efforts to restore Afghanistan’s stability. The two countries, which adopted a similar approach toward ending the war between Ukraine and Russia and promoting peace in that region, have contributed to regional and global security by forming a “stability belt” with their neighbors. In this sense, President Erdoğan’s visit to Uzbekistan must be viewed as an important development for bilateral relations as well as the future geopolitics of Greater Eurasia.

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Istanbul University

Located at the heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan, the only country that shares land borders with all the other states in that region (e.g. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) has immense geopolitical importance and facilitates all transit between those countries. Furthermore, the country, home to 34.2 million people, has the highest population density in the region and reminds its neighbors of history thanks to the historical awareness of its culture. Whereas gold remains Uzbekistan’s most important mineral, the country is one of the few nations to enjoy self-sufficiency in terms of underground sources. At the same time, Uzbekistan has vast agricultural potential by virtue of being located between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. In recent years, therefore, it made a lot of investments in high technology farming and, more broadly, agriculture. The country’s top trading partners, ranked by their respective share in foreign trade, include China, Russia, and Turkey. Yet joint initiatives in the areas of agriculture, information and communication technologies, socio-cultural relations, and education promise to tilt that balance in Turkey’s favor. Thanks to President Erdoğan’s strong interest and special efforts, Turkish and Uzbek ministries implement joint projects in various areas and aim to synchronize the human resources of the two nations through joint centers of innovation.

Uzbekistan, which became independent in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, appears to have made more progress in its nation-building process than other countries. At the same time, the ancient cities of Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand, which have immense cultural value from a historical perspective as former trade hubs, keep the spirit of Central Asia alive. The abundance of physical cultural assets and educational institutions – key components of nation-building – make a positive impact on that process and deserve attention as a source for nearby countries.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who served as prime minister between 2003 and 2016, was elected president as a politician beloved by the Uzbek people. President Mirziyoyev, who remains in office, overhauled his country’s domestic politics and foreign policy, giving remarkable momentum to Uzbekistan’s development drive and administrative regulations through his open and multi-dimensional approach to foreign policy.

Whereas the country’s multi-dimensional foreign policy was primarily intended to promote its economic development, it enabled the development of all countries in the region. In this sense, Uzbekistan’s working group with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan laid the groundwork for very significant projects. At the same time, the number of Tashkent’s joint initiatives with Russia and China keeps increasing. Turkey, Kazakhstan, and South Korea, in turn, are among Uzbekistan’s remaining partners in joint projects. The country, whose economy recorded an average growth of 20 percent under President Mirziyoyev, was among the few nations around the world to keep growing amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Another important dimension of Uzbekistan’s multi-directional foreign policy relates to its activities under the umbrella of multilateral organizations. In this regard, the country built strong relationships with the Organization of Turkic States, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A closer look at the nature of those organizations would reveal how Uzbekistan implements its balanced foreign policy vision. At the same time, Tashkent aims to minimize the region’s security problems and maintain some level of control over unstable places like Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and the south.

Furthermore, Uzbekistan represents the most important intersection on the historical route between Europe, on one hand, and China, Central Asia, and Russia on the other. It preserves that legacy, which enables it to play a central role in Chinese and other logistical projects whilst serving as Central Asia’s gateway to the world. In this regard, Uzbekistan’s geopolitical importance should be expected to grow over the years, as the land-locked country could serve as a transit point – a center of trade, transportation, and energy between the relevant markets.

The impact of irregular migration, which was triggered by the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, on Uzbekistan, however, could present certain serious challenges for the country and the broader region. That is because the Uzbek army could possibly find it difficult to maintain domestic safety in case of a violent conflict. That the country is not a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) enables it to pursue somewhat autonomous policies and to launch joint projects in that area with major regional powers including Turkey.

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Kutluk Kağan Sümer
Istanbul University

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid an official visit to Uzbekistan on March 29-30 at the invitation of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, his Uzbek counterpart. He attended the second meeting of the Turkey-Uzbekistan High Level Strategic Cooperation Council as part of that trip. Erdoğan’s visit represents an opportunity to take stock of the bilateral relationship, which was elevated to the level of strategic partnership, and to discuss potential steps toward further deepening the cooperation between Turkey and Uzbekistan. The meetings also enabled a discussion on regional and international issues. On the occasion of the High Level Strategic Cooperation Council’s meeting, the two countries signed various treaties and memoranda of understanding as well.

One of the most important items on the leaders’ agenda was the annual meeting of the Organization of Turkic States, which was recently restructured, that Uzbekistan will host on November 11, 2022. In particular, the Ukraine-Russia crisis and war highlights the importance and necessity of regional strategic cooperation among the Turkic states and established yet again the need for the Organization of Turkic States.

Uzbekistan remains a world leader in gold production and cotton farming. A closer look at the recent history of economic relations between Turkey and Uzbekistan would reveal that the bilateral trade volume has increased by 70 percent. Furthermore, the trade volume is expected to soar no less than 50 percent this year. Indeed, Turkey launched more companies in Uzbekistan (407) than any other country over the last year. As of January 2022, the number of companies with Turkish capital reached 2,123 – which means that Turkey ranked third after Russia and China in that category. In 2021, Turkey exported $1.7 billion worth of goods and services to Uzbekistan, whose exports amounted to $1.6 billion. The country, which predominantly sells machinery, electronics, furniture, lighting devices, prefabricated buildings, motor vehicles, textiles, food, and consumer goods to Uzbekistan, imports plastic products, copper, zinc, and cotton threads from that nation. In this sense, it would seem that economic relations and legal arrangements carried secondary importance in the most recent meeting.

In recent years, Uzbekistan became a shining star in the Turkic world thanks to its progress vis-à-vis democracy and human rights. Home to Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent, major centers of the Turkish world and Islamic civilization, the country has the most significant cultural heritage and civilizational tradition among all parts of the Turkic and Islamic civilizations. As such, much progress has been made in recent years regarding tourism and cultural cooperation.

President Erdoğan’s meetings, which fall within the scope of strategic partnership, highlight the importance of turning to the Turkic world, with which Turkey has civilizational, linguistic, religious, and national commonalities, especially keeping in mind the most recent developments in world politics.

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Yaşar Sarı
Heydar Aliyev Center for Eurasia Studies – Ibn Haldun University and Bolu Abant Izzet Baysal University

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s official visit to Uzbekistan could have significant repercussions in terms of its timing. After all, that trip coincided with the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Keeping in mind that the Turkish-Uzbek relationship had ups and downs for many years, the current state of affairs represents a significant accomplishment for both nations. That was made possible by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s policy of openness and pursuit of closer cooperation with Turkey after the 2016 death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s founding president, as well as President Erdoğan’s November 2016 trip to that country – an active diplomatic move that took advantage of a window of opportunity that marked the beginning of a new chapter in Turkey-Uzbekistan relations.

In addition to diplomatic relations, the economic relations between Turkey and Uzbekistan have significantly improved in recent years. Whereas the annual trade volume between those nations, whose economies complement each other, stood at just $1 billion in 2016, that number exceeded $3.6 billion by 2021 despite the coronavirus pandemic. The trade volume is expected to meet the initial target of $5 billion within a short period of time. That is why the target was revised as $10 billion. At the same time, Turkish businesspeople have made significant investments in Uzbekistan. There is every reason to believe that Turkey and Uzbekistan will meet their trade- and investment targets in the near future thanks to the determination of their respective leaders and their considerable economic capacity.

In the area of multilateral relations, too, has there been significant progress. Uzbekistan joined the Turkic Council in 2019.  The country will host the annual summit of that organization, which was renamed the Organization of Turkic States at the 2021 Istanbul Summit, later this year. That honor suggests that Uzbekistan is already among that organization’s most active members. On March 24, Binali Yıldırım, in his capacity as chairman of the Council of Elders of the Organization of Turkic States, was received by President Mirziyoyev during his visit to Uzbekistan. During that meeting, the Uzbek leader described the Organization of Turkic States as an important regional institution – a sign of the importance that Uzbekistan attached to that organization.

Furthermore, two recent developments encouraged the two countries to work together and/or make similar policy choices. (According to the Uzbek media, the official visit took place at the request of President Mirziyoyev.) Indeed, both Turkey and Uzbekistan are concerned about the situation in Ukraine. As such, it is possible to argue that the two presidents discussed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the potential recognition of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government, together with efforts to promote stability in that country, and developments in Central Asia – starting with the January 2022 protests in Kazakhstan and the leadership change in Turkmenistan.

Together with Ukraine and the Baltic states, Uzbekistan was the most vocal critic (among the former Soviet republics) of the Russian Federation’s occupation of Ukrainian lands under the guise of a “military operation.” In this regard, Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, announced, without mentioning Russia, that his country recognized Ukraine’s territorial integrity and refused to recognize the separatist entities in Luhansk and Donetsk. That statement was significant because it reflected the country’s official position. After all, some 1.5 million Uzbeks are believed to be working, officially or unofficially, in Russia. Some claim that the actual number is around 3 million. As such, the money that Uzbeks, who work in Russia, send to their families back home accounts for no less than 10 percent of Uzbekistan’s GDP. Yet the coronavirus pandemic, Western sanctions, businesses closing, and the ruble’s weakening have taken a toll on Uzbek workers. Whereas some of those Uzbek nationals have since returned home, others were forced to look for jobs in other places, including Turkey. According to media reports, some migrant workers were part of the Russian army that invaded Ukraine.

Another notable aspect of the Russian offensive against Ukraine relates to the possibility of separatism in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan, à la Donetsk and Luhansk. Indeed, the Uzbek government has been concerned about the presence of armed separatist groups, which clearly receive foreign support, in that area. As such, Uzbekistan requires diplomatic and security support against that threat. As a country that dealt with similar problems for many years, Turkey’s experience and recent accomplishments in the area of military technology make it a natural ally for that country. Moreover, the fact that Turkey and Uzbekistan have similar approaches to the situation in Ukraine has made it easier for them to act together.

Furthermore, the war in Ukraine may be expected to spur demand for the Middle Corridor – a transit route that is part of the Belt and Road Initiative and goes through Uzbekistan and Turkey – as China, which delivered most of its exports to Europe via Russia, currently seeks an alternative due to the impossibility of accessing the European markets from Russia. That development, in turn, could make a positive impact on Turkey-Uzbekistan cooperation.

Another major development, which took place in the recent past, was the political recognition of the Taliban, which took over Afghanistan’s government and restored stability to political and economic relations with that country. Indeed, Turkey and Uzbekistan adopted similar policies on that front and have the same objectives. As such, both governments engage in dialogue with the Taliban, which controls almost all of Afghanistan’s sovereign territory, and want to re-stabilize that country. In this sense, Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, met Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting minister of foreign affairs of Afghanistan, in the margins of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum on 11-13 March 2022. A similar meeting took place between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Muttaqi.

The riots in Kazakhstan, which took place in January 2022, also concerned both countries and encouraged their governments to engage in dialogue. Indeed, that country’s stability and strength are crucial for both Turkey and Uzbekistan. Whereas Turkey considers Kazakhstan a strategic partner, Uzbekistan describes that nation as an ally. As such, both states are concerned by the fact that the aforementioned events rendered Kazakhstan vulnerable to foreign meddling and the resulting political instability has not fully ended.

Furthermore, neither country wants the border dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which occasionally leads to limited confrontations, to remain unsolved or to escalate. In this sense, it could be possible for Turkey and Uzbekistan to work together and jointly contribute to the solution of that problem.

The replacement of Turkmenistan’s former president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, by his son, Serdar Berdimuhamedow, left many observers wondering whether such changes in leadership could entail policy changes in Central Asian states. Certainly, both Uzbekistan, one of Turkmenistan’s neighbors, and Turkey, which has strong political and economic relations with that country, monitor closely the developments in Turkmenistan – which is completely isolated from the world. President Serdar Berdimuhamedow’s emphasis on continuity in his post-election address, coupled with the fact that no cabinet ministers were replaced (except the addition of Serdar Berdimuhamedow’s replacement), shows that the former president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, calls the shots in his capacity as Arkadag, or guardian. Therefore, the country’s relations with Turkey and Uzbekistan are expected to remain the same.

All in all, the presidents of Turkey and Uzbekistan, which represent the two geographical extremes of the Turkic world, must have discussed not only bilateral issues but also regional and international developments. Any steps that those nations shall take, whether on a bilateral basis or through the Organization of Turkic States, to adopt and implement common policies could be a precursor to more prominent efforts in the future.

Whereas Turkey represents a gateway to the West for Uzbekistan, Turkey sees Uzbekistan as a gateway to the East. The history, identity, and cultural ties between those countries lay the groundwork for a stronger relationship between their governments and peoples. Indeed, their respective geographical locations and the fact that their economies complement each other have the potential to be the driving force behind the bilateral relationship. Furthermore, the two countries have similar perspectives on the international system and the region as well as pursue similar goals. That is why the establishment of bilateral and multilateral bodies, as well as the development of essential networks between those organizations, would create a win-win scenario for Turkey and Uzbekistan as well as other countries in the region.

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