While Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is focused on the upcoming snap elections on June 24, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a historic visit to Uzbekistan in early May. Uzbekistan-Turkey relations reached its zenith in the 1990s shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan became an obvious target for Turkish soft power. Since the beginning of the 2000s, however, the bilateral relationship between Ankara and Tashkent deteriorated, in part because of the isolationist policy of then-President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov and also in part because of ideological differences and the fact that exiled opposition leader Muhammad Salih resided in Turkey.
When President Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed power in Uzbekistan, hope arose for rapprochement. In February 2018, Turkey was one of the countries granted visa-free access to Uzbekistan, which has the potential to become a significant tourist destination as it is home to well-known Islamic cultural monuments like the Registan and the homeland of scholars like Imam al-Bukhari, Abu Mansur Maturidi, and Bahauddin Naqshband.
During his visit to Tashkent, Erdogan stressed the importance of good relations with Uzbekistan, noting, “In our meeting today, we have taken steps to strengthen the infrastructure of our strategic partnership.” Uzbekistan possesses significant importance for Turkey due to its historical legacy, geostrategic location (proximity to Russia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), and critical natural resources. Moreover, Uzbekistan is the cultural cradle of Turko-Islamic history.
Numerous agreements on investment projects were signed during Erdogan’s trip. In total, 23 agreements on cooperation in economy, trade, transport and logistics, energy, science, education, tourism, and other spheres were settled. Agreements worth some $3 billion on over 50 new investment projects are expected to be signed during the Uzbek-Turkey business forum in Tashkent.
Notably, a number of agreements were inked during the meeting between the two presidents, but an agreement concerning the rights of labor migrants in Turkey was probably the most significant. Each year a huge number of Uzbek migrants leave the country seeking jobs in Russia, Turkey, and China. However, the cost of living in Russia has risen with last year’s introduction of a new work permit. Obtaining the document requires migrants to undergo a battery of tests for HIV, tuberculosis, drug addiction, and skin diseases. Permit holders must also buy health insurance, get a taxpayer identification number, and pass an exam testing their knowledge of Russian language, history, and laws. This process has to be completed within a month or applicants can face a fine of 10,000 rubles. With these changes, Turkey’s big cities — Istanbul, Antalya, Izmir, and so on — are becoming more popular destinations for Uzbek laborers.
Ankara’s eagerness to boost cooperation with Uzbekistan should not come as a surprise, as the country with a population of 32 million is a comparably large consumer market for Turkish state and private companies. Erdogan was accompanied by a large delegation of businessmen from various fields and eight ministers. According to Erdogan, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) eyes to invest up to $60 million in social projects in Uzbekistan in the near future. TIKA has implemented hundreds of projects in Uzbekistan since 1993 across a wide range of areas. As reported by the Andalou Agency, as of the first quarter of 2018 TIKA says it had 725 projects in Uzbekistan.
Nevertheless, the business environment in Uzbekistan for Turkish companies has not always been smooth. In 2012, Uzbek authorities intensified their campaign to contain Turkey’s influence in the country. At least 54 Turkish entrepreneurs were detained, while 50 Turkish companies in Uzbekistan were closed.
However, the reforms initiated by Mirziyoyev to liberalize the economy and create favorable conditions for business appear to be bearing fruit. The volume of bilateral trade between Turkey and Uzbekistan in 2017 amounted to $1.5 billion and both sides aim to bring trade turnover to $5 billion in the coming years. Unlike his predecessor, Mirziyoyev seems happy to see the return of Turkish financial aid and investment. However, the deep and rapid integration of Turkey into Uzbekistan’s domestic market would be a source of concern for the latter.
The abovementioned snap elections also can be seen as another reason for reinvesting in bilateral relations with Tashkent. Prior to the critical parliament and presidential elections, Erdogan is keen to mobilize a nationalistic (pan-Turkish) segment of Turkey by demonstrating the normalization of relations with the Turkic world.
Fuad Shahbazov (@fuadshahbazov) is an independent analyst. He focuses on regional security issues in the South Caucasus and wider Eurasian regions.