Uzbekistan may be granted observer status at EEU

Victoria Panfilova, columnist of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, specially for Vestnik Kavkaza
Uzbekistan may be granted observer status at EEU

Uzbekistan is in the process of "reformatting relations with regional organizations," first deputy chairman of the Uzbek Senate Sadik Safaev commented on the possibility of Uzbekistan joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).  At the same time, he emphasized that "no pressure was exerted on Tashkent on this issue."

"Uzbekistan is not a country that can be dictated," Safayev said at a briefing on the outcome of Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko's visit to Uzbekistan last week.

Matvienko said that President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev decided to study the issue of the republic’s accession to the EEU, which will provide new opportunities for bilateral cooperation, as "certain obstacles and barriers in interstate relations will be removed." She expressed hope that the coordination process will not be delayed, especially since working groups have already been formed, both in Russia and Uzbekistan. Matvienko noted that Mirziyoyev understands the importance of the republic’s accession to the EEU, but he needs to weigh all possible risks before making a decision: "He considers the participation of Uzbekistan in the EEU to be extremely important, and he is right that a very serious analysis is required in order to accept final decision."

A Russian senator, Deputy Chair of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs Farit Mukhametshin, reporting to his colleagues at a committee meeting on October 7 following a trip to Tashkent, said that Uzbekistan can be granted an observer status at EEU in February next year. The issue will be discussed during Mirziyoyev's visit to Russia.

Statements by Russian representatives about the republic’s possible accession to the regional integration association have provoked heated discussions in Uzbekistan. Sadik Safaev recalled that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was the first to speak about the possibility of Uzbekistan joining the EEU, speaking to parliamentarians on June 24 . "It is not enough to produce quality products, it is much more difficult to find markets for it. Whether we like it or not, Russia and the EEU are our main partners, 70% of our trade involves them," the Uzbek leader said back then.

The president also spoke about the challenges that the republic will face. Uzbekistan will have to open borders, while Uzbek enterprises may be closed, not having time to adapt to the requirements of the EEU. "Our neighbors have gone far ahead. Soon they will switch to product labeling. We will lose in this market with our [not labeled] goods. We need to find the right way, analyze everything. Measure 10 times and make a decision," Mirziyoyev said.

Safaev also noted that "on August 1, 2019, a joint statement was signed with Belarus in Minsk, which will explore the possibilities of cooperation between Uzbekistan and the EEU based on the experience of Belarus." "So nothing new and resonant was heard. Our president is a strong and independent leader who acts solely on the basis of the interests of the Republic of Uzbekistan. That is why three years ago, the renewal of the Uzbek foreign policy has begun. It is now more open and pragmatic, less politicized and less idealized, rational," Safayev said. Therefore, according to the senator, the need arose to find a new format for cooperation. But, as Sadik Safayev noted, no pressure was exerted on Uzbekistan in this matter.

Uzbekistan's foreign policy after gaining state independence was based on two basic principles. The first is balanced equidistance from world centers of power. The second is the refusal to participate in multilateral integration associations and the emphasis on bilateral relations (military-technical, economic and others). These principles were enshrined in the Foreign Policy Concept, approved by the country's parliament in 2012. Tashkent has consistently adhered to these principles, giving preference to the development of bilateral ties.

Director of the Center for Research Initiatives 'Ma'no' Bakhtiyor Ergashev told Vestnik Kavkaza that Uzbekistan is experiencing certain difficulties in exporting industrial goods, in particular automobiles. If the republic joins the EEU, Uzbek producers will have equal access to the market of the EEU countries (primarily Russia and Kazakhstan). Exporters of fruits and vegetables, exporters of Uzbek textiles and footwear industry - the country has certain competitive advantages in these areas - will benefit. Even more comfortable conditions will be created for them - the volume of deliveries and revenue will increase. But, the whole point is that positive dynamics are observed now, within  bilateral cooperation. Especially since Tashkent and Moscow agreed and have already opened a "green corridor" for the export of Uzbek agricultural products.

Experts point out that upon entry of Uzbekistan into the EEU, conditions for migrant workers will improve. More than 2.5 million Uzbek citizens currently work in the Russian Federation. These people will receive certain privileges when applying for a job, while the republic will receive money transfers. Uzbekistan is the leader in this indicator among the Central Asian countries. Access to Russian investment resources and technologies will also be gained. Although the main investment so far comes to Uzbekistan from China.

But it's got its downsides. Undoubtedly, there will be a strong influx of Russian goods into the republic. The annual turnover between Russia and Uzbekistan is just over $4 billion. Of these, exports from Uzbekistan to Russia hardly reach $1 billion, and the rest is imports of Russian products. The same goes to imbalances in trade with Kazakhstan. The EEU will only strengthen these processes. According to Bakhtiyor Ergashev, one of the options for cooperation could be the formation of the EEU - Uzbekistan free trade zone.