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Re-election of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev heralds closer India-Uzbekistan ties

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (Photo by Zafar Khalilov/Xinhua/IANS)

The re-election of Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev in polls held on July 9 is of significance for both Uzbekistan and India. Though there had been some surprise at the snap elections called within two years of presidential elections held in 2019, the reasons are sound enough.

Mirziyoyev has been a pioneer of major economic and social reforms since he took over the cudgel in 2016 from his predecessor Islam Karimov.

As Uzbekistan came into its own, Mirziyoyev embarked on a path of gradually opening up the country. There have been major economic reforms to attract trade and investment, important for a country sitting on piles of natural resources but double landlocked for whom connectivity is an issue, promote entrepreneurship, create an echo-system to encourage startups, and pitch the country at a manufacturing hub. At the same time the government is also guaranteeing private property, and opening up the country socially and culturally. And the reforms are bearing fruits.

For instance, one million Uzbeks were brought out of poverty because of vocational training and skill development at the mahalla or grassroots level. According to a survey conducted by the Center of Economic Research and Reforms (CERR), the Statistics Agency under the President and the World Bank, by the end of 2022, the poverty rate in Uzbekistan decreased by 3 per cent compared to the previous year and amounted to 14.1 per cent whereas in 2021 it was 17 per cent. If Uzbekistan ranked 93rd in the Global Innovation Index in 2020, then in 2022 it ranked 82nd. The country boasts a literacy rate of more than 93 per cent and in the Social Progress Index, which takes into account the basic needs, well-being and opportunities for human development, Uzbekistan rose by 11 positions from 2020 to 2022 and took 91st place out of 169 countries, overtaking China, which took 94th place.

The recent constitutional changes, endorsed by a country-wide referendum, seek to make Uzbekistan a welfare state. The new constitution proclaims “Uzbekistan is a sovereign, democratic, rule-of-law, social and secular state with a republican form of government.” With the economy growing because of the reforms, there is also more fund allocation for social and public welfare. Top of Form Mirziyoyev’s re-election is, therefore, significant as it reflects endorsement for and continuity in the reforms and initiatives that he has introduced, which can now be expected to continue uninterrupted for the next seven years.

The elections took place in a backdrop of openness and transparency, here all political parties and their candidates were allowed equal and sufficient time and space to communicate with the people about their agendas and programs. Election observers from more than 40 different countries including India, whose Election Commissioner Mr. Anup Chandra Pandey was also part of the observation mission, together with observer missions from organizations like the OSCE and SCO were present across the country which has an almost 20 million strong electorate.

Why are these elections significant for India?

India has identified Central Asia as a strategically important region. In the region Uzbekistan is the most populous and important country. Uzbekistan is India’s strategic partner and Mirziyoyev has been the architect for closer Indo-Uzbek relations. An admirer of both India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mirziyoyev has visited India twice, has held a virtual summit with Modi, and hosted him last year when Uzbekistan hosted the SCO summit of heads of state in Samarkand.

Trying to chart an independent course of development for Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev looks to India for expertise and know-how, capacity building and skill development.

For instance, education is a priority for the government and it is keen to invite experts from across the globe. India is one of the countries present in this sector. It has opened an IT park and campuses of Amity University and Sharda University are fully functioning in Uzbekistan now. It is similar for the health sector, another high priority area for the Uzbek government. Thousands of Uzbeks travel to India every year for treatment and Medanta and Akash Hospitals have opened up their branches in Tashkent. A number of Indian pharmaceutical companies have opened manufacturing lines in that country. Impressed by Modi’s “Fit India” campaign Mirziyoyev assigned his health minister to travel to India to learn more about the campaign to emulate it back home. Both countries are working to take bilateral trade to $ 1 billion.

Bottom of Form

With Mirziyoyev’s reelection, reforms in Uzbekistan will be able to run their course and thus relations with India can be expected to continue along the trajectory they have till now.

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Uzbekistan, as much as its geography allows, has tried to steer an autonomous path for itself. While economically linked to Russia, it is neither a part of the Moscow-led military alliance Collective Security Treaty Organisation, nor the Eurasian Economic Union. It tries to pursue what it calls a “multi-vectoral” policy, which corresponds to India’s multi-aligned policy. Not wanting to exchange Soviet dominance with a Chinese one, many Uzbek analysts believe that India should play a bigger role in the region. The gradual opening up and emocratization of Uzbek polity also heralds closer relations with India as Uzbekistan can learn from India’s experience. Delegates from Uzbekistan have been participating in the International Election Visitors Programmes (IEVP) of the Election Commission of India (ECI) organised during elections and officials from Uzbekistan have been attending training programmes at ECI under the ITEC programme.

With India seeking to expand its footprint in the region, Uzbekistan offers a valuable partnership, becoming the foothold from where India can access the other markets and countries of the region. But first, a congratulatory message to President Mirziyoyev from India is in order.