Europe has been engaged with Central Asia for decades but often with mixed results. Now is the European Union opening a new and more dynamic chapter in its relations with the region, and especially with a changing Uzbekistan? The country’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, recently visited France, where he was enthusiastically embraced as "un président réformiste.” But President Mirziyoyev is seeking a close partnership not just with France, or with the EU for that matter, but with each of the EU's member states. VOA's Navbahor Imamova explores these dynamics with Ambassador Eduards Stiprais, the EU's top diplomat in Tashkent.
Tashkent, September 14, 2018:
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What I've been hearing a lot in Tashkent for the past three weeks are the talks about these high expectations from the international community, specifically from the West and specifically from the European Union. And at times it seems to us, observers, that perhaps Uzbekistan is expecting too much. Maybe they want more than what the European Union can offer or wants to offer.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: First of all, welcome! Welcome to my office and it's a pleasure to see you, as a renowned journalist. And yes, for the moment, you are the only one accredited from the outside [West].
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Hopefully there will be more.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Looking forward, including some European ones. But starting with the first part of your question, and what we expect of Uzbekistan. I want say that we do not expect anything more than Uzbekistan subscribed itself to: Starting from all those international conventions and treaties to which Uzbekistan is a part, as s member of the United Nations, as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. I mean, those are issues related to the rule of law, to democratic freedoms, to human rights. And also to issues related to good neighborhood relations, and we see enormous progress in all of those fields... One could say, yes about the economic system. I mean, this is a free choice of any country what mode of market economy to embrace.
... we do not expect anything more than Uzbekistan subscribed itself to.
There could be a completely free roller market economy like probably the United States and some other countries, and there are some which still pursue certain social elements. I wouldn't say social, but elements of social responsibility within the market economy which is more like the European model. So, it's up to Uzbekistan to decide which to follow. But one thing is once Uzbekistan subscribes to something, it's very important that it follows it.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: For the longest time what we heard from the EU were the set of recommendations to the Uzbek government, Uzbekistan must do this... Uzbekistan should do this... Uzbekistan has to take this path. And now that narrative seems to have changed because I'm listening to you and you pretty much want or wish the Uzbek government, the Uzbek people to choose their own path, that the EU is there to support in any way it seems possible, obviously based on its own interests. But you're not pushing the regime or the system to do the kind of things, for example, previously the EU wanted: please follow your international obligations when it comes to human rights, please follow this path which will take you to more transparency, rule of law. The rule of law and human rights were the mantra of the EU.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: I mean, still it is.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Is it?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: And this is exactly what I said. We are not expecting from Uzbekistan anything more than that.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The way you're promoting those things has changed though.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: No, I would say the way how Uzbekistan is listening to all these message has changed.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, Uzbekistan has changed?
... the way how Uzbekistan is listening to all these message has changed.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Yes. The message is the same and actually when you see discussions going on, in the European parliament, yes, there is appreciation of enormous progress achieved. Of course, there is a long way still to go. And this is something which is also quite well understood by professionals, including in the Uzbek parliament, in Oliy Majlis, and in the senate, people within the government, the Ministry of Justice. They understand. I must say, some very bold steps have been taken, but that's just the beginning of the long road. What we see, for example, with the cotton harvest, very hot issue over the last 10-12 years, was a enormous progress. But we see that probably for the first time, for last two years, we have has really honest discussions with the government. There's no more denial, yes.
I mean, at first it was the child labor, now the forced labor. 3-5 years ago, there would be a complete denial of the existence of these problems. Now we see people including the President, including the Prime Minister, recently commenting on those issues. And instead of denying the existence of the problem, they are actually actively seeking practical solutions.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I know you've been here for two years, so you know the system. You're very active in Tashkent. What do you say to those who say, "You know what, don't just be the observers, the EU, push the system to do more. Push the system, seize the momentum, and push it to accelerate the reforms." Because some critics see the United Nations and the EU as just cheer-leading the process. You're not really committing to do much, they say. You're happy with the way the government has been acting and the messaging from the system, but you're not necessarily pushing. They want you to push for more, for more change.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: The big question would be what we consider by pushing. I think the times of that kind of diplomacy are gone, when you push another country to do this or that... I think that is over. Unless there is the major breach of international peace and order, then you have to employ hard measures.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The tools.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Yes, including international sanctions and things like that. I don't think that we should push anybody, that any government in the world should push any other government to do something. You can encourage, and you can encourage a positive message, so that if you do this or that it will bring this or that positive consequence for you.
I don't think that we should push anybody, that any government in the world should push any other government to do something.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You're from Latvia.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Yes...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: ... a country which has had successful reforming experience, and I'm sure you get asked about that a lot here. Obviously people know more about Latvia here than others' experiences in the European Union. What could Uzbekistan, both public and the government, learn from your experience, both from mistakes and success stories?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: I would say one issue which is quite important and where we see that probably a better concentration of effort is needed is coordination. Coordination on how do you deal with the international community which is willing to assist Uzbekistan in its reform process. We are not going to come and to do something instead of the Uzbek people. But we can assist. We are willing, and there is a need. And there is a need, including on passing on that knowledge that we gathered on various reforms, probably developing necessary skills here in Uzbekistan to cope with the challenges of the modern world with globalization. And, of course, sometimes there is also a need to develop some very specific infrastructure to work with that.
We are not going to come and to do something instead of the Uzbek people. But we can assist.
However, I must say that the lack of money is not the major problem here. It's a rather know-how - how to work with that money, how to make money to work. I mean, this is one of the major issues and that concerns both the public and the private sector. With the public sector, yes, this is the issue related to absorption capacity or that international assistance which is readily available starting from providing a list of priorities or prioritizing issues which should be tackled first, second and so. Then looking for the best available external assistance. I'm not saying that we in the European Union can provide answers to all questions. No, not at all. I think there's a good deal to be learned from the United States, from Japan, from South Korea, from Singapore, even from Russia, why not? So, it could be combined.
When we speak about the private sector, unfortunately, the country for last 25 years lived in the isolation. So, many businesses which were developed within the country eere completely shielded from external competition. Now they are going to be exposed. And in order to survive, they have to learn, they have to learn how to compete, to adopt the best management practices.
Some practical skills, including marketing and things like that. We have a very successful management training program here which we run together with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in all regions of Uzbekistan. We trained over 600 managers from small and medium sized companies. More than 130 of those had their internships in the EU companies.
... where we see that probably a better concentration of effort is needed is coordination.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The European Union is still a major trade partner, right?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Yes, it's quite a significant one, we are in third- fourth place depending on trade statistics.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And how much investment has come in, let's say, for the past two years?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: It's difficult to say. It's still quite...
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Not much.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: It's still quite a small amount. And of course this is an issue of trust. This is an issue of trust because modern investments coming with latest technologies. So those are considerable amounts of money. And people, before they commit that amount of money to a particular country, they want to be absolutely sure that their investment will be protected. That they will have an opportunity to actually expatriate their profits. Unfortunately, the track record of Uzbekistan over previous 20 or so years is not that good. And it will take sometime to break this ice.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: To build trust.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Exactly, exactly. Of course, the government is doing quite a lot. Those legal reforms undertaken are very important. Legislation to support businesses, to simplify the tax rules, to actually simplify employment also, and things like that. Those are very important. But then, of course, the big question is whether those laws will be observed.
And again, when we speak about the rule of law and how Uzbek courts in the past followed laws over the adopted, I would say that there is a very uneven track record here. It will take sometime to spread the good news among investors. Of course, being an optimist by nature, I must say that those who are coming now probably are going to gain more because, yes, high risk also bring high profits.
... the big question is whether those laws will be observed.
So, those who are in the more adventurous types of business people, they're already coming or probably we may speak about some big multinationals with deep pockets who can come and I see opportunities here. I see opportunities.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Looking at the bigger picture, if you're sitting, if you're a policy maker in Brussels, and are looking at Uzbekistan from that vantage point, why would you care about this country or the region in general? What is the strategic importance of this area for the EU now?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: The role that Uzbekistan and Central Asia is playing I think is best described by the very name, central, Central Asia. It's in the middle of the Eurasian continent. And if something bad happens here, it's going to affect the entire continent. And this is absolutely clear to everybody.
It's also the region is exposed to very, should I say, volatile neighborhood to the south. We have Afghanistan with ongoing war for almost 40 years. I mean, this is something we must keep in mind. So, stability and prosperity of this region is extremely important. And what we see over last two years this is steady movement towards increased stability, towards good neighborly relations between countries of the region. Also, for growing prosperity, yes, stability, security but also possibility to build connectivity within the region and between this region and adjacent regions on the continent.
Here if you look at the map of Central Asia and, of course, the key piece of the puzzle is Uzbekistan because if you take it out then no connectivity is possible. And we see that those developments which are taking place in Uzbekistan are positively affecting the situation in Tajikistan which otherwise is almost isolated from the rest of the world.
Here if you look at the map of Central Asia and, of course, the key piece of the puzzle is Uzbekistan because if you take it out then no connectivity is possible.
We see how it affects opportunities, business opportunities in Turkmenistan too. We see how it affects economic development in Southern Kazakhstan now, bordering regions of Kyrgyzstan around the Ferghana Valley. So, it's the snowball effect going well beyond Uzbekistan's borders. So, it is important and that's why the European Union is going to support regional projects, including connectivity, including easing border crossing both for people and for goods within the Central Asia and from Central Asia to the rest of the world.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Several years ago when I interviewed a member of the European parliament and I don't quite remember his name, but he was from the Great Britain and he had just visited Uzbekistan. He had had a hard time engaging with the Uzbek officials. He called Uzbekistan a basket case. And this was about 10 years ago. I know your job is, one part of it is to engage the Uzbek political circles here but then your other job is also to keep Brussels and the European Union, in general, informed about what's happening in Uzbekistan.
I'm raising this point because has it gotten easier to explain Uzbekistan or how has the narrative changed about Uzbekistan? How do you describe the country to your colleagues out there in Europe?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: I would say that a country I arrived two years ago, almost day-to-day... Now those are two different countries.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So much, huh?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Yes. Yes. Especially you see it when you are living through what is happening here.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And listening.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: And listening indeed, and watching with your own eyes. I mean, without relying that much on the interpretation of some very good journalists, I must say.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And also on expert views perhaps.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Yes... I must say those are two different countries. Also, speaking on possibility to have a meaningful dialogue with the government, it increased enormously. We're moving more and more away from the small talk or just keeping to prescribed notes or things towards really lively discussions, bringing up the most difficult issues and not avoiding them.
We are discussing as equal partners... The level of discussion, the level of openness has changed enormously.
Of course, we're not using what's sometimes called megaphone diplomacy, just exchange of official statements or blaming. You know, somebody blaming one side and the other side is then declining those accusations, thing like that. No, no. I mean, we aren't just discussing. We are discussing as equal partners. And I think this is one of the most important issues. And it's not only us, the European union. What I hear from my colleagues including from the US Ambassador and others. The level of discussion, the level of openness has changed enormously.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And that challenges you and other diplomats too, right? Because now you're dealing with the changing dynamics, you're dealing with a lot of unexpected developments, positive, hopefully in many ways. But still there are new challenges and it obviously challenges us too, as journalists, because the country is changing, so we have to cover it differently, right?
Is there, I know the international community in Tashkent maybe is not as big or as wide as we want it to be, but is there any integrated, consolidated approach? How closely do you work with others in trying to shape your position on things?
We would like to see the [Uzbek] government much more involved in actually coordinating international community here.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Yes, at least what concerns the reform process, and international support. We, on our side, together with the United Nations Development Program with Ms Fraser [UN rep in Tashkent) and with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and some other major donors, we are setting up our own network, aligning goals and positions as much as possible. Of course, we would like to see this process rather being run with the Uzbek government.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And you assisting?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Yes, we also pass that message that we would like to see the government much more involved in actually coordinating international community here.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You know, Ambassador, people here in Tashkent have described you as a new blood diplomat. They see you as a leader here, and they see you as an active listener. They like working with you, they've told me. And this is not just coming from diplomats, but also from different parts of the Uzbek government. The question about the new blood in Uzbekistan too is asked a lot. In a place like Washington, for example: Do we have a new generation in Uzbekistan? Have they taken over? How much influence do they have? What can they do? What would you say to those who are really curious about this.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: I mean, one thing is don't judge about the young blood just from the-
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: From their age?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: ... from their age. You could be young in your soul.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: True.
Uzbekistan is full of hidden talent.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Even when you're almost 50 like I am. So, I would say the young blood here in Uzbekistan, yes, it's both, it's both generational, but it's also in terms of how people see the world and how they act. Whether they are used to be simply executing somebody's else decisions and orders, or they're prepared also to take decisions on their own appropriate level. Whether they are prepared to deliver their own opinion, to argue even with their superiors. I mean, this is something that would make a major watershed between the older generation which was used to the 100% talk-down approach, and being their risk-averse.
Is this new generation prepared to embrace a new challenge, not just to face it, but actually to turn it around and make it into a major asset? I would say, yes, I see quite a lot of that. The new generation in terms of running this country, both in public sector but also in private sector. Uzbekistan is full of hidden talent, I must say. The only problem until very recently was that to show it wasn't always a good thing. To be successful probably was not that open.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And that is still the modus operandi.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Yes, of course, it's something which is based very much in the history of the civilization which is very oriental in a sense that in this typical farmers and citizens' society which goes back for millennia. Living together and the common good were always placed higher than individual free will. So, to blend in, not to stick out was the golden rule. And this is very much like in other oriental societies like Chinese or Japanese, this is quite typical.
So, now we see some elements of this, one could say, yes, Western influence or European influence... But success is something which should be celebrated and should not be feared.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Right, and discussed about.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: And discussed about.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And shown.
... success is something which should be celebrated and should not be feared.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Because success stories shall serve as inspiration to others to go beyond the usual, beyond the average. I see those kind of people and some are in public and they're promoted. And this is a good thing. At the same time, I hope that the best elements of the traditional oriental approach which is the close-knit family relations, the system of neighborhood support, they will stay, that they will not disappear. But on top of that, having those success stories is very important. And why? Because indeed this is a matter of surviving in globalized world. I mean, you need champions, national champions to get your country forward.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And they need to come, you not only need to produce them but they need to be able to come out and say who they are.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Exactly.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And show their faces, and be known and it's okay, right?
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: They should not be afraid.
... you need champions, national champions to get your country forward.
Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I really meant it when I said at the beginning that we not only did not have access to the Uzbek political circles but also to the international community in Tashkent. Because whenever we wanted an interview, we would get answers like, "Things are very sensitive here. We don't really talk." And I heard that many times from the EU diplomats.
So, I know things have changed because I'm here in your office face-to-face with you, asking all these questions and I really appreciate your candid responses. Thank you so much.
Ambassador Eduards Stiprais: Thank you for coming.