Erdoğan to visit Uzbekistan in further sign of improving ties

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will visit Uzbekistan on April 29th to meet with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The visit is a further sign of strengthening relations between both countries. Since the death of long-time Uzbek president Islam Karimov in August 2016, the pair have met five times. In October 2017, Mirziyoyev became the first Uzbek president in 18 years to pay an official visit to Turkey.

Relations between Turkey and Uzbekistan flourished immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Turkey was the first country to recognize Uzbek independence. Karimov became the first Central Asian president to visit Ankara in December 1991, vowing to emulate the “Turkish route” of secular political development and proposing a common market for Turkic-speaking states.

But relations turned sour after the Turkish government refused to extradite Uzbek opposition leader Muhammad Solih in 1993, citing human rights concerns. In response, Karimov called 1,400 students studying in Turkey to return home. After Turkey refused to extradite two suspects in a terrorist attack in Tashkent in 1999, Uzbekistan cancelled the visa-free regime between the countries and closed down the Gülen schools in the country. Relations suffered further after Turkey backed the United Nation’s condemnation of the Andijan massacre, in which the Uzbek government killed over 1,000 protesters in May 2005.  Uzbekistan refused to join the Turkish-led Turkic Council in 2009.

Although Turkey became the third largest export destination for Uzbekistan, mostly consisting of cotton, Turkish investors suffered as a result of tensions. In 2011, Uzbek police raided the offices of the Turkuaz hypermarket accusing the Turkish company of tax evasion. The government confiscated the company’s property and deporting dozens of businessmen.  A year later, Uzbek state television aired documentary alleging that Turkish entrepreneurs running illegal sweatshops.

Under Karimov, Uzbekistan became one of the most closed, authoritarian states in the world. Since Karimov’s death, Uzbekistan has been moving away from its isolationist path, rebuilding ties with its neighbors and external partners such as Russia and China. Mirziyoyev has dismissed powerful security chief Rustam Inoyatov who kept a stranglehold over important sectors of the economy, introduced currency reforms and made efforts to increase connectivity with neighboring states in Central Asia.

Relations with Turkey have improved as a result of this new openness towards cooperation in Uzbekistan. Erdoğan signaled his desire to rebuild ties after Karimov’s death, travelling to the country in November 2016. In October 2017, Mirziyoyev re-introduced visa-free travel between the countries. Turkey and Uzbekistan have struck trade and investment deals worth $5.5 billion, covering agriculture, transport, energy and construction. Bilateral trade increased by 32 percent in 2017, the second largest increase in trade for Uzbekistan that year. Turkish capital is now invested over 700 companies in Uzbekistan, with 20 new Turkish businesses registering in the country in 2017. Turkish companies have become heavily invested in construction contracts in neighbouring states like Turkmenistan. Since 1991, Turkish contractors have completed 110 projects in Uzbekistan, worth a total of $1 billion.

As Uzbekistan embarks on an ambitious urban redevelopment, Turkish companies look set to benefit. The contract to build the $1 billion Tashkent City business complex has been awarded to Turkey’s Tabanlıoğlu Architects.

More economic deals can be expected to result from the latest meeting on April 29th. Mirziyoyev has set the target of increasing trade, currently under $1.5 billion, to over $5 billion in the coming years. Mirziyoyev is cautiously opening Uzbekistan to outside investment, hoping to emulate states like China and Kazakhstan that have seen economic growth without the need for extensive political reform. External partners such as Turkey play a key role in his vision for the future and his legitimacy as president.