Dr. Najam Abbas is a Senior Fellow focusing on Central and South Asia at the EastWest Institute, an international NGO.
By Najam Abbas
LONDON (AA) – Tashkent has embarked on an approach to open up the country for wider cooperation with its immediate neighbors, countries in the region, and in its wider surroundings. Departing from the self-imposed isolation practiced by late President Islam Karimov between 1991 and 2016, the country’s current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is probing a new paradigm of partnership through which he seeks to capitalize his outreach gestures to be preferably matched by Moscow by an outpouring of investment as well as a steady transfer of technologies and know-how.
Agreements reached between Russia and Uzbekistan over the past two years aim to create a legal basis for bilateral cooperation for the peacetime use of atomic energy which envisages: (1) the creation and development of infrastructure and training for Uzbekistan’s domestic nuclear power industry; (2) the construction of nuclear power plants and research reactors, as well as extending support throughout the operational period, (3) the exploration and development of Uzbekistan’s uranium deposits following the survey of its mineral raw material base; (4) recycling of uranium by-products; and (5) production of radioisotopes and their use in industry, medicine and agriculture, scientific and basic research.
As a country with a dynamically growing population, the demand for electricity is rising every year for 33 million people in Uzbekistan. Taking into account the energy challenges the country faces in the long term, the nuclear power plant will create “an opportunity to diversify the energy balance”, according to the Uzbek sources, citing the Russian Ambassador to Uzbekistan Vladimir Tyurdenev in Tashkent. The nuclear power plant is expected to meet up to 20 percent of the energy needs and will free up to an equivalent of 4 billion cubic meters of gas spent for producing electricity for domestic and regional markets to allow substantial earnings annually.
In this way, Uzbekistan, a Uranium-producing country, is seeking Russian cooperation to move further in technology, assure the transfer of know-how, build scientific capacity, and prepare the required personnel for the future. Under the agreement, Russia will help train the Uzbek personnel, who are needed to support the future demands of the evolving nuclear industry. As a first step, the first 15 Uzbek students — out of 326 applicants — have started their education at Moscow's Russia’s National Nuclear Studies University. Later, a branch of the Moscow Institute for Engineering and Physics will open in Uzbekistan to train personnel in the nuclear field. By holding the First Bilateral Academic Forum, the two countries are taking steps to expand academic cooperation at a more institutional level. The Russian heads of 80 institutions of higher education arrived in Tashkent to explore partnership possibilities with the heads of 80 counterpart institutions in Uzbekistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Tashkent for an official visit to Uzbekistan, will be announcing a go-ahead agreement for building a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan by the Russian Atomic Corporation Rosatom. The technical plans are being finalized to allow Russia and Uzbekistan to formally sign a detailed contract for the actual construction of the nuclear power plants in spring 2019, the Russian Agency of International Information cited Alexey Likhachev, Rosatom's head, as saying. Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s advisor, told reporters in Moscow that the plant will consist of VVER-1200 power unit reactors with increased power output — about 1200 MWe (gross) — meeting all the additional safety requirements of generation III + technology as per the intergovernmental agreement. “The first power unit will be put into operation in 2028,” he added. The estimated amount of the contract is reported to be about $11 billion.
The two countries have expressed interest in taking institutional measures to expand economic cooperation. For its part, Moscow is interested in reviving and reactivating the currently dormant defense cooperation to an active level. The two sides resumed joint military exercises in 2017 — following a 12-year break — as Tashkent took a step to reestablish military cooperation with Russia. However, Uzbekistan may still prefer to form the partnership with caution, but only if minimal obligations and liabilities remains for them. Tashkent tends to be calculating what it can gain the most within the ongoing circumstances to help advance its interest in the most optimal way.
Russia is encouraging Uzbekistan — a state with the largest population and army in Central Asia — to assume an active role to help stabilize Afghanistan to keep the region secure. “With regard to international issues, building up cooperation between the two countries within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will figure in the meeting as the presidents of Russia and Uzbekistan will discuss steps to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan,” said Ushakov. Russia has previously hinted about facilitating negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Tashkent is being considered as a possible platform for future negotiations. Ahmed Rakhmanov, a researcher at the Tashkent-based Center for Regional Security Studies, said: “The role of Uzbekistan in Afghanistan’s relations with Russia is very significant. Therefore, Uzbekistan’s cooperation is being sought for future.” Such an initiative is expected to allow Russia to increase its leverage as a peacebroker in the region.
Maxim Vilisov from Moscow’s Lomonosov University claims that “only Russia is best positioned to realistically provide security guarantees in the region. Only it is able to offer ground support there, as it has existing bases and required infrastructure.” Speaking to Russian English-language network RT, Vilisov added that “the United States today has no comparative facilities in Central Asia. While in theory, China could become an alternative defense ally, but so far it has not positioned itself as a security guarantor for other countries.”
This approach reflects a desire among some Russians to lure Uzbekistan back into regional economic and defense alliances steered by Moscow. For its part, Tashkent may prefer to respond with a balanced approach, maintaining its relations with China and the U.S. too.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.