Author: Elchin HUSEYNOV
The 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan will take place in October. These former Soviet republics established official relations as independent states on October 2, 1995. The Uzbek embassy to Baku opened in July 1998. Bakhrom Ashrafkhanov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan, told us about the level of cooperation between the two countries over a quarter century of diplomatic relations. His Excellency kindly agreed to answer our questions.
"Mr. Ambassador, you became the head of the diplomatic mission of Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan recently. What are your first impressions of your stay in Baku?"
"From the first day of my stay in Azerbaijan, it is not only the traditional hospitality of the ancient Azerbaijani people that impressed me but also a special feeling of warmth, friendship and respect of your people.
“We see the deep roots of your respect to the Uzbek people in the historical commonality of our traditions, language, culture and religion, as well as in the similarity of long-term national interests and strategic tasks that our peoples face currently.
“I can also see that today Azerbaijan is a state that, despite the harsh realities of our time, takes firm and confident steps to implement programs for economic development, diversification, and effective use of the richest resources of the country under the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev. A powerful industrial foundation has been created in Azerbaijan based on modern technologies. Azerbaijan also expands its export potential to integrate into the world markets. Azerbaijan has become one of the most important transport and logistics hubs in the region using its geographical and geostrategic position. Of course, the main objective of all these efforts is to increase the level and quality of population’s life.”
"In October, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. What was the progress of bilateral relations during this period? How do you assess the current level of bilateral relationships?"
"Before answering your question, let me tell you that one of the important and priority directions of Uzbekistan's foreign policy is the strengthening of partnership with Azerbaijan, which is a key state in the South Caucasus.
“Over the past 25 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, much has been done to promote interstate relations. Today we can confidently say that relations between Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan have developed in close and fraternal vein. We have been able to expand our political contacts at the highest level, as well as the pace of development in trade, economic, transport, communication, cultural, humanitarian and other spheres.
“Since 1991, there have been six high-level visits between our countries. Our leaders held a large number of meetings at international level, the last of which took place in October 2019 in Baku when President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev attended the summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking States.
“Over 130 documents have been signed between Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. Among them are the 1996 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, as well as the 2004 Declaration on the Further Strengthening of Strategic Partnership.
“The intensive high-level dialogue started in 2017 contributed to the active exchange of delegations. Over the past three years, more than 40 high-level visits have taken place between our countries, including Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov to Baku to participate in the opening ceremony of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway in October 2017.
“Joint friendship groups work in both parliaments. As part of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, our groups on inter-parliamentary relations recently held an online meeting.
“In 1998, the Intergovernmental Commission (IGC) on Cooperation was created, which has already held 10 meetings. Currently, we work on the organisation of the eleventh meeting in this format.
“We feel proud to have the magnificent monuments to the prominent Uzbek poet, educator and statesman Alisher Navoi and the famous Azerbaijani poet and thinker Nizami Ganjavi in Baku and Tashkent, respectively. One of the central streets of Baku is named after the great Uzbek scientist-astronomer Mirzo Ulugbek.
“In addition, in 2010, the Heydar Aliyev Azerbaijan Cultural Centre was opened in Tashkent, while one of the capital streets was named after the national leader of Azerbaijan.
“An equally important fact is the close cooperation of our countries in international organisations. We unequivocally and firmly support each other's positions on various issues and problems. In this context, Uzbekistan has been firmly and invariably supporting a peaceful, political solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We believe that ensuring the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan is the main condition for resolving the problem.”
“Given the mutual support of Baku and Tashkent in international organisations, what is the position of Uzbekistan on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the ongoing counter-offensive operation of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces?”
“The escalation of tension in relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia causes extreme concern in Uzbekistan. The use of military force can lead to numerous casualties on both sides.
“The Uzbek side reaffirms the importance of strengthening relations of friendship, good-neighbourly relations and mutual trust, as well as the peaceful resolution of controversial issues among the CIS states strictly in accordance with the norms of international law.
“We believe that the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should take place in compliance with the principles of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.”
"What is the potential of our countries to build up relationships across the entire spectrum of cooperation? How does the pandemic affect this collaboration?"
"This is a very important issue. Indeed, our countries have a large unclaimed potential in a variety of areas. I am sure that full and active use of this potential will have a positive effect on the dynamics of the further development of mutually beneficial ties between our countries.
In terms of trade and economic cooperation, last year it grew by 55.7% reaching $73.4 million.
“Despite the global economic crisis, bilateral trade between Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan continues to demonstrate positive development dynamics. In particular, in the first half of 2020, the volume of bilateral trade increased by 77.7% ($47.5 million).
“Undoubtedly, these indicators do not reflect the real unleashed potential of our countries.
“As to the second part of your question, I am happy to note that we have managed to achieve certain success in terms of identifying new mechanisms to promote mutually beneficial ties despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, on June 9-12, the Made in Uzbekistan Online business forum was held online with the participation of representatives of the official and business circles of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. During the event, the representatives of Azerbaijan could learn about a wide range of Uzbek products in various fields, including agricultural, textile, electrical, automotive and mining industries.
“The results of the business forum exceeded all expectations. More than 50 Uzbek manufacturers of export-oriented products have established contacts with the representatives of more than 100 Azerbaijani companies.
“Considering the wishes of local entrepreneurs, an online highly specialised business forum Made in Uzbekistan Textile was held on August 25-September 2, 2020.
“The program of the event included intensive B2B meetings. In particular, 29 Uzbek manufacturers of export-oriented textile products have established contacts with 20 buyers, distributors, specialists of garment enterprises, ateliers, representatives of retail trade networks, as well as potential investors from Azerbaijan. More than 70 meetings were held in the course of the event.”
"Tashkent has repeatedly expressed its interest in cooperation with Azerbaijan as part of the international transport projects, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars, North-South, Baku International Sea Trade Port. What are the plans for possible cooperation?"
"Uzbekistan, like Azerbaijan, is taking confident steps towards the development of new international routes. In this context, we are grateful that the Azerbaijani side is making a lot of efforts to establish transport corridors and modern necessary infrastructure. In terms of optimisation and diversification of export-import routes, these corridors will be useful not only for Uzbekistan, but also for other Central Asian countries because the routes from Central Asia through the Caspian Sea and further through the Caucasus are gaining special relevance due to the growing volume of transported goods.
“We also believe that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars transport corridor and the commissioning of the Baku International Port open the way to the markets of various continents. There is a certain understanding on the use of these communications between the Uzbek and Azerbaijani sides. Both countries conduct active negotiations to develop coordinated approaches and conditions to increase the traffic flow.”
"Uzbekistan, unlike other Central Asian countries, does not have direct access to open seas and undeveloped markets. How does this affect the investment attractiveness of the country? What are you planning to do to create even more favorable investment opportunities for strategic investors?"
"I will try to answer your question through the prism of Uzbek-Azerbaijani relations. As of August 1, 2020, 195 enterprises with Azerbaijani capital operate in Uzbekistan, of which 69 are joint ventures and 126 have 100% foreign capital. In the first half of 2020, 19 new enterprises were established in Uzbekistan.
“These companies are mainly involved in trade, mechanical engineering and metalworking, finance, insurance, real estate, energy, services, jewelry production and repair, food industry, textile industry. Along with manufacturing companies, we also have high-tech companies involved in AI development, informatisation, e-government, etc.
“Representative offices of Uzbekistan Airways JSC, Uzavtoprom JSC, which is the leading manufacturer of a wide range of passenger cars in Uzbekistan, operate in Azerbaijan. There is also a representative office of ARTEL specialised in the production of high-quality and competitive electrical products.
“However, the above statistical data on joint ventures and operating companies do not reflect the full potential of our countries. We also work on the establishment of new joint ventures focused on the production of various types of products.
“No less promising is the investment cooperation. Seizing this opportunity I would like to note that today under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan pays special attention to creating a favorable business environment for foreign investors. Currently, Uzbekistan has the most favorable conditions for starting a business and making investments. It is not only about liberalisation of economy, but also about the qualifications and hard work of the Uzbek people.
“I would also like to draw your attention to the Investment Policy Strategy of the Republic of Uzbekistan until 2025 approved in January 2020 by the Cabinet of Ministers.
“The priority of the new investment policy of Uzbekistan is the reorientation from financing traditional, mainly extractive industries to investing in knowledge-intensive high-tech sectors of the economy, introducing modern technologies for the production of high-quality and competitive products, works and services on world markets.
“Remarkably, the large-scale transformations in the national economy and investment policy also raise the interest of Azerbaijani investors in Uzbekistan. At present, seven projects worth about $80 million are implemented through our embassy in the regions of Andijan, Bukhara, Kashkadarya, Syrdarya and Fergana, as well as in the city of Tashkent. Also, a number of investment projects cover the areas of construction, agriculture, energy, ICT, food, and so on.
“Considering the current intensification of cooperation between Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, we hope that these indicators will continue to grow.”
"Tourism has become one of the most significant and promising for both Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. What do you think both countries can present to the world and to each other? Is it possible to develop a partnership in this direction?"
"Undoubtedly, the development of cooperation tourism is one of the main priorities on our agenda. As you know, thanks to its location in the heart of Central Asia and at the crossroads of the Great Silk Road, Uzbekistan is a country with ancient history. There are 7,300 cultural heritage sites in the republic, which is over 90% of all historical monuments in the region. More than 500 of them are included in tourist routes. Among the main pearls are the monuments in Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva and Shahrisabz.
“President Mirziyoyev initiated major reforms in the sector of tourism. The government also takes active measures to increase the tourist potential of the country, including the promotion of pilgrim tourism, while providing many benefits and preferences for market participants.
“I am glad that brotherly Azerbaijan has achieved significant success in the practical implementation of President Ilham Aliyev's initiatives aimed at increasing the country's attractiveness for local and foreign tourists. For example, in 2019, the flow of tourists to Azerbaijan reached a record high: more than 3 million foreign citizens visited the country.
“In fact, our countries can benefit greatly by establishing cooperation in organizing combined tours.
“In addition, I consider it promising to implement joint Uzbek-Azerbaijani projects targeting passenger traffic, building modern hotels, recreational, educational and extreme tourism facilities, etc.
“I believe thanks to inter-regional cooperation, we can also promote cooperation in the tourism sector. Currently we review the issue of choosing sister cities in Azerbaijan for Bukhara, Kokand, Samarkand, Tashkent and Khiva.
“In conclusion, I can tell you that since August 1, 2020, the Open Skies regime has been introduced at all regional airports of Uzbekistan taking advantage of the fifth degree of air freedom. Thus, airports were given the right to receive and unload passengers, mail and cargo, traveling from and to third countries. We expect Azerbaijani airlines AZAL and Buta show interest in deepening cooperation with Uzbekistan in terms of performing direct and transit flights on routes on which our carriers do not operate.”
"We know that President Ilham Aliyev plans to visit Uzbekistan soon. What is the preliminary agenda for the upcoming visit?"
"Yes, indeed, we are looking forward to and preparing for the visit of Mr. Aliyev to Uzbekistan.
“We expect to discuss a wide range of issues of cooperation in political, trade, economic, investment, transport, communication, cultural, humanitarian and other spheres. I am confident that the results of this visit will lay a solid foundation for breakthroughs that will further deepen and expand fraternal relations between our countries.”