Author: Namig MAILOV, Elchin HUSEYNOV
Coronavirus pandemic has changed the life style in many countries and the turn of international relations. Global restrictions hit hard not only the economic cooperation, but also the cultural, humanitarian, and tourist contacts between the countries. Yet in Azerbaijan, the pandemic and the 44-day war in Garabagh helped us define our loyal friends, allies and ill-wishers once again. The Azerbaijani-Uzbek brotherhood has undoubtedly passed this strength test as well. On the anniversary of the Patriotic War in Azerbaijan and before the next presidential elections in Uzbekistan, we kindly asked the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan Bahrom Ashrafkhanov to answer some of our questions presented below.
“Your Excellency, a year passed since the Second Garabagh War, which ended with Azerbaijan having restored its territorial integrity. As far as we know, you have visited the liberated districts several times and have personally seen the situation there. What are your impressions?”
“Seizing this opportunity, I would like once again congratulate the leadership and people of Azerbaijan on the restoration of the territorial integrity of our brotherly country. This historic event was possible thanks to the strong will, balanced and far-sighted policy of the respected President Ilham Aliyev, as well as the dedication and courage of the citizens of Azerbaijan.
“Indeed, I had a chance to repeatedly visit the liberated territories. To be honest, I was deeply impressed with what I saw there, mostly unpleasantly. To our deep regret, the once glorified and ancient monuments of history and culture have been turned into ruins.
“Nevertheless, we have also seen the large-scale projects currently being implemented by the Azerbaijani government for the development of the liberated districts. I firmly believe that Azerbaijan has all the resources and opportunities to restore and turn these lands into a flourishing paradise. Construction of the Fuzuli Airport is a striking example of the efforts put into these developments.
“Uzbekistan will not remain indifferent to the restoration of the liberated territories of Azerbaijan. On March 31, 2021, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed the delegates of an informal video summit of the Turkic Council and said that Uzbekistan was ready to join the restoration of ancient monuments, mosques, cultural, and educational facilities in the historical lands of Azerbaijan. Uzbekistan also intends to build a secondary school there. Currently, we hold discussions with our Azerbaijani colleagues on projects to be implemented by Uzbekistan.”
“Uzbekistan has repeatedly expressed support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan on a variety of platforms. How do you assess the outcome of the Second Garabagh War in terms of the international law?”
“Uzbekistan has always and everywhere demonstrated its commitment to a clear, unambiguous, and principal position regarding the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
“We are very pleased with the signing of the trilateral ceasefire statement on November 10, 2020. The Uzbek people are very glad that the fraternal nation of Azerbaijan has restored its sovereignty and territorial integrity by implementing the provisions of the four well-known resolutions of the UN Security Council.”
“Transportation routes from Central Asia through the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus have become particularly relevant these days. We expect that the Zangezur Corridor will soon be added to the overall list of transportation routes through the Caucasus. How successful is the cooperation of our countries in terms of transportation of goods?”
“Diversification of routes for the supply of manufactured goods to foreign markets is an urgent task for the rapidly growing economy of Uzbekistan. Thanks to the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan has put in great efforts to develop its transport and transit infrastructure and realised Azerbaijan’s potential, making it a major transit hub between north and south, west and east. Therefore, it is worth mentioning the commissioning of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, the Baku International Seaport in Alat, as well as large-scale works on the construction and repairs of automobile roads.
“We have great prospects for cooperation in transportation, since we heavily use the above infrastructure for the transportation of Uzbek goods both to Azerbaijan and to third countries.
“I think that the scale of our cooperation in transportation will continue to grow. For example, in April 2021, Uzbekistan became a member of the GSP+ system of preferences, which allows duty-free export of 6,200 types of goods to the EU. This suggests that the volume of goods exported from Uzbekistan to Europe will grow rapidly. Uzbekistan intends to take advantage of the most optimal costs for the delivery of its goods.
“We hope that Baku is also interested in using the potential of Tashkent, which is located in the heart of Central Asia and has enormous economic and strategic opportunities. That is why the railways projects Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China, Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar unlock the huge transport and transit potential of Eurasia, hence providing Azerbaijan with additional supply routes to Eastern and South Asia.
“In addition, the Navoi FEZ is also a good starting point to deepen cooperation between our countries in the transport and communication spheres. Being at the most important intersection of road, rail and air routes, the Navoi Airport connects the countries of Southeast Asia with Central and South Asia, the Middle East, as well as the European states. The joint construction of new production facilities in Navoi, as well as the implementation of intercontinental air transportation will be especially beneficial for Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan in the future.”
“Despite the pandemic, in 2020 we observed positive indicators of trade between Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. What's the trend this year?”
“The fundamental principle of our relations in this direction is that Uzbekistan considers Azerbaijan as a promising trade and economic partner in the CIS. We are ready to expand our mutually beneficial cooperation to a larger extent.
“In recent years, there have been positive trends in trade between our countries. Remarkably, despite the global economic crisis and the negative contribution of the pandemic, mutual trade between our countries has demonstrated positive results. This trend continued in the current year as well. In January-August 2021, bilateral trade between Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan grew by 31.1%.
“However, given the low basic indicators, I think it is too early to be content with the current indicators. On the contrary, we must direct all our efforts to multiply the volume of trade. All the necessary conditions, including the production of a wide range of high-quality products in our countries, are available.”
“There is a favourable business environment both in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan for foreign investors. What can you tell our readers about mutual investments?”
“Indeed, our countries achieved impressive results in creating a favourable business environment, which also attracts the world community. Large-scale reforms carried out in Uzbekistan mark the beginning of a new stage in our development - the era of New Uzbekistan. We have every reason to say that over a historically short period, a completely new atmosphere has formed in the country in various spheres, including the economy.
“According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and prestigious rating agencies, Uzbekistan is one of the few countries in the world that, despite the current difficult conditions, has managed to ensure financial and economic stability, recovery of manufacturing industries and growing economic activity. The same conclusions are indicated in the recently published analytical report of J. P. Morgan called Uzbekistan: Soum’er Solstice.
“Positive outcome of our reforms cited in various world rankings makes it possible for Uzbekistan to enter international financial markets. In particular, this year foreign investors bought Eurobonds worth of $635 million and 2.5 trillion UZS, as well as the corporate bonds of Ipoteka Bank for $73.5 million and JSC Uzavtomotors for $300 million.
“We have managed to significantly strengthen investor confidence in our economy. For example, the total volume of investments increased by 2.1 times, including foreign investments almost three times, in a relatively short period.
“Remarkably, it was possible to achieve this progress also thanks to the involvement of Azeraijani businesses. Currently, Azerbaijani business is involved in the implementation of investment projects in Uzbekistan, including in construction, agriculture, food production, energy, etc. I believe that soon this list will be significantly expanded.
“The Uzbek business is involved in the development of the Azerbaijani economy as well. For example, in silkworm breeding and automobile manufacturing. Currently, we are also considering the creation of a joint production of knitwear, textile, leather and footwear, electronic, electrical and other appliances in Azerbaijan.”
“By the way, recently the contacts between the two economic, military and business contacts between our countries have noticeably increased. Any specific progress? And in what areas?”
“In September 2021, we took another important step to strengthen the Uzbek-Azerbaijani brotherhood by launching the Azermash SR joint venture. We thank President Ilham Aliyev, who has personally visited the enterprise before and honoured the initiators of the project.
“The joint venture between Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan will make it possible to access the export markets in Georgia, Turkey, and Africa. I have no doubt that the products of the new automobile plant will be popular among the residents of Azerbaijan as well. They will like the upgraded makes of Nexia, Cobalt, Damas, and Labo, as well as the SamAuto buses. I can also announce the addition of brands Chevrolet Onix and Tracker to this list.
“We have very ambitious goals. Azermash SR is planning to manufacture up to 5,000 cars and up to 1,000 buses annually. The Uzbek side is ready to provide all kinds of support to our Azerbaijani partners.
“Currently, we are working on holding the 11th meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission on Cooperation, as well as the national exhibition Made in Uzbekistan in Baku. I believe the participation of Azerbaijani entrepreneurs in this exhibition will be useful in terms of expanding economic ties between the businesses of our countries.”
“It's no secret that the pandemic has had a negative impact on our lives and interaction between our peoples. What measures is Uzbekistan taking or intends to take to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic in general and in the tourism sector, which has been declared a priority in your country?”
“Uzbekistan is a country with an ancient history. It is located in the middle of Central Asia and at the crossroads of the Great Silk Road. The country has 7,300 objects of cultural heritage, which is more than 90% of all historical monuments in the region. More than 500 of them are included in tourist routes, including the pearls of the East in Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, and Shakhrisabz.
“In recent years, President Mirziyoyev has initiated a number of large reforms in Uzbekistan, which cover almost all spheres of society. The government recognises tourism and everything related to this industry as a priority. Tourism has a status of a strategic sector of the Uzbek economy. As part of this development, the government is taking active measures to increase the tourist potential of Uzbekistan, including the promotion of pilgrim tourism (ziyarat-tourism), as well as the benefits and preferences for market participants.
“A revolutionary step was the decisions related to the establishment of a visa-free regime for the citizens of many countries, as well as the simplification of the visa issuance procedure and the introduction of electronic visas. Today, citizens from 90 countries can visit Uzbekistan without visas; passengers in transit from 36 countries are allowed visa-free entry and temporary stay in the country, while the citizens of 57 countries can get electronic visas in just two working days only.
“All these measures had a positive impact on the development of tourism in Uzbekistan. For example, before the pandemic, the growth rate of the sector was tremendous, with the number of tourists almost doubling every year. If only 3 million people visited Uzbekistan in 2017, in 2019 this number increased to 6.7 million.
“I’m also happy to note that we observe a positive trend in the number of Azerbaijani tourists visiting Uzbekistan. In particular, before the pandemic, the annual increase in the tourist flow from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan was about 20%. However, the coronavirus pandemic has created certain logistical challenges. Nevertheless, at present we are actively working on this issue and I am sure that soon direct flights will again run between Tashkent and Baku.
“Moreover, we intend to establish air communication between the historical cities of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. After all, many representatives of fraternal Azerbaijan dream of visiting and personally enjoying the beauty of such ancient and world famous cities as Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva.
“At the same time, my compatriots, who really want to visit the beautiful cities of Azerbaijan, including Gabala, Guba, Ganja, Sheki, Shusha, and others, have similar feelings.”
“Presidential elections are slated for the end of October in Uzbekistan. What are the accomplishments and tasks of Uzbekistan so far?”
“Indeed, Uzbekistan is expecting to hold an important event, the presidential elections.
“Compared to what Uzbekistan had five years ago, today it is a country of democratic transformations, great opportunities and practical deeds. I believe that this process is the most important result of the ongoing reforms. The goal of our reforms in building new Uzbekistan is clearly defined in a significant document called the Action Strategy, which covers the five priority areas of development of Uzbekistan in 2017-2021.
“Today we can say with confidence the record results of large-scale reforms in recent years.
“The leadership of the country has identified six priorities as its most important missions at the current stage of Uzbekistan’s development.
“The first of them is the social policy based on improving the social welfare and the standard of living, creating jobs, sources of income, reducing poverty, developing villages, and cities. Over the past few years, a completely new and unique system for solving social problems has been created in the country. Unique methods have been introduced to support vulnerable groups of the population, including ‘iron’, ‘women’ and ‘youth’ record books, ‘mahallabai’ and ‘honadonbai’.
“The second direction is to increase the competitiveness of the economy. Uzbekistan has rich mineral resources. We are building state-of-the-art high-tech production facilities. It is important to create guarantees that ensure transparency and efficiency in the sale of state assets, as well as broad public participation in these processes.
“The third priority area is the support for entrepreneurship and protection of private property. To eliminate the existing drawbacks in this area, we need to introduce the further liberalisation of the economy, expand openness and transparency, as well as public control over the state bodies and officials, whose functions include servicing entrepreneurs.
“The fourth priority area is the development of agriculture, a comprehensive and systematic transformation of agriculture. Our goal is to make it one of the main drivers of the economy.
“The fifth area is to protect the health and life of our people during a pandemic. To combat the coronavirus, unprecedented measures have been taken, such as expanding remote services in all medical institutions, introducing electronic record-keeping in clinics and hospitals, as well as telemedicine in specialized centres and their branches, further increasing diagnostic and treatment options.
“Spiritual and educational activities defined as the sixth priority of state development are of essential importance for our society. Also, the international research centres of Imam Bukhari in Samarkand and Imam Tirmidhi in Surkhandarya, as well as the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan in Tashkent and the International Research Centre of Imam Maturidi are operating in Uzbekistan to study and promote the scientific and spiritual heritage of our great theologians and thinkers who have made an invaluable contribution to the development of Islamic civilisation.”
“Good luck to the Uzbek people with the upcoming elections! Thank you for the interview.”