Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed the UN General Assembly and met with US President Joe Biden

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Photo: Sarvar Urmonov / Uzbek Presidential Press Service
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Photo: Sarvar Urmonov / Uzbek Presidential Press Service

On September 19, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he reassured the global community of his personal commitment to ongoing economic reforms in Uzbekistan.

These reforms have the ambitious goal of doubling the size of the country’s economy by 2030. Mirziyoyev also held first-ever talks with US President Joe Biden, during which the two leaders discussed the prospects of cooperation between Tashkent and Washington, as well as regional cooperation in Central Asia.

The top-level meetings between the leaders in the United States were designed to strengthen Uzbekistan’s global position and convey the message that Uzbekistan is not only a post-Soviet Central Asian nation, but a promising player on the global trade, investment and political map.

Uzbekistan has been undergoing significant transformation since Mirziyoyev took office as president in 2016. In just a few years, this former Soviet republic and home to about 36 million people has improved its business climate, attracted foreign investors, and strengthened its economic and diplomatic relationships with the global community.

With Mirziyoyev recently re-elected for a new seven-year term, experts anticipate that the country will continue its reform efforts and further strengthen its ties with major economies, including the United States.

Embracing independence

At the first-ever C5+1 summit in New York on September 19, which brought together leaders from the Central Asian nations Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev held substantive talks with Biden regarding cooperation.

The Central Asian nations are now gradually emerging as increasingly independent players on the global political stage, attracting interest from the largest economic powers. As the president of the region’s most populous country, Shavkat Mirziyoyev plays a key role in forming the foreign policy of the C5 countries, which is shaped based upon fundamental issues.

Since he became a president seven years ago, relations among the C5 countries have also largely returned to normal.

Fostering global trade ties is an important task for Uzbekistan, as Mirziyoyev aims for his country to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). This move is expected to help Uzbekistan double its annual exports to US$45 billion, with a particular focus on agricultural products, IT services, and tourism. To achieve this, it is crucial to garner support from the largest WTO member nations and address post-Soviet problematic issues.

One such pressing issue that Uzbekistan has successfully addressed under Mirziyoyev’s leadership is forced labor, including child labor, in the cotton industry, which makes up a big part of the country’s exports. This now prohibited state-run practice, often referred to as “cotton slavery,” used to affect up to 500,000 adults and nearly 2 million children annually.

For years, officials ordered locals to work in cotton fields from mid-September to late December, resulting in the closure of schools and hospitals as many schoolchildren and public-sector workers, including doctors and teachers, were forced to pick fluffy cotton seeds.

The practice of “cotton slavery” came to an end under Mirziyoyev, who ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions against forced and child labor. Departing from the past, Uzbekistan has shifted its focus from exporting raw cotton to prioritizing cotton processing within the country, often in collaboration with foreign investors.

Workers involved in cotton harvesting now receive competitive market wages, and private farmers have gained the right to cultivate and export cotton.

Recognizing these efforts, the international coalition Cotton Campaign lifted its boycott of Uzbek cotton in 2022, thus ending a restriction that had been in place for more than a decade.

Forced and child labor in cotton picking was just one example of the issues that Mirziyoyev had to address. For many years, Uzbekistan was a closed and authoritarian state where the rights of foreign investors were violated, and the local currency couldn’t be exchanged at the official rate. State monopolies dominated the business landscape, and citizens were imprisoned for expressing their political views.

Far-reaching reform

After taking the helm of the country in 2016, Mirziyoyev charted a path for transformation. He initiated several pivotal changes, including the liberalization of the exchange rate of the som, the Uzbek currency, the release of political prisoners, the reduction of bureaucratic hurdles for businesses, and the opening of the nation to foreign investors and tourists.

A referendum was held in April illustrating the widespread support for the massive transformation on nearly all levels of life in Uzbekistan. More than 90% of voters expressed their support for the new constitution, often referred to as the “People’s Constitution.”

The constitution incorporates key national development priorities, which encompass enhancing citizens’ well-being, ensuring access to quality education and health care, and unequivocally prohibiting forced labor.

Building on this constitutional framework, Mirziyoyev presented a new Uzbekistan 2030 strategy that was officially adopted in September. The primary objective of this strategy is to double the country’s gross domestic product by 2030 and increase GDP per capita to $4,000, which would put Uzbekistan among the upper-middle-income nations.

President Mirziyoyev also aims to boost economic growth by attracting $110 billion in foreign investments over the next seven years and by privatizing state-owned enterprises.

Notably, last year Uzbekistan hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the city of Samarkand, demonstrating its commitment to regional cooperation. Additionally, exhibitions showcasing Uzbek art and culture have found homes in major global cities like Berlin and Paris.

Other acute global issues are also on Uzbekistan’s radar. In line with the global trend toward decarbonizing the economy, President Mirziyoyev is implementing a program aimed at developing renewable energy. The objective is to raise the share of renewable energy sources in the country’s energy mix to 30% by the year 2030.

To achieve this ambitious target, partnerships with countries from the Middle East, Europe and China have been forged to aid in the construction of solar and wind power plants in Uzbekistan.

Ecologists say that “green economy” projects are a necessity for the Central Asian region, which is facing an environmental disaster: the drying up of the Aral Sea. In recent years, Uzbekistan has planted drought-resistant plants on 1.7 million hectares of dry seabed to combat desertification, making a significant contribution to the global fight against climate change.

Uzbekistan is also promoting the establishment of a water-saving technology platform in Central Asia with the support of the UN.

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