Ambassador of Uzbekistan His Excellency Said Rustamov discusses three decades of growing diplomatic engagement between the UK and Uzbekistan
Five time zones, 3,700 miles and a seven-hour flight. The distance between London and Tashkent is vast, but after 30 years of growing diplomatic engagement, relations between these two capitals have never been closer.
Although diplomatic relations were formally established on 18 February 1992, following Uzbekistan’s independence in September 1991, the foundations for this close relationship were laid over 600 years ago. They date back to when Amir Timur (Tamerlane) – ruler of the vast Timurid Empire stretching from China to Turkey– and King Henry IV of England were exchanging correspondence, seeking friendly relations and expanded trade links. Other aspects of the relationship have emerged Since the election of reformist President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in 2016, the ‘mood music’ behind the relationship between the two countries has changed rather dramatically. The UK’s ‘Global Britain’ strategy has also added fuel to that dynamic.
British readers will be surprised at the intimacy of their nation’s links with a country that has seldom generated front-page news. In economics, science, the arts and education, the ties are impressive.
Since the 1990s, Uzbekistan’s trade with the UK was one of the largest amongst Western European countries.We had raw materials – cotton, other agricultural products, metals and precious stones – and handicrafts to sell, and we bought machinery, pharmaceuticals and services from the UK. In terms of British trade statistics, these were never huge numbers, but for specific industries they were significant, and they stand to grow significantly now that the UK has signed its first post-Brexit Enhanced GSP trade agreement with Uzbekistan.
But the ties between us have been most profound in educational and cultural exchanges. British education is gaining momentum in Uzbekistan, and English has surely become the third most spoken language, especially in major cities like Tashkent. The British Council and UK universities play a major role in the build-up skills and language proficiency through updating curricula and training teachers. Westminster University’s branch campus, Westminster International University in Tashkent (WIUT), opened in 2002 and is now one of the most prestigious universities not only in Uzbekistan, but in the whole of Central Asia. More recently, with both governments’ encouragement, many more schools have been established or have announced plans to create branch campuses in Uzbekistan. They are following the WIUT template and expanding the already wide network of partnerships between the universities of both countries.
Beyond this, there are deep and thriving relationships within British academia. UK scholars are among the world’s leaders in the study of Central Asian history. They have been instrumental in re-discovering Uzbekistan’s millennia-old past and understanding the significance of many historic sites and relics in the country. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the British Library hold in their archives rich collections of ancient manuscripts from and about the lands that today constitute the Republic of Uzbekistan. From these collections and from Uzbekistan’s own archives and museums, an extraordinary reciprocal flow of knowledge and expertise has been established.
Educational exchanges are not solely about history. For many years, Uzbekistan’s brightest students have been attending top UK universities, frequently more than anywhere else in the world. Many of these graduates are now senior decision-makers in Tashkent, leading the nation’s energetic reforms process.
This is partly a result of what is described as the change in ‘mood music.’ Over the past five years, Uzbekistan has moved quickly to embrace the world, recognising that its growth and future depend on stronger, more intensive relations with other countries.
There are solid and straight-forward motives behind this. Uzbekistan has a young and fast-growing population with aspirations for middle-income status by 2030. Under President Mirziyoyev’s leadership, extraordinary efforts are being undertaken to welcome international knowhow and investment. The country no longer relies solely on its rich stock of raw materials for this. Uzbekistan is developing its own processing, manufacturing and technological industries. To attract the experts and the capital needed, Uzbekistan has realised that it must meet international standards in human rights, labour relations, the environment and the rule of law. The process of reforms is therefore going at full speed.
It is here that our deep relationship with the UK is proving vitally important. In 2018, the Minister of Public Education of Uzbekistan visited several schools in the UK to familiarise himself with their educational and organisational set-up. Today, the Presidential Schools in Uzbekistan, which have been established for the most talented youth, are designed and operate based on British standards and curricula.
In 2019, officials from Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Justice toured various Citizens Advice Bureaus in the Scottish Borders. The visit resulted in a network of similar services spread across Uzbekistan, advising citizens on the law and helping them represent themselves in regulatory or civil matters. Significantly, the idea behind this ‘Madad network’ came from the Minister of Justice, who learned about the Citizens Advice Bureaus while studying at Warwick University. It is another dividend arising from Uzbekistan’s investment in British education.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is establishing a series of Free Economic Zones, using tax and other benefits to encourage investment in value-adding industries. A fundamental part of this is the implementation of English commercial law in these zones, in order to reassure investors that their property and other rights can be protected. Experts from the UK and Uzbekistan are currently working on this.