On July 9, Uzbekistan’s incumbent president Shavkat Mirziyoyev won snap presidential elections, originally scheduled for 2026, by receiving 87 percent of the votes. He will remain in office until 2030 with the possibility of running for another seven-year term. On April 30, Uzbekistan hosted a constitutional referendum. Its outcomes annulled Mirziyoyev’s previous two terms and allowed him to run again under the new constitution. In Uzbekistan, where political manipulations do not meet any resistance, Mirziyoyev seems to have everything under control.
Alongside his recent domestic achievement to secure his grip on power are Uzbekistan’s long-standing foreign policy challenges, which are largely unaffected by Mirziyoyev’s diplomatic efforts. The worsening situation in Afghanistan, the dragging war in Ukraine, and the growing power struggle between regional and global powers in Central Asia are just few issues that did not disappear after Mirziyoyev’s re-election and continued to grow in scale and number.
Global Voices spoke to Yuriy Sarukhanyan, international relations expert from Uzbekistan, to discuss the country’s foreign policy challenges. Yuriy is the author of the analytical Telegram channel Seriya penalti (Penalty series) and co-host of the YouTube podcast Spornye voprosy (Controversial issues), both sources focused on Uzbekistan’s domestic and foreign politics. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Nurbek Bekmurzaev (NB): How has Uzbekistan’s foreign policy changed since Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016? What are his foreign policy accomplishments and/or shortcomings in the last seven years?
Yuriy Sarukhanyan (YS): Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has not changed dramatically since Mirziyoyev came to power. The key directions and principles remained the same as they were under Karimov. Uzbekistan is still a supporter of the multi-vector foreign policy. It continues to be wary of Western countries and feels more comfortable in the company of authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, and Turkey.
Mirziyoyev gave a new impetus to what was declared during the Karimov period, but died out in the last years of his reign. Uzbekistan is more actively participating in various regional and international platforms. The country joined the Organization of Turkic States. It is negotiating to join the World Trade Organization. Tashkent initiated the resumption of dialogue within the framework of the Central Asian Five, and even made concessions in resolving contentious issues. Uzbekistan is actively involved in the Afghan agenda and seeks to establish contacts with the Taliban.
The effectiveness of Uzbek diplomacy is hampered by excessive pretentions: conferences and signing non-binding joint statements are presented as achievements. In addition, Tashkent is too cautious in the process of defending national interests. Finally, the multi-vector foreign policy so far boils down to an attempt to sit on two chairs or the search for alternative external forces that could balance the influence of traditional external players. The strategy for consolidating the foreign policy actions of the Central Asian Five in opposition to external influence is not yet on the agenda.
NB: What role did foreign policy issues play in Mirziyoyev’s recent presidential election campaign? In particular, did the war in Ukraine play a role in justifying snap elections?
YS: In Uzbekistan, the emphasis in election campaigns is on domestic politics and problems. Foreign policy does not occupy a central role in the country’s public discussions, and it is used in the election campaign sparingly.
Accordingly, the war in Ukraine itself was not at the center of the last presidential campaign. However, to legitimize the running for an additional term, the discourse of “difficult international environment” was used. Such tactics are not new to the Uzbek political establishment. Karimov’s annulments were also rationalized by the complex international situation.
It is clear that the balance of power in the post-Soviet space depends on the outcome of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Perhaps this was the reason for the decision to “sacrifice” the extra three years left until 2026 in order to consolidate a stable status quo.
NB: How does China’s growing presence in Uzbekistan affect Mirziyoyev’s regime and his ability to maneuver between different powers active in Central Asia?
YS: The Uzbek and Chinese political elites always had good relations. Tashkent openly supports the one-China policy and the pro-Chinese position towards Taiwan, and is emphatically silent about the problems of the Uyghurs.
A special relationship is also demonstrated by the fact that in the socio-political discourse of Uzbekistan there is no discussion of potential threats from the growing power of China. Practically no one talks about the threats that the growing ambitions of the Chinese leadership, who recently removed limits onits presidential terms, may pose.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine allows China to reconsider its positioning in Central Asia. Tashkent and other Central Asian states are aware of the unpredictability of the Kremlin regime and the economic consequences it will face due to the sanctions. Therefore, they are trying to find in China a new “patron” that can guarantee security and assist in the implementation of various infrastructure and economic projects. Incidentally, this was discussed at the first Central Asia–China summit held this year.
NB: What foreign policy challenges will Mirziyoyev face in the next seven years of his presidency? Which ones are the most urgent? And the most difficult?
YS: Undoubtedly, the war in Ukraine is the most serious foreign policy challenge. In the event of a Russian victory, Uzbekistan would face unprecedented pressure to participate in Putin’s geopolitical initiatives. Second, the longer the war goes on, the more pressure Uzbekistan will face. Tight control over the sanctions regime and the suppression of attempts to help Russia bypass it may sooner or later become a serious problem for trying not to anger the Kremlin, and the country’s authorities will have to choose a side in the war.
Another potential challenge will be China’s growing ambitions. Serious concerns are caused by the recent removal of presidential terms in China. It is clear that Xi removed term limits to stay in power and realize his foreign policy ambitions. Much will depend on which tools Beijing uses to implement its plans. However, given the absence of a reaction to the Chinese ambassador’s recent scandalous statement about sovereignty of post-Soviet states, it is apparent that Uzbekistan will proceed quietly in its attempt not to anger anyone.
The situation in Afghanistan will also be a serious challenge. In its attempts to be nice to everyone, Tashkent sometimes allows the Taliban too much. Therefore, it will be important to follow answers to the next questions. How effectively can Uzbek diplomacy provide security guarantees on the Uzbek–Afghan and Central Asian–Afghan borders? Will Tashkent be able to resist the military provocations of the Taliban, attempts to block infrastructure projects that are beneficial to Uzbekistan, or vice versa, implement projects that pose a threat to Tashkent? Will the authorities be able to resist the romanticization of the Taliban inside Uzbekistan?
Finally, Uzbek diplomacy will soon be faced with the need to provide some results of Tashkent’s Central Asian policy. The stage at which everyone was simply happy that the meeting took place in the format of the Central Asian Five is in the past. The time is coming when regional cooperation should take a step towards some concrete projects. Otherwise, the regional format of cooperation may stall again and lead to a new stage in the fragmentation of Central Asia. For Uzbekistan, this will not be an easy test.