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Uzbekistan's strategy for building greater trans-regional connectivity

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With the election of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan has embarked on an open, proactive, pragmatic and constructive foreign policy aimed at creating a space of mutually beneficial cooperation, stability and sustainable development in Central Asia. The new approaches of official Tashkent have found comprehensive support in all capitals of Central Asia, which has become the basis for positive changes in the region, writes Akromjon Nematov, first deputy director and Azizjon Karimov, leading research fellow at the ISRS under the president of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

In particular, in recent years there has been a qualitative shift towards strengthening regional cooperation in Central Asia. A systematic political dialogue based on the principles of good-neighbourliness, mutual respect and equality has been established between the leaders of the states of the region. This is evidenced by the introduction of the practice of holding regular Consultative Meetings of the Heads of State of Central Asia since 2018.

Another important achievement was the adoption of the Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Central Asian States at the second Consultative Meeting in November 2019, which can be regarded as a kind of development program for the region. It contains consolidated approaches and a common vision of the heads of states regarding the prospects for strengthening regional cooperation.  

The achieved high level of consolidation of the region and the willingness of the Central Asian countries to take responsibility for solving common regional problems is also evidenced by the adoption of a special UN resolution "Strengthening Regional and International Cooperation for Peace, Stability and Sustainable Development in the Central Asian Region in June 2018.  

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Thanks to all these positive trends, a number of systemic problems that previously hindered the full realization of the enormous potential of regional co-operation are now finding their long-term solution based on the principles of searching for reasonable compromises and mutual consideration of interests. Most importantly, the Central Asian states have begun to play a primary and key role in decision-making on the most pressing and urgent issues of development in the entire region.

Such strengthening of inter-state relations today contributes to the establishment of Central Asia as a stable, open and dynamically developing region, a reliable and predictable international partner as well as a capacious and attractive market.

Thus, the new political atmosphere has given a powerful impetus to the development of trade and economic, cultural and humanitarian exchanges. This can be seen in the dynamic growth of trade within the region, which reached $5.2 billion in 2019, 2.5 times more than in 2016. Contrary to the challenging effects of the pandemic, intraregional trade remained at $5bn in 2020.

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At the same time, the region's total foreign trade in 2016-2019 increased 56% to $168.2bn.

During this period, the inflow of FDI to the region increased by 40%, amounting to $37.6bn. As a result, the share of investments in Central Asia from the total volume in the world increased from 1.6% to 2.5%.

At the same time, the tourist potential of the region is being revealed. The number of travelers to the countries of Central Asia in 2016-2019 increased almost 2 times – from 9.5 to 18.4 million people.

As a consequence, the overall macroeconomic indicators of the region are improving. In particular, the combined GDP of the region's countries increased from $253bn in 2016 to $302.8bn in 2019. In a pandemic environment, this figure fell by just 2.5% to $295.1bn by the end of 2020.

All of these factors together show that Uzbekistan's new pragmatic approaches in its foreign policy have led to the creation of favorable conditions for the Central Asian states to jointly promote major economic projects of
a transregional nature, bring their relations with neighboring regions to a new level and actively involve the region in the formation of multilateral coordination and cooperation structures.

Such plans are enshrined in the above mentioned Joint Statement of the Heads of State of Central Asia, issued at the end of the 2019 Consultative Meeting. In particular, the document notes that the Central Asian states will continue to strive to develop open economic cooperation and diversify relations with other partner countries, international and regional organizations in the hope of consolidating regional peace, stability, and expanding the prospects for economic development in the region.

These goals should be served by the political and economic concept of interconnectedness promoted by Uzbekistan, which is based on the desire to build a solid architecture of mutually beneficial cooperation between Central and South Asia.

These aspirations of official Tashkent are motivated by the interest of all states of both regions in developing closer relations, a clear understanding of the indivisibility of security, the complementary nature of economies and the interconnectedness of socio-economic development processes in Central and South Asia.

The implementation of these plans is designed to contribute to the construction of a vast space of equal opportunities, mutually beneficial co-operation and sustainable development. A logical consequence of this should be the creation of a belt of stability around Central Asia.

Guided by these goals, the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev put forward an initiative to hold in July of this year in Tashkent the international conference 'Central and South Asia: Regional Interconnectedness. Challenges and Opportunities', designed to consolidate the countries of the two regions in designing the conceptual foundations of a sustainable model of inter-regional connectivity.

This idea was first voiced during the speech of the head of Uzbekistan at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly. These issues took center stage in another important political event in 2020 - the President's address to the Parliament, where South Asia was identified as a priority in the country's foreign policy.

At the same time, Uzbekistan has significantly increased its political and diplomatic activity in the South Asian direction. This is reflected in the promotion of the "India-Central Asia" dialogue format, a series of virtual summits "Uzbekistan-India" (December 2020) and "Uzbekistan-Pakistan" (April 2021). (April 2021).

In this regard, the signing of the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral agreement to create the Trans-Afghan corridor designed to connect the countries of the two regions with a reliable transport network was a landmark event.

All these steps show that Uzbekistan has in fact already started implementing plans to build a large trans-regional interconnectedness.

The upcoming high-level conference should become a system-forming element and a kind of culmination of these efforts.

In this regard, the planned event has already aroused increased interest among a wide range of regional and international experts, who have noted the importance and relevance of the upcoming conference.

In particular, observers and analysts of such authoritative international editions as Diplomat (USA), Project Syndicate (USA), Modern Diplomacy (European Union), Radio Free Europe (EU), Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Russia), Anadolu (Turkey) and Tribune (Pakistan) comment on the plans of building interregional connectivity.

According to their estimations, the results of the forthcoming conference could give a start to the idea of a grandiose integration project, implying rapprochement of the two fast-growing and culturally-civilizationally close regions.

Such a prospect could create a new economic growth point for Central and South Asia, dramatically transforming the economic picture of the macro-region and improving interregional coordination to ensure stability.

Afghanistan as a key link to ensure integration of the two regions

Building trans-regional connectivity, of which the Trans-Afghan Corridor is a strategic component, places Afghanistan at the core of intra-regional connectivity and recaptures its lost historic role as a key link in promoting integration between the two regions.

The realization of these goals is especially necessary against the background of the upcoming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, scheduled for September of this year. Such developments undoubtedly create a turning point in the modern history of Afghanistan.

On the one hand, the US withdrawal, which is considered a key condition for the so-called Doha agreements, could give a strong impetus to the peace process in the neighboring country, contributing to the establishment of Afghanistan as a sovereign and prosperous state.

On the other hand, the appearance of a power vacuum threatens to intensify the internal armed struggle for power with the risk of escalating it into fratricidal war. The clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan government forces are already increasing in intensity, which may negatively affect the prospects for achieving an internal political consensus.

All the above-mentioned tectonic changes taking place in and around Afghanistan make the forthcoming conference even more topical, demonstrating the correctness of Uzbekistan's chosen course towards inter-regional rapprochement, as the current realities in Afghanistan make cooperation between the two regions an objective and vital necessity.

Realizing this, Uzbekistan intends to start the process of adaptation of the states of the two regions to the post-American era in Afghanistan. After all, the prospect of the upcoming withdrawal of the US contingent should encourage all neighboring nations to assume a significant share of responsibility for the economic and military-political situation in Afghanistan, improvement in which is the key to securing the long-term stability of the macro-region.

Given this fact, Uzbekistan is trying to achieve a broad regional consensus on the Afghan issue by demonstrating the beneficial nature of establishing early peace in the long-suffering neighboring country for the overall prosperity of all regional states.

In this regard, foreign experts are convinced that Tashkent's plans for interconnectedness organically complement the current Afghan policy of Uzbekistan, in which the republic is in search of a mutually acceptable formula for peace and ways to ensure long-term stability in Afghanistan.

Such an ideal recipe for peace is interregional economic integration with the involvement of Afghanistan, which will certainly have a stabilizing effect on the internal situation in the country.

A wide range of experts hold such an opinion. In particular, according to the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway project promoted by Tashkent will become an "economic springboard" for Afghanistan, since the route will run along the deposits of minerals such as copper, tin, granite, zinc and iron ore.

As a result, their development will begin, and tens of thousands of jobs will be created - alternative sources of income for the Afghan population.

Most importantly, the expansion of inter-regional trade through Afghanistan will bring economic benefits to the country in the form of transit fees. In this context, the opinion of the analysts of the American publication Project Syndicate is interesting, according to which the Trans-Afghan railroad could transport up to 20 million tonnes of cargo per year and the transport costs would be reduced by 30-35%.

With this in mind, observers from the Turkish newspaper Anadolu are convinced that the proposed railway connection through Afghanistan is a source of enormous economic benefits, which could stabilize the region more than any political deal.

The practical implementation of these plans is also vital against the background of the continued dependence of the Afghan economy on foreign aid, the scale of which in recent years has shown a declining trend.

In particular, the amount of annual financial support from donors, which covers about 75% of the country's public spending, has dropped from $6.7n in 2011 to about $4bn in 2020. It is expected that in the next four years these indicators will decrease by about 30%.

In these conditions, there is a growing need to accelerate the implementation of other economic projects of trans-regional scale, which can create additional favorable conditions for the economic revival of Afghanistan.

Among them one can highlight such projects as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and CASA-1000 electric power line, whose practical implementation would not only have a very positive impact on ensuring energy security in Afghanistan, but would also bring considerable financial benefits to the Afghan side from the transit of energy resources to South Asian countries.

In turn, the prospect of Afghanistan becoming an important transit and energy hub will create additional interest for all intra-Afghan forces in achieving political consensus and will serve as a solid socio-economic basis for the peace process. In short, the extensive involvement of the Afghan side in the system of inter-regional relations, created by Tashkent, could be used as a reinforcing mechanism in promoting stability.

Central Asia towards a diversification of transport and transit routes

Strengthening interregional ties meets the goals of the Central Asian states to diversify transport routes and increase the competitiveness of the region as an international transport and transit hub.

During summit meetings, the leaders of the Central Asian states have repeatedly expressed their collective intention to advocate the strengthening of coordination and deepening of regional cooperation in the joint implementation of major economic projects, especially those aimed at expanding transport and transit opportunities, ensuring stable access to seaports and world markets, and establishing modern international logistics centers.

The need to solve these problems is dictated by the persisting transport isolation of Central Asia, which prevents the deep integration of the region into global supply chains and the Central Asian states from gaining their rightful place in the emerging new model of the international trading system.

Thus, today the states of the region, having no direct access to seaports, bear substantial transport and transit costs, which reach 60% of the cost of imported goods. Carriers lose up to 40 percent of the time for transporting goods due to imperfect customs procedures and underdeveloped logistics.

For example, the cost of shipping a container to the Chinese city of Shanghai from any Central Asian country is more than five times higher than the cost of transporting it from Poland or Turkey.

At the same time, in recent years the Central Asian states have already succeeded in providing access to seaports of Iran, Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia by using the potential of various transport corridors (Baku-Tbilisi-Kars, Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran, Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran, Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-Russia).

Among these transit routes, the North-South International Transport Corridor stands out, which currently provides access for Central Asian goods through Iranian ports to world markets. At the same time, this project is an example of successful connection of Central Asian states with India, which is the largest economy of South Asia.

In this context, the implementation of the railway project Mazar-e-Sharif - Kabul - Peshawar will contribute to the emergence of an additional corridor and the formation of an extensive network of railway lines designed to physically bring the countries of Central and South Asia closer together. This is the relevance of the idea promoted by Uzbekistan of trans-regional interconnectivity, the practical implementation of which would benefit all the states of the two regions.

The beneficiaries of the above plans will also be the main actors of international trade, such as China, Russia and the European Union, which are interested in providing reliable land access to the South Asian market as a viable alternative to maritime trade routes.

With this in mind, there is a high probability of internationalization of the Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway project, i.e., expansion of the circle of parties interested in financing and further use of the transit potential of this corridor.

For this reason, it is clear that Uzbekistan's plans go far beyond the trans-regional agenda, as the construction of the said railroad will become an important part of international transport corridors linking the European Union, China, Russia, South and Southeast Asian states through the territory of Central Asia.

As a result, the transport importance of the Central Asian states will increase significantly, which in the future will have the opportunity to ensure their active participation in the international transit of goods. This will provide them with additional sources of income, such as transit fees.

Another important achievement will be the reduction of transport costs. According to economists' calculations, transporting a container from the city of Tashkent to the Pakistani port of Karachi will cost about $1,400 to $1,600. It is about half as cheap as transportation from Tashkent to the Iranian port - Bandar Abbas ($2,600-$3,000).

In addition, thanks to the implementation of the Trans-Afghan corridor project, the Central Asian states will be able to take advantage of the transit potential of two routes leading to the southern seas at once.

On the one hand, there are already existing corridors to the Iranian ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas, on the other hand - "Mazar-e-Sharif - Kabul - Peshawar" with further access to the Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar. Such an arrangement will contribute to the formation of a more flexible pricing policy between Iran and Pakistan, which will significantly reduce export-import costs.

Most importantly, the diversification of trade routes will have a very favorable effect on the macroeconomic situation in Central Asia. According to World Bank experts, further removal of geographical barriers to trade with the outside world could increase the aggregate GDP of the Central Asian states by at least 15%.

A collective response to common challenges

The format of the upcoming conference will provide a unique opportunity for senior officials, experts, and policymakers from the two regions to gather for the first time in one place to lay the foundation stone for a new transregional security architecture with the vision of building a space of equal opportunity that takes into account the interests of all parties involved.

This development of cooperation can be a model of inclusiveness, creating an enabling environment in which each country can realize its creative potential and work together to solve security problems.

This is necessary because of the inseparability of security and sustainable development - the interest of Central and South Asian states to come together in the face of common challenges and threats that have a negative impact on ensuring the continued prosperity of the two regions.

Among these challenges, experts single out problems such as drug trafficking, terrorism, the epidemiological crisis, climate change, and water scarcity, which the states of the two regions could confront by joint efforts - by identifying common problems and taking coordinated measures to overcome them.

In particular, Russian, European and Pakistani experts point to the need to use the platform of the upcoming conference to build a system of collective struggle against drug trafficking. The relevance of this is argued by the continuing reputation of Afghanistan as the main drug hub in the world.

This is confirmed by data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, according to which, in the past five years, 84% of global opium production comes from Afghanistan.

In these conditions, according to the Pakistani expert – executive director of the Center for Global and Strategic Studies of Pakistan, Khalid Taimur Akram, " until there is control on both sides and improvement of the drug situation in the region, this state of affairs continues to serve as a material fuel for destructive forces – terrorism and cross-border crime."

Foreign experts also pay special attention to the problems of climate change, which has a direct negative impact on the economies of the two regions. The year 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record.

Such extreme weather events, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, have a double shock effect on most countries of the world, including Central and South Asia.

Moreover, Central and South Asia is an example of a water-deficient macro-region. Such situation makes them vulnerable to the global climate change process.

In the emerging environment, both regions are becoming aware of the climate crisis, which should be accompanied by the formation of a common understanding of the need for joint efforts.

Given these factors, experts call on the states of the two regions to take advantage of the international forum provided by Tashkent to identify concrete plans to jointly combat climate challenges. In particular, the adoption of coordinated steps by the states towards the active use of nature-saving technologies and increasing the energy efficiency of national economies in order to minimize the negative impact of extreme weather conditions is considered very necessary.

A new model of trans-regional connectivity for inclusive economic growth

With the creation of a new architecture of mutually beneficial cooperation between the regions, which the upcoming conference should contribute to, the most favorable conditions will be formed for a significant increase in the level of trans-regional trade and economic exchanges.

The majority of international experts are of this opinion. According to their estimates, the implementation of the interconnectivity initiative will connect the isolated Central Asian market, rich in hydrocarbon and agro-industrial resources, with the growing consumer market of South Asia and further with the world market.

This is especially necessary given the significant unrealized potential for cooperation in the trade and economic sphere, the full utilization of which is hindered by the lack of a reliable transport network and institutional mechanisms of co-operation.

In particular, the volume of mutual trade between Central Asian and South Asian countries has not yet reached $6 billion. These figures are significantly lower compared to the South Asian region's trade with the outside world, which exceeds $1.4 trillion.

At the same time, South Asia's total imports have been growing steadily since 2009, reaching $791 billion in 2020. Such a situation makes the South Asian market one of the most important for Central Asian countries. In addition, with a combined population of 1.9 billion (24% of the world's population) and a GDP of $3.5trn, South Asia is the fastest growing region in the world (economic growth of 7.5% per year).

In this context, a recent report by the World Bank is interesting. It notes that, despite the challenging effects of the pandemic, South Asia's prospects for economic recovery are improving. Economic growth is expected to reach 7.2% in 2021 and 4.4% in 2022. This is a comeback from the historic low in 2020, and means the region is on a recovery trajectory. Thus, South Asia could gradually regain its status as the world's fastest-growing region.

Given all these factors, experts note that Central Asian producers have every chance to occupy their niche in the South Asian market - to fully realize their export potential.

For example, a recent special report by ESCAP (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) estimates that regional export growth of Central Asian states as a result of increased inter-regional connectivity will be 187% compared to 2010, and that exports of South Asian countries will be 133% higher than in 2010.

In this regard, it is necessary to highlight a number of areas in which the development of cooperation is in the interests of all Central and South Asian states.

First, the investment sphere. The need to increase cooperation in this area is dictated by the declining trend in foreign direct investment in developing countries. According to experts at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the volume of FDI in developing countries declined by 12% in 2020 alone. But even such a slight reduction, according to experts, can jeopardize their recovery from the pandemic.

Experts argue that this assumption is based on the continuing need of Asian countries to attract large amounts of investment to maintain economic growth.

According to ADB, developing Asian countries need to invest a whopping $1.7trn a year between 2016 and 2030 just to meet their infrastructure demand. Meanwhile, Asian countries are currently investing around $881bn per year in infrastructure.

In these conditions, the urgency of active investment cooperation between the states of Central and South Asia, as well as the adoption of collective measures for the progressive improvement of the investment climate of the macroregion, increases. Such joint actions could contribute to the transformation of Central and South Asia into a place of concentration of international financial flows.

Second, the agricultural sector. The agricultural sector is considered one of the most promising areas for trade and economic co-operation due to the high demand in South Asia for Central Asian food products.

For example, South Asian countries still experience a deficit of certain categories of food products and annually import food products worth approximately $30bn (India - $23bn, Pakistan - $5bn, Afghanistan - $900 million, Nepal - $250m). Specifically, Nepal currently imports 80% of the grain it consumes, and food import costs have increased by 62% in the last five years. Pakistan's food import spending has also increased, rising 52.16% in the first six months of 2020 alone. 

Third, the energy sector. Most South Asian states are net importers of hydrocarbons. The region is also periodically experiencing severe electricity shortages. In particular, the economic driver of South Asia - India - is the third largest oil importer in the world and the third largest consumer of electricity (annual consumption - 1.54 trillion kWh). Every year, the country imports energy resources worth $250bn.

Under these conditions, the implementation of large multilateral projects in the energy sector is considered to be in high demand. Thus, the progress in developing the interregional energy project CASA-1000 will not only increase the opportunities for electricity trade between the regions, but will also be the first step towards creating a regional electricity market in Central and South Asia.

In turn, the implementation of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project, designed to become a symbol of peace and good neighborliness, will strengthen the role of Central Asian states in the energy security architecture of the South Asian region.

Fourth, tourism. The demand for cooperation in the tourism sector is due to the enormous untapped potential between the two regions. This can be seen in the example of Uzbekistan's tourism cooperation with South Asian countries.

In particular, in 2019-2020 only 125 thousand people visited Uzbekistan from South Asian countries. (1.5% of the total number of tourists), and the total export of tourism services to the countries of the region amounted to $89m (5.5%).

In addition, outbound tourism from South Asian countries is expected to grow. The UN World Tourism Organization predicts that the number of Indian tourists in the world will increase 122% to 50 million by 2022 from 23 million in 2019, and their average expenditure to $45bn by 2022 from $23bn. The number of tourists from Bangladesh will increase by 2.6 million over the period, and from Sri Lanka by 2 million.

Fifth, the science and education sector. Central Asian universities, especially medical schools, are becoming attractive to young people from South Asian countries. The growing number of students studying at Central Asian universities is a striking confirmation of this. In 2020, their number will reach 20,000. Such increased interest of South Asian youth to the educational services of Central Asian states can be explained by the high quality of training and relatively low cost of education.

In this regard, the states of both regions are interested in further strengthening cooperation in the field of education. This will significantly improve the system of training highly qualified personnel in both regions, which is necessary for overcoming social inequality and creating a competitive knowledge-based economy. Most importantly, strengthening cooperation in science and education can give a powerful impetus to scientific and innovative breakthroughs. After all, it is intellectual resources together with the latest technologies that are the decisive engine of economic development.

In this context, it is noteworthy that the volume of the global market of high technology today is estimated at $3.5trn, which already exceeds the market of raw materials and energy resources. In this regard, one promising area for the development of co-operation between Central and South Asia is considered to be innovation.

Sixth, the cultural and humanitarian sphere. The implementation of any integration project is impossible without the formation of a common cultural and humanitarian space that can bring together peoples of the two regions, increase mutual trust and strengthen friendly relations.

After all, cooperation in this area contributes to mutual enrichment and interpenetration of cultures, which is a key condition for building and developing sustainable and long-term relations between the two regions in the spheres of economy, politics and security.

These goals require significant steps toward intercultural rapprochement. There are all the necessary historical prerequisites for this. The cultural ties between the vast subregion of Central and South Asia are deeply rooted in history. They date back to the period of such ancient empires as the Kushan, Bactria, and the Achaemenid state.

All these states were located on huge territories that included partially or completely modern territories of Central and South Asia. It was then – in the III-II millennia BC, the foundations of trade routes were laid, an extensive network of land routes emerged, which included access to India through Afghanistan. In turn, the ancient cities of Central Asia were the place of intersection of trade routes from China, Europe, and India.

In this context, it is clear that the head of Uzbekistan Sh. Mirziyoyev has a clear strategic vision: the "Third Renaissance" taking place in Uzbekistan should be accompanied by the revival of historical ties with neighboring regions, the restoration of ancient caravan routes, including the Great Silk Road, which has long played the role of a conductor of knowledge, innovation and prosperity. Such developments are in tune with Uzbekistan's regional strategy. After all, historically Central Asia has reached its peak of prosperity, acting as a crossroads of world civilizations and one of the main centers of international trade.

In general, the practical implementation of Uzbekistan's plans for interconnectedness can create a new economic reality in two regions at once, forming the most favorable ground and all necessary conditions for the inclusive economic development of Central and South Asian states, as well as the progressive improvement of the well-being and prosperity of peoples living in these regions.

This perspective shows that our country's plans for interconnectedness are of global significance, as improving the macroeconomic situation and strengthening stability in the two densely populated regions of the world would have a very positive impact on international security. In this regard, this initiative can be regarded as another reflection of Uzbekistan's aspirations to make its worthy contribution to ensuring and maintaining international peace and sustainable development.

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Development of public services delivery system in the Republic of Uzbekistan

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The national action strategy on five priority development areas 2017-2021 and the Concept of administrative reform in the Republic of Uzbekistan, adopted in 2017, contributed to the accelerated transition of the national system of public services delivery to a qualitatively new level, writes Muhammad Babadjanov, Center for Economic Research and Reforms.

The development of the public services delivery system can conditionally be divided into two stages, where the first stage includes the period from 1991 to 2017, and the second stage begins from 2017 and continues to nowadays.

At the first stage, the level of public services delivery in most cases did not meet the expectations and requirements of citizens and entrepreneurs, it was characterized by a high level of paper bureaucracy and did not contribute to an increase in confidence in the public administration system.

At the second stage of the development of public services delivery system, thanks to the reforms being implemented, there have been colossal changes, the entire system of public services delivery has been improved and optimized, electronic interagency cooperation has been clearly established, and excessive bureaucracy and paperwork have been eliminated. In other words, in the 2nd stage, public services delivery system became more customer-oriented.
In 2017 the Public Services Agency under the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan has been established (with 205 public service centers and 115 branches in remote areas). Until that time such a practice did not exist in Uzbekistan.

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Since its establishment, the Public Services Agency has begun to implement a unified government policy on public services delivery to citizens and legal entities, eliminating redundant administrative procedures, and developing inter-ministerial electronic interaction.

It should be noted that the types of public services provided based on the “one-stop-shop” principle are increasing dramatically. For example, if in the period from 1991 to 2016 16 types of public services were provided only for business entities, starting from 2017 to 2020 public services delivery began to both business entities and citizens, and their number reached up to 157 types, i.e. the types of public services provided based on the “one-stop-shop” principle have been increased by 10 times.

Compared to the period from 1991 to 2016, in total 167 documents were required for obtaining public services, whereas in the period from 2017 to 2020 their number decreased by half and reached 79.

The length of public services delivery time is one of the important factors affecting the satisfaction of users with public services. In the period from 2017 to 2020, compared to 1991-2016, the length of public services delivery time has been reduced by 45%.

Along with this, at present, access to 279 types of electronic public services is provided through the Single portal of interactive public services (70 of which are provided in automatic mode, and 209 in semi-automatic mode). In the first half of 2021, more than 2,3 mln public services were provided through the Single portal of interactive public services, which saved more than 18 bln soums of users.

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At the same time, the constant increase in number of the population and business entities applying to government departments to obtain public services required the introduction of an effective system for monitoring and assessing the quality of public services, including through remote monitoring in real-time and public opinion polls.

In this regard, according to the Order of the Administration of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the Accelerator of Socio-Economic Reforms under the Administration of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan was tasked to create a system for measuring the level of satisfaction of users with public services delivery system.

Thus, the Accelerator formed a working group of experts from ministries and departments and studied the experience of foreign countries - Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Based on the studied foreign experience, Accelerator has developed and launched an interactive portal to assess the quality of the provision of public services to citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Through this portal, citizens can assess the quality of delivered public services - https://baho.gov.uz/uz.

The citizen can assess the quality of public service delivery (on a scale from one to five) through this portal using a special QR-code installed on the territory of the assessed organization, based on the following 5 criteria:

  • Meetings the deadlines;
  • the competence of employees;
  • compliance with the rules of etiquette;
  • justice;
  • the presence of the necessary conditions for the appeal.
    Each rating given by citizens to the public services provided affects the overall rating of the government organization. The more evaluations a government organization accumulates, the more objective its evaluation will be.
    Users’ assessments are automatically reflected on the platform. Anyone can follow the rating of a particular government organization.
    The downgrade of rating is a negative signal for the employees and management of the assessed government organization. Government agencies that have a downgrade rating should take appropriate remedial actions.
    To date, 223 institutions are connected to the portal in a test mode in Tashkent. In particular, the citizen can leave their feedback about the quality of public service at:
  • 44 offices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan (centers for replacing passports with ID-cards, issuing exit passports, obtaining a driver's license, compulsory technical inspection of vehicles, obtaining state numbers of vehicles);
  • 167 health care institutions (scientific and practical medical centers of the republican level, family polyclinics, and hospitals)and ;
  • 12 branches of JSC “Hududiy elektr tarmoqlari” (energy sales company).
    As of October 19, the total number of ratings on the portal was 3910, of which 3205 were positive, 705 were negative, and the average rating is 4.3.
    Currently, measures are being taken to popularize the portal's activities among the population and the public, to increase the involvement of the population in the process of assessing the quality of public services delivery, as well as to expand the portal's activities to cover all other ministries and departments throughout the republic.

    We believe that this platform will become an effective tool for public monitoring of the public service delivery system.

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Uzbek heritage: A visit to Khiva

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I had the pleasure of visiting one of Uzbekistan’s oldest, most treasured cities while on my travels to the country for the 2021 Presidential elections, writes Tori Macdonald.

Khiva is an enchanting city in the west of Uzbekistan, located in the region of Khorezm. Although it is small and rural, Khiva is rich in culture and history which span back more than a millennium.

I began my journey into Khiva’s pure magic by stopping at a local polling station to observe how the pre-election process had been unfolding in this part of the country. (Learn more about the 2021 elections in my article here.) This polling station was dedicated to the memory of Xudaybergan Devonov, an Uzbek photographer and the first photographer in Central Asia who lived between 1878-1940. He captured many well-known Uzbek actors, artists, and celebrities at the time. The theatre in this polling station was recently built in Devonov’s memory in the classical, turn of the century style.

I then went to begin diving into the exquisite heritage by exploring a couple of the old palace buildings with the help of my incredibly friendly and well-read guides, Shahnoza, my interpreter and language student, Murod a manager at a local construction bank and Sevara, a local journalist.

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Khiva is composed of two parts: the inner part, or “Ichan Kala”, and the outer part, “Desha Kala”. I began by visiting some of the palace buildings in the outer part of the city.

One of the palaces contained a couple of small exhibitions on Khivan culture, one dedicated to art and the other, Devonov which contained infographics and copies of iconic shots he had taken, as well as some original artefacts such as the camera he used to capture his first photos.

One of the buildings, Nurillaboy Palace, was constructed between 1884-1912, overlapping the last two kings of Khiva. King Feruz (Muhammad Rahimhon II) or “Feruzxon” in Uzbek, lived from 1845-1910. He was a literature and arts specialist, a musician, and a composer. He was known for writing much of his poetry on love. He was acceded by his son, Isfandiyar Khan (Muhammad Rahim Khan II) after his death, who ruled until 1918. Khan was also a Major General in the Russian Empire. Despite wearing several hats, Khan wasn’t regarded as fitting for the role of king unlike his father. Khan was responsible for the construction of several buildings in the southeast of the inner city, including the largest minaret in Central Asia and smallest Madrasa (a religious; educational institution). He received a great deal of financial and material aid for construction from a vizier named Islam Khodja. 1 million Persians and an unknown number of Russians were ordered to facilitate the constructions.

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Khan was the subject of the first ever documentary in Uzbekistan, shot by the photographer, Devanov.

I then ventured into the inner part of Khiva for a guided tour around the Royal Court, or “Ichan Kala” in Uzbek. It reminded me a lot of Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s second city which is famous for its tall, turquoise domed buildings such as the Registan. Like in Samarkand, Khiva’s inner quarter is adorned with a strong Persian influence which is visible through the architecture. The classic Islamic style buildings, predominantly made up of patterns called “Majolica” in a colour scheme of a variety of blues doesn’t hold back in beauty and mesmerising intricate detail. Arabic lettering which contains excerpts from the Coran can be seen on parts of the buildings, intertwined amongst the various patterns. These impressive buildings were famously quoted on by Amir Temur, the 14th century ruler of Samarkand and founder of the Temurid Empire, who said “If anyone doubts our power, let them look at the buildings we have created.”

My friendly tour guide who spoke English very well, even with a hint of English accent despite never having left the country, took me round the inner city, shedding light on the tales and tragedies that had occurred over its history.

One big mausoleum in the centre is a solid representation of the timeline of the old city as one of its striking features is the difference in the thick columns by which it is composed. Some are intricately patterned and detailed whereas others more minimal. The former having been erected during the 11th century whilst the others were much more recent, during the 19th and 20th centuries during the time of Khan’s rule.An interesting addition to the building is the two holes carved out in the walls either side of the platform where the king would make his speeches. These were to create an echo when he spoke, allowing his voice to carry further.

The Ichan Kala also features mosques and further “Madrasas” among its many buildings. As you can imagine, this was a prosperous time in history and much of Kiva’s wealth was due to its status as a trade depot on the Silk Road. The main exports were cotton, craftsmanship in the form of stone and wood, carpet making and embroidery. The inner city also boasted a powerful fortress, and it was, (and still is) one of the best examples of well-preserved Islamic architecture.

But as the 20th century elapsed and social norms began to change in the surrounding world, Young Khivans started demanding reforms to move with the times. Many of the upcoming generation were inspired by what was happening with the Tsarist regime in Russia and soa representational body called the Majlis was created in 1917 which continues to this day. This meant Khan’s power became limited, however because progress was slow regarding the development of these changes, Khan managed to cancel the reforms. But not for too long…

With social changes continuing in Russia, Khan was overthrown in 1920 by the Red Army and the Khorezm dynasty lost political importance when Sovietism was fully integrated in 1924.

Learning about Khiva was one of the most poignant cultural experiences I’ve had. The architecture is of course iconic enough on its own, however, uncovering the crucial historical moments along the way which completely transformed centuries of the city’s social, religious and political culture made for some fascinating storytelling. It’s always a pleasure to learn more about the world’s cultures, however now reflecting on my second trip to Uzbekistan, it’s quite remarkable that many in the world today remain unaware or perhaps a better description would be unintroduced to the wonders of Central Asian heritage.

I hope following my travels to Uzbekistan I can help spread its merited recognition in tandem with the country’s own recent achievements. It will be interesting to watch the continuing developments as Uzbekistan works to grow in presence in the modern world.

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Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan National Elections: Building a bright future

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I had the pleasure of visiting Tashkent for the second time this year following the Central & South Asia Connectivity Conference in July. This time I returned as an international journalist for the Uzbek national presidential elections which occur every 5 years, writes Tori Macdonald.

Enthusiasm was evident and the smell of optimism was fresh in the air as I was met by many smiling faces on my arrival at the Central Election Commission Centre just two days before the main event on Sunday 24th October. First being introduced to the CEC’s Press Secretary,Jaloliddin UsmanovI was welcomed into the press conference area, (Media Hall) in typical Uzbek fashion; nothing short of warm and hospitable.

Usmanovopened by informing me there had been significantly more interest towards this election than any previous. We were coming to the end of a 10-day pre-election process and statistics were showing that people were ready and waiting to cast their vote for the next incoming tenure. Usmanovsaid, “We’ve put great effort into publicising the elections and their importance as much as possible through all kinds of new projects, particularly of digital nature.” He continued to share that a major objective has been to create more interest amongst the younger generations around the importance of contributing to the future of their country. Interestingly, many of the volunteers helping to operate the polling stations were of the upcoming generation, generally under 28 years of age.

At this point, we were joined by a young, twinkly eyed volunteer who continued the explanation saying, “we’ve launched several campaigns online through social media platforms and encouraged youth participation through trending hashtags such as #ImGoingToVote and #ImAnElectioner. Furthermore, general social media content, infographics, TV adverts and website updates.” The organisers have also been carrying out various informative lectures on the elections, ensuring youths would be as clued up on the political differences and insights as possible. These lectures have been run by political experts, youth parliamentarians as well as other related organisations. As a country with an average age of only 27.8 years, undoubtedly great attention has been needed to be paid to their involvement. Incentives have been provided such as competitions to win books and other materials for their online and offline contribution.

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I was told that the silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic has been that people have been more attentive and responsive to the digital publicity due to spending so much time at home. Content has been clear in explaining clearly how citizens can cast their votes and reassuring that despite the recent restricted way of living, the elections would still continue, and voting could take place as normal.

Another major objective was to make it as clear as possible where all the available polling stations were located so citizens could easily make their way to their local point without confusion. A mobile app has been created featuring an interactive map so citizens can tap around and zoom in on their municipality with the aid of a smartphone. Voting was also possible online for those who for whatever reason were not able to physically attend the polling stations.

There’s also been a big effort made to increase international awareness on these elections through the establishment of 17 mass media memorandums. This has been especially effective in maintaining awareness and attendance from the many Uzbek nationals living outside of the country.

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The four competing parties, featuring a newly accredited fifth party, consisted of the XDP (People’s Democratic Party), the Adolat SDP (Social Democrats), the Milly Tiklanish (“National Revival” democratic party), the newly entered O’EP (Ecology (Green) party), and finally, the current ruling party, Mirziyoyev’s “O’ZLIDEP” (Liberal Democrats).

It was mentioned to me that the Milly Tiklanish, the party of most conservative nature, define their “national revival” ideology by phasing out remaining Russian influence. They are also the party with the highest percentage of female members.

On the day of the elections, I visited several polling stations in and around the centre of Tashkent. One of the venues I went to visit was the site of Tashkent’s 100-year-old "Republic Art school" named after 20th century Uzbek artist, Benkov. I spoke to a few party representatives manning the site.

The first, a representative from the current ruling party, O’ZLIDEP. When I asked him how confident he felt that Mirziyoyev would win a second term, following the polls which had him very much in favour to swoop the victory once again, he replied, “I’m very confident. I’ve been participating in the elections since Islam Karimov, the first President of the independent state of Uzbekistan in 1991. I have great respect for Shavkat, and I trust he will only continue to deliver in great development for the country. He has been responsible for many works in construction and general infrastructure. He’s also pledging to help facilitate the return of Uzbek women stranded in war torn Syria. Mirziyoyev is the only party leader making such an effort for these women.” I then asked him what his feelings were towards Uzbekistan eventually becoming a major global player, he said, “We have begun a 30-year development plan. It will be a step-by-step process and only God will determine when we become a real contender.”

I then spoke to a couple of competitors, Shavkat Samandarov of XDP and Durdona Allayarova of the Ecology Party.

I first asked the XDP representative how he’d found the voting process so far, to which he replied confidently, “elections should be honest and real. The whole process is being carefully monitored and this is visible.” When I asked him why his candidate, Vorisova Azizovna should come to power, he responded, “Development is undoubtedly the main aim of all parties which is why there are similarities between everyone competing. However, Azizovna will try to put focus towards medicine development as her background is in this field. Also, sports development, increasing salaries and expanding imports and exports.”

I then challenged him, asking what he would say to the outside world looking in who may have concerns that Mirziyoyev’s likely re-election could suggest that authoritarianism continues to rule. To this he responded reassuringly, “the population can see the President has made great and genuine actions to support and protect everyone during the COVID pandemic. For example, continued efforts to augment salaries and he organised a large number of car imports from Turkey. He also supplied government funded houses to homeless and young people in these times, providing opportunity to pay back through a reduced monthly mortgage. The Uzbek people really do believe in Mirziyoyev and support him.”

The Ecology Party representative was shy when I asked her how she’d felt it was going running for the first time. “It’s been ok. Naturally it’s a step-by-step process to attract support as a new party. We’ve got work to do but we won’t give up as saving the earth is what matters most right now. Uzbekistan has a water shortage issue so we will work to tackle this. The O’EP also has a foot in the medicinal industry, and we will put effort towards researching and fighting against cancer forms.” Allayarova told me that the younger generation were the most engaged and supportive of the party, which didn’t come as a great surprise.

Having visited several polling stations, they appeared to be very well organised.

Registration desks were clearly labelled by family name first letter, and party representatives were readily available to answer any final questions. At the back of the rooms, several booths were present giving citizens enough privacy to fill in their voting form before placing in a large, clear column in the centre of the room. There were always foreign language interpreters available on site, speaking at least Russian and in many stations Korean and English speakers were also present.

On the day of voting, I returned to the CEC for a few press conferences. We were informed that there were 54 fixed polling stations in 37 countries as well as 316 mobile polling stations 128 cities. Furthermore, 11 polling stations in 11 countries where there are no diplomatic relations.

The foreign based voters results were received by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at different times depending on the time zone and participation was proving to be active and passionate despite distance.

A total of 1671 journalists were accredited to attend and observe the elections, with over 300 of them being foreign.

I spoke again to the Press Secretary, Jaloliddin Usmanov and asked him how the process would be managed, to which he said, “The Press Centre’s main IT company here at the CEC oversees the data gathering. The pre-election result is shown first then when the election finishes, then all the polling station boxes are opened, and ballots are gathered and totalled.

I asked the press advisors I spoke to at the centre about their hopes for feedback from the arriving international observers. Another member told me that, “of course, to be positive and democratic.” He added, “The OSCE have already deemed the pre-election process transparent, and all election materials are always written and sent out in 3 language versions, Uzbek, Russian and English.” I went on to enquire about the progress made in the last few decades, notably as Uzbekistan are this year celebrating 30 years of soviet independence. Usmanov reflected by sharing, “there have been huge reforms since the current President (Shavkat Mirziyoyev) came into power in 2016. Many of the major national spheres have been brought great opportunities such as freedom of speech and a liberalised economy. Journalists have more freedom than ever before, now safe to state their honest opinions to news outlets about our country’s evolution. Journalism quality is also being improved through the cooperation and training from international journalists coming from countries such as Germany and USA. These are some examples of how the democratic process has been dramatically improved.” He concluded by stating his hopes that the rate at which these reforms have been occurring will continue if not accelerate in pace.

I was interested to know Usmanov’s impressions around civilian involvement this time compared to the last elections, to which he said, “We’ve been working with more young people this time. Providing trainings and more social media promotion. Reports are coming in showing big queues of youths waiting to cast their votes at polling stations nationwide which is fantastic. It’s great to see the work is being rewarded and they are motivated to be a part of the country’s future.”

As the polls predicted, Mirziyoyev did indeed renew his tenure as President with a margin of 80.1%. Despite foreign concern, in reflection on the many conversations I had with people of all backgrounds in Uzbekistan, one of, if not perhaps the main factor behind Mirziyoyev’s success has been through his motivation to evolve and open to the world. In reflection on his first term as President, Mirziyoyev has certainly proved his intentions through the many actions carried out in such a short period of time. It will be interesting to see what stage development will be at in 2026.

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