by Yasmin Masood
The Minister of Foreign Economic Affairs, Investments and Trade of Uzbekistan, Elyor Ganiev is one of the high-ranking officials in the Uzbek government. A native of Tashkent, born to an Armenian mother and an Uzbek father, Ganiev is said to have been a multicultural person since an early age. His later interest in geology and energy led him to graduate from the Department of Oil and Gas of the Tashkent Polytechnic Institute. After a brief academic career Ganiev enrolled in the army, before serving in a number of state institutions and finally embarking on career within the government body dealing with foreign economic and trade matters.
Due to Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s key political principle – to frequently reshuffle government officials in order to prevent their excessive concentration of power, Ganiev has not led the Ministry continuously. After heading the Ministry between 1997 and 2002, he worked as a Deputy Prime Minister (2002-2005) and then as a Minister of Foreign Affairs (2005-2006). When, in 2006, Ganiev was removed from the latter position and was reappointed Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, US diplomats reported on speculation within the Uzbek elite about Ganiev “falling out of favour” and being on his way out of the government. The Wikileaks cables showed that the US diplomats were cautious about trusting such assumptions, and in fact Ganiev remains in his position today.
Due to a lack of sufficient and credible reports, it is somehow difficult to assess the degree of importance the role Ganiev plays within the Uzbek government. Considered a member of the powerful Tashkent clan, Ganiev is also often linked to the Uzbek National Security Service due to his former employment there. Whether such a close connection is retained today or not cannot be verified. So far US officials and possibly other Western diplomats seemed to view Rustam Azimov, Sodiq Safoev and Vladimir Norov, three other influential Uzbek government officials, as more “pro-Western”, while Ganiev’s alleged ties to the security services were viewed as a negative. However, it could be wrong to assume that the lack of Ganiev’s diplomatic service in the West or possible connection to the security services makes him necessarily pro-Russian or anti-Western. Current Uzbek foreign economic politics and trade are based on the interests of the state. Recalling a classic British political saying, Uzbekistan like Britain has “no constant enemies or friends, but constant interests”.
Ganiev has been the key Uzbek government official responsible for the Uzbek-UK economic and trade cooperation in the past decade. Unofficial reports refer to Ganiev as a hardworking, modest and civil individual. These traits surely cannot constitute a negative characteristic for an individual responsible for foreign trade and economic relations of the country, but neither can those be a crystal ball for predicting the policies or interests of a government official. At the moment, it seems that Uzbekistan’s interests lie in increasing trade and economic relations with non-European markets and this trend could continue.
According to Ganiev’s own ministry statistics, in 2010 the bilateral trade between the UK and Uzbekistan was USD 228m. Amongst the EU countries, the UK ranks second, preceded by Germany, with a bilateral trade of USD 483m. These numbers are very modest compared to cooperation with Turkey and South Korea, equalling USD 958m and USD 1.6bn , respectively.
Uzbek cotton, which is one of the most important Uzbek exports, is boycotted by many UK retailers such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and ASDA, following reports on the use of child labour in Uzbekistan in 2009-2011. Following the earlier turmoil in the global media, and a public ban of the Uzbek cotton by many European clothes brands, the Uzbek government assured the world that no children of school age would be involved in cotton harvest. During the past two years some progress has been made and there have been fewer reports of the use of child labour in Uzbekistan. However, the previous events and disruption of contracts with Western companies had already forced Uzbekistan to switch its focus to the emerging markets instead of Europe.
All does not appear smooth with the British investments in the country either. While UK capital is present in Uzbekistan, either directly or via joint ventures (according to Uzbek British Trade and Industry Council (UBTIC)), currently 437 companies with British funding are operating in Uzbekistan), some big UK investors have unfortunately left the country. Those include Oxus Gold, a mining group, and Intercontinental Hotels Group, a well-known hospitality group.
In late 2013, London hosted the 20th session of the UBTIC . Held at the Foreign Office premises, the 20th anniversary meeting included many British government officials and business representatives. The Uzbek government delegation headed by Ganiev, emphasized favourable business and economic environment in Uzbekistan and highlighted the potential for development of the bilateral economic and trade cooperation. Both parties – UK and Uzbekistan seem to indirectly recognise the need to improve the current bilateral relationship’s less-than-perfect state.
As a Minister, Mr. Ganiev is challenged to attract more UK investments and retain those in the country. Lobbying the need to update the relevant legislation, introducing full currency conversion, as well as ensuring no child labour is ever in place, would be some of the viable steps in this direction. The Uzbek government cannot neglect the fact that the economic welfare of the majority and a favourable investment climate matter as much as political and security issues, and it is hoped that progress will be made accordingly.
Improving the relationship requires both sides to cooperate. Opportunities for Uzbekistan will also depend on UK investors and politicians and their approach to Uzbek specifics. Positive steps of the Uzbek government could be highlighted as much as the negative events in the UK media – too often anything positive is lost amongst the sensational stories, however the Uzbek government needs to develop a more pro-media approach. The UK needs to track and appreciate progress made by Uzbekistan and aim at a better understanding of its politics, economics and its Soviet legacy, and work on policies accordingly. After all, democracies are not built in one day.
It is hoped that efforts from both parties will turn the “potential for development” of UK-Uzbek ties into an actual development of those. Both UK and Uzbekistan communities are looking forward to it.