The Middle East and Pakistan
Because of Uzbekistan's long historical and cultural ties to the Persian, Turkish, and Arab worlds, its immediate neighbors to the south--Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey--were the natural direction for expanded foreign relations. Although cultural relations with formerly dominant Iran and Turkey ended with the Soviet Revolution in 1917, Uzbekistan's relations with its southern neighbors increased dramatically after independence. Iran and Turkey have been especially active in pursuing economic projects and social, cultural, and diplomatic initiatives in Uzbekistan. Turkey was the first country to recognize Uzbekistan and among the first to open an embassy in Tashkent. The Turks made early commitments for expansion of trade and cooperation, including the promise to fund 2,000 scholarships for Uzbek students to study in Turkey. Uzbekistan also has been the recipient of most of the US$700 million in credits that Turkey has given the new Central Asian states.
Although initially apprehensive about the spread of an Iranian-style Islamic fundamentalist movement in Central Asia, Uzbekistan also has found mutual economic interests with Iran, and the two have pursued overland links and other joint ventures. Relations with Pakistan have followed suit, with particular commercial interest in hydroelectric power, gas pipelines, and other projects. And a meeting of the heads of state of Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey in Turkmenistan in early 1995 underscored the continuing interest of those countries in the Central Asian region as a whole.
One forum that has emerged as a potentially important structure for cooperation among these countries has been the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO--see Glossary), a loose regional economic organization to foster trade and cooperation among its members in the Middle East and South Asia. Although during its almost two decades of existence ECO has achieved little concrete economic cooperation, in November 1992 the inclusion of the five new Central Asian states, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan brought significant efforts to reinvigorate the organization. At a meeting in Quetta, Pakistan, in February 1993, an ambitious plan was announced to create a new regional economic bloc among ECO's members by the year 2000. The plan calls for expanding ties in all economic sectors, in training, and in tourism; setting up an effective transportation infrastructure; and ultimately abolishing restrictions limiting the free flow of people and commodities. Energy trade also is to be expanded through the laying of oil and gas pipelines and power transmission lines throughout the region. Given ECO's past performance, however, in 1996 the potential for fulfillment of such plans was quite unclear.
Trade and cooperation agreements have also been signed with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern states. The pragmatic rather than religious background of such endeavors is underscored by Uzbekistan's rapidly expanding ties with Israel, a nation that shares none of the history and culture of Uzbekistan. Following a visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to Uzbekistan in July 1994, Israel and Uzbekistan signed agreements expanding commercial relations, protecting foreign investments and the development of business ties, aviation links, and tourism. In the early 1990s, Israel's long participation in Uzbekistani irrigation projects has been supplemented by aid projects in health care, industry, and the two countries' common battle against radical Islamic groups.
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