Along the Silk Road, Uzbekistan branches out

Israel can gain a stable, Muslim- majority ally to the east of Iran and profitable opportunities for its agriculture and tech businesses.

September 29, 2018 21:32
2 minute read.
Kalyan ensemble in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Kalyan ensemble in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (photo credit: il Zhumatov / Reuters)

What do you think about when you think of Uzbekistan? Traders crossing the Silk Road on camelback? Another miserable post-Soviet dictatorship wracked by corruption?

These days, Uzbekistan is surpassing these preconceived notions: the streets of Tashkent are full of Chevys, teenagers sprawl on the grass in parks, and since 2016, a new government headed by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has pushed economic liberalization and other reforms welcomed by the growing business community. The most obvious historical ties – with Russia or China’s version of a new Silk Road – no longer define the country. Instead, two seemingly unexpected relationships indicate how Uzbekistan is branching out.

The first is Uzbekistan’s growing relationship with South Korea. The Koryo-saram population (descendants of ethnic Koreans deported to Central Asia under Stalin) created a foundation for business and cultural ties. Today, it is fairly common to meet someone whose relatives are studying or working in South Korea, or to see an Uzbek reading South Korean news on their phone. With daily direct flights between Tashkent and Seoul and several investment projects in medicine and other fields coming online, the economic and cultural connections seem to be growing.

The second unexpected relationship is with Israel. The Israeli ambassador has played a large role in bringing entrepreneurs from Tel Aviv to Tashkent, and other initiatives to support entrepreneurship and innovation, such as the first Uzbek Global Entrepreneurship Week in 2017.

Like South Korea, Israel has historic cultural ties to Uzbekistan, in this case through the Bukharan Jews, who have lived in the region for well over a millennium. While most Bukharan Jews emigrated, it appears that a significant number return to do business or visit historic sites. Israeli and Uzbek businesses are developing ties in areas such as agriculture, as the former’s irrigation technology can help contend with the latter’s scarce water resources, and the two countries are seeking to expand cooperation in other areas.

These relationships make sense for more than historical reasons. In a region with a resurgent Russian state looking to create a sphere of influence, China pouring in funds for its Belt and Road Initiative, and the perennially troubled Afghanistan, Uzbekistan can benefit from ties to developed industrial economies with transparent, more liberal political climates.

Israel can gain a stable, Muslim- majority ally to the east of Iran and profitable opportunities for its agriculture and tech businesses. Likewise, South Korea can seek to engage more deeply in Uzbekistan as a strategy to diversify away from the Pacific and access an underdeveloped market of nearly 40 million consumers.

The historical Silk Road was not just a highway from Beijing to Moscow to European ports, but a web of trade and cultural ties woven across the world’s largest landmass. Connections that seem odd at first glance, such as Israel and South Korea, are not so foreign after all.

That also means that Uzbekistan need not resign itself to its closest neighbors’ economic and political models. Through business and cultural ties, Israel and South Korea can provide examples of effective governance and sustainable economic growth that will benefit a broad section of Uzbek society. It makes sense for Uzbekistan to continue branching out.

Eric Hontz is a program officer for Europe and Eurasia for the Center for International Private Enterprise. Caroline Elkin is a program assistant for Eastern Europe and Eurasia for the Center for International Private Enterprise. The Center for International Private Enterprise is an affiliate of the US Chamber of Commerce and a core institute of the National Endowment of Democracy.

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