Interview with the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the Benelux Countries, Dilyor Khakimov, on the development of the relations between Europe and Uzbekistan in the course of deepening reforms in Uzbekistan.
Q: It has been 3.5 years since you started your career as Ambassador to the Benelux countries. How have Uzbekistan’s relations with these countries developed in recent years?
A: Benelux, as you know, is a political, economic and customs union of the three Western European monarchies-Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Despite their relatively small size – their total territory is only 74.6 thousand square kilometers, these countries have powerful highly developed post-industrial economies, which are distinguished by their openness and focus on foreign trade, the introduction of high technologies, innovations and advanced knowledge into production.
In addition, these countries are known for their active and principled foreign policy, the cornerstone of which is the promotion of the values of democracy, the protection of human rights and equality, the protection of the environment, ensuring sustainable development, strengthening global connectivity and security.
It is worth noting that mutual interest in the development and expansion of cooperation has always existed. Europe is well aware that Uzbekistan is the largest state in terms of population in a strategically important region of the world.
In addition, the independent and balanced domestic and foreign policy of our country, the socio-political and economic reforms of President Sh.M. Mirziyoyev, which made it possible to successfully overcome the most acute problems facing our people at the beginning of independence, and become one of the “engines” of economic growth and a guarantor of regional security and stability in Central Asia, deserve high praise and recognition.
In turn, Europe for Uzbekistan has traditionally been a source of advanced technologies, knowledge, investment, and innovation in the economy, as well as an important partner in the formation and strengthening of democratic institutions, the development of parliamentarism and civil society, the principles of a market economy, key sectors of public life, health, education, and many other areas.
In this regard, we can say with full confidence that Uzbekistan’s relations with the Benelux countries have been developing steadily over the past four years. The European partners look at the new, changing Uzbekistan, perceive the country with a completely different view, and we can say that they are rediscovering it for themselves.
In accordance with the strategic objectives set for the country’s foreign ministry, as well as the priorities of the reforms carried out in the republic under the leadership of President Sh.M. Mirziyoyev, significant new dimensions are being introduced into relations with our European partners. In particular, in recent years, special emphasis has been placed on the development of trade and economic relations.
In this process, the diplomatic missions of Uzbekistan abroad, in particular in the Benelux countries, are assigned a particularly responsible role related to the promotion and protection of the interests of domestic producers-exporters working or just planning to enter the European markets, as well as assistance in attracting European technologies, knowledge and innovations to various sectors of the economy of the republic.
Of course, other important areas of cooperation are not ignored either. Although the coronavirus pandemic has made some adjustments over the past year, political dialogue was maintained with the Benelux countries, including at the high and highest levels, the practice of exchanging delegations was expanded, including at the regional level, inter-ministerial political consultations were held, inter-parliamentary dialogue, cooperation in the fields of culture, education and security was developed.
“Attracting European investments and modern technologies to the economy of the republic is also an important focus of our activities”.Ambassador Dilyor Khakimov
Q: How well, in your opinion, are European countries aware of the reforms being implemented in Uzbekistan and what is the attitude towards them in Europe?
A: As I have already mentioned, our European partners are rediscovering Uzbekistan. I do not mean our history, culture and art, which have long been known and loved in Europe and do not need to be introduced. I’m talking about the European political and economic establishment, the people who make political decisions, manage financial flows, decide where and how much to invest, with which countries to trade, and which to keep at a distance.
From this point of view, it is this stratum of people, among whom there are many representatives of a relatively young generation and technocrats, perhaps not very familiar with our country, who watch with undisguised interest how a new Uzbekistan is being built before their eyes. They see that the country is open for cooperation and interaction, that the stated goals of democratization, protection of human rights, economic liberalization, attracting investment, advanced technologies and innovations are being implemented. For them, the most important thing is that the country’s leadership is sincere in its desire to bring Uzbekistan to a new stage of historical development.
In this regard, we can say with firm confidence that Europe fully supports the reforms initiated by the country’s leadership. During the meetings, the European partners tell us that they are closely monitoring the fundamental transformations taking place in Uzbekistan, and are ready, if necessary, to provide assistance in those areas and directions that will be of interest to the Uzbek side. This, in my opinion, is the most important, since cooperation is primarily a dialogue.
This was also discussed during recent visits and meetings at the high and highest levels, in particular, during the visit of the former President of the European Council D. Tusk to Uzbekistan in May 2019, a telephone conversation between the President of Uzbekistan Sh. M. Mirziyoyev and the current President of the European Council Sh. Michel in April 2020, negotiations between the Deputy Prime Minister-Minister of Investment and Foreign Trade S. Umurzakov and the EU Trade Commissioner F. Hogan in April and June 2020, as well as Vice-President of the European Commission V. Dombrovskis in November 2020, meetings between the Minister of Foreign Affairs A. Kamilov and the High Representative of the EU J. Borrel in January and May 2020.
You asked how much Europe is aware of the reforms in Uzbekistan. Opening this part of the question, I would like to inform you that in 2020, despite the severe restrictions associated with the pandemic, the Embassy of Uzbekistan in the Benelux countries held more than 55 information events, including briefings, round tables, conferences, presentations, etc., both in offline and online formats, during which information was provided on various aspects of the reforms being implemented in the republic. And this is only through one diplomatic mission. If we take the events organized by all the diplomatic missions of Uzbekistan in Europe, it becomes clear that the visibility of Uzbekistan in the information space of the European political establishment is very solid and the partners from the Old World are well aware of the processes taking place in our country.
Q: Please tell us in more detail how trade and economic relations with the Benelux countries have been developing recently, as well as with European countries in general?
A: As I have already noted, economic diplomacy, in particular, the promotion and protection of the rights and interests of domestic producers and exporters, finding new markets, developing new transport corridors, attracting modern technologies, knowledge and investment in the economy of the republic, are one of the main tasks of the embassy, and work in this direction does not stop for a minute. According to the results of last year, the trade turnover of Uzbekistan with the Benelux countries amounted to 271.2 million US dollars, of which 43.7 million were Uzbekistan’s exports to the Benelux, and 227.5 million were imports from the Benelux. I agree that these are relatively modest indicators compared to other trade partners of Uzbekistan.
However, it should be noted that the volume of trade, albeit slowly, but steadily rising for the fourth consecutive year, and we have significant potential reserves for fold increase in volume of mutual trade due to a more aggressive entry into the European market for fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, and dried fruits. In addition, Uzbekistan’s acquisition of the GSP+ status will open up great prospects, which will allow it to export more than 6 thousand products to the EU markets duty-free.
Attracting European investments and modern technologies to the economy of the republic is also the focus of our activities. Currently, a number of interesting projects are being implemented, in particular, with VEON, which is the “parent” structure of the mobile operator Beeline. With the Asia Wool Basalt LLC and the Dutch partner Arona International company, a project on building a plant for the production of mineral wool and cassette sandwich panels on the territory of the Namangan FEZ is being implemented. Shell is implementing a project for the production and processing of natural gas from the “Mustakillik 25” field in the Surkhandarya region. Lummus Technology (formerly a McDermott division) is implementing a project on modernization the Shurtan Gas Chemical Complex and others.
A real success story was the project to build a super-modern greenhouse complex using Dutch technologies in the Khankinsky district of the Khorezm region. The total area of the greenhouse of the 4th generation is 6 hectares. By the way, all over the world the area of such greenhouses does not exceed 50 hectares, 6 of which are in Uzbekistan.
The yield per 1 hectare is 700 tons of products. The complex incorporates all the latest technologies of KUBO, which is one of the leaders of the Dutch greenhouse market. It continues to provide technical assistance, as well as to participate in the training of the necessary personnel to work in the greenhouse. Thanks to the implementation of the project, about 80 jobs were created.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has made its own adjustments to the format of our events, nevertheless, in 2020, the embassy actively worked with European partners. In particular, more than 400 meetings were held, including in the format of video conferences, with representatives of the official circles of the Benelux countries and the European Union, as well as with the heads of large companies, chambers of commerce, associations, and financial institutions, during which the foreign side was informed about the export and investment potential of Uzbekistan, reforms and opportunities for increasing cooperation. It should be noted that the meetings were also attended by responsible employees of the khokimiyats of the regions and districts, ministries and departments, as well as domestic entrepreneurs.
Despite the pandemic, the Embassy organized a number of important bilateral visits during the year. So, in January, the delegation of Uzbekistan, consisting of representatives of the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Agriculture, visited the Netherlands. During the visit of the delegation of the Ministry of Agriculture, meetings were organized at Plantlab and the world’s leading agricultural university – Wagenin University. A presentation of the potential of Uzbekistan in the field of agriculture was held in The Hague with the participation of representatives of more than 40 leading Dutch agricultural companies.
In March 2020, the third business mission of Dutch companies to Uzbekistan took place, which included more than 50 Dutch companies in the fields of animal husbandry, production of greenhouse complexes, equipment for processing agricultural products, etc. Also in March, the head of Plantlab visited Uzbekistan and discussed the prospects for establishing cooperation in the field of vertical farming with Uzbek partners. In December, Uzbekistan was visited by the regional manager of the Dutch company Certhon, which is one of the leaders of the local market for the production of greenhouse complexes.
Another notable event was the appointment of the representative of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Uzbekistan in the Netherlands, Mr. Boy Frank, who is a former diplomat with extensive experience and wide connections among the official and business circles of European countries. It is working on initiatives aimed at promoting the trade, economic, investment, tourism and business potential of Uzbekistan in the Netherlands.
The Embassy supported the activities of the Dutch company Agrifood NL LTD, which established a modern plant for processing and packaging fruits and legumes in the Tashkent region. The project cost exceeds 1 million euros.
An important partner of Uzbekistan is the European Investment Bank (EIB), which is headquartered in Luxembourg. In February 2020, the EIB approved the allocation of 100 million euros of a soft loan for the implementation of the urban heating project in Nukus. In addition, the bank has agreed on a loan project to support small and medium-sized businesses by increasing economic activity and employment in the amount of $ 100 million. Projects on waste management, energy efficiency improvement and financial support of the Multi-Partner Trust Fund for Human Security for the Aral Sea region in the amount of 300 million euros are also being worked out with the EIB. By the way, in 2020, the EU also allocated 5.2 million euros for the Multi-Partner Trust Fund.
Q: How do you assess the updated EU Strategy for Central Asia, adopted in June 2019? What new opportunities have emerged for Uzbekistan?
A: The first EU Strategy for Central Asia was adopted back in 2007. Since then, both in our region and in the European Union, there have been such profound changes that there is a need to form a new Strategy that corresponds to the current situation and modern challenges. Both sides clearly understood this.
Against this background, the EU launched a large-scale work to analyze the geopolitical shifts that have taken place in the region, the results achieved by the Central Asian states, the remaining problems and untapped potential. In my opinion, the most important thing in this process was that the countries of the region themselves were closely involved in the development of the updated Strategy, which identified priority areas of interaction for them, which were subsequently taken into account in the updated Strategy.
The formation of the overall picture, or, so to speak, “putting together the puzzle” took some time, and the result of the huge work done was the updated EU Strategy for Central Asia, adopted on June 19, 2019. The document is particularly relevant in view of the truly tectonic positive changes that have resulted in a new political atmosphere in our region, which is characterized by the strengthening of trust and good-neighborly relations, and the unprecedented expansion of intraregional cooperation in Central Asia.
An important feature of the updated Strategy is that it is based on three key priorities:
1) enhancing the political, economic and social sustainability of the Central Asian countries through support for reform, security, environmental protection, rule of law and democratization;
2) ensuring the prosperity of the countries of the region through economic development, education, scientific research, regional cooperation;
3) strengthening the institutional mechanisms of interaction between the EU and the countries of the region.
The updated Strategy also provides not only for the preservation of effective mechanisms of the EU– Central Asia dialogue, but also for the creation of new structures for interregional cooperation in trade, economic and investment spheres, as well as for countering extremism and terrorism.
From a practical point of view, the updated Strategy provides for the provision of assistance by the European side to the countries of Central Asia in the following areas:
– countering external and internal threats and developing interconnectedness, which, in particular, implies cooperation to strengthen borders and increase the capacity of the countries of the region to combat cross-border security threats, strengthening the rule of law, democracy and the protection of human rights, as well as the construction of roads and railways, the unification of standards, customs procedures, the development of a common digital space, a waste-free economy, energy efficiency, eco-tourism and public diplomacy;
– support for increasing the level of diversification and competitiveness of private-sector-dominated economies that can create jobs, integrate into regional and global value chains, and ensure a level playing field and opportunities for all economic actors;
– improving the quality of education against the background of demographic factors and increasing challenges facing young people in Central Asian countries. In this regard, the EU plans to increase the budget of the Erasmus+ project, increase the exchange of students and promote the opening of new branches of European universities in the Central Asian region;
– cooperation in the field of research and innovation, in particular in the fields of agriculture, environmental protection, water use, health, clean transport and sustainable urban development;
– interaction in the cultural and historical sphere, including the development of intercultural dialogue and the preservation of historical heritage;
– expansion of cooperation within the framework of international organizations.
The European partners are also ready to support the efforts of the countries of the region to develop intraregional trade and increase investment, including by improving mutual access to markets for goods and services, sharing best practices to eliminate non-tariff barriers to trade, promoting convergence of standardization systems, and ensuring quality.
An important element of the document is to assist the Central Asian countries in the development of transport corridors, including by creating the necessary regulatory framework, connecting the Trans-European transport network with the relevant systems in Central Asia.
Although the European Union has traditionally been one of the active participants in the Afghan settlement process and has interacted in this direction, including with the countries of Central Asia, the previous Strategy did not identify the “Afghan issue” as a separate area of cooperation. In the updated Strategy, the situation was corrected and the document provides that the European side will promote the development of trade between the states of Central Asia and Afghanistan, considering this country as an integral part of the expanded space of Central Asia.
Q: What can you tell us about the negotiations on the development of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EAPC) between Uzbekistan and the EU?
A: The current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between Uzbekistan and the EU was signed back in 1996, and, of course, the document no longer reflects the realities of today. Over the past 25 years, Uzbek-European relations have significantly expanded and acquired a comprehensive character, covering political, trade-economic, financial-technical, cultural-humanitarian and other spheres.
In addition, the reforms initiated by the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Sh. M. Mirziyoyev, including in the field of foreign policy, imply a completely different level and dynamics of interaction with all foreign partners of the republic without exception. These considerations were the basis for the agreements on the development of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EAPC), which was announced in November 2018 during a meeting between the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan A. Kamilov and the then High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy F. Mogherini.
It is worth noting that the parties took almost no time to build up and the first round of negotiations on the PSA was held in February 2019 in Tashkent. To date, 7 rounds of negotiations have already been held, during which the parties managed to agree on many political and sectoral sections of the draft SRAP, as well as to make significant progress on its trade part.
Q: In December 2020, the new seven-year EU budget for 2021-2027 was adopted. The previous budget for 2014-2020 provided assistance for Uzbekistan in the amount of 168 million euros for the implementation of various socio-economic projects, with a special focus on supporting the development of agriculture and rural areas. Is the European Commission preparing a new programme of support for Uzbekistan for the period 2021-2027? If so, what areas will it cover, what specific projects will it involve?
A: Although the coronavirus pandemic has made some adjustments and many countries around the world are now thinking more about a post-coronavirus recovery of their economies, the EU priorities outlined during the development and adoption of the new budget have largely remained unchanged. In particular, when providing assistance to international partners, the European side will focus on the introduction of “green” technologies, digital transformation, sustainable growth, the creation of decent jobs, effective migration management, ensuring peace and security, strengthening the system of human rights protection, democratization and the rule of law.
As for Uzbekistan, the EU delegation in Tashkent is currently holding consultations with the relevant ministries and departments of the republic to determine the priority areas that will be included in the new EU Multi-Year Indicative Program for Uzbekistan for 2021-2027. The program is expected to cover three key areas: good governance, green growth, and the agri-food sector. Other important areas of cooperation will be the digital economy, education, eco-innovative development of the Aral Sea region, improvement of the investment climate, etc.
Q: On November 30, 2020, the European Commission adopted a positive decision on Uzbekistan’s application for the status of a beneficiary country of the General System of Preferences Plus (“GSP+”). How was the application reviewed and what new opportunities does this open up for Uzbekistan?
A: First of all, let me clarify one key point. The fact that at the end of November last year, the European Commission made an early positive decision to grant Uzbekistan the status of a GSP+ beneficiary country does not mean that our country has already received it. Yes, the European Commission has made its decision, and ahead of schedule. When making its decision, it was based on the reports of its monitoring groups, which confirmed Uzbekistan’s compliance with the provisions of 27 international conventions in the field of human rights protection, compliance with labor standards, environmental protection and good governance. This is the main requirement of the European side for the provision of GSP+. However, now Uzbekistan’s application must be considered by the European Parliament and the EU Council. As a rule, these bodies consider country applications for up to four months. In this regard, we expect that a final decision on this issue will be made by April of this year.
And if we talk about the course of consideration, the Uzbek side began work on obtaining the status of a beneficiary country of the General System of Preferences Plus (“GSP+”) in early 2020. After the completion of the internal approval process, Uzbekistan submitted an application to the European Commission for the “GSP+” status on June 9, 2020. According to the EU regulation, the application is considered within 6 months, but, as I said, the application of Uzbekistan was approved ahead of schedule by the European Commission.
Currently, Uzbekistan uses the basic General System of preferences (GSP), under which the republic can export 3,000 items of goods to the EU countries without customs duties and 3,200 items of goods at reduced rates. In turn, the GSP+ provides for a significant expansion of commodity items for duty-free access. If it is obtained, Uzbek producers and exporters will be able to enjoy unilateral tariff preferences when exporting their goods to the European market. At the same time, the number of commodity items that can be exported duty-free to the EU countries will increase to 6,200.
I would like to say that this issue is under the special control of the Head of State. In particular, in his address to the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the President identified the issue of obtaining GSP+ as a key area of cooperation with the EU, stressing that only in the textile industry it will make it possible to increase exports of products by almost $ 300 million per year.
In accordance with the instructions of the President, work has now begun on the development of a separate program for the effective application of the GSP+ system preferences in our country.
Q: Today, the issue of Uzbekistan’s accession to the World Trade Organization is on the agenda. Is it possible to describe how this is treated in Europe, in particular, in the analytical and business community?
A: The issue of joining the World Trade Organization is also in the center of attention of the head of state, and we have an order to intensify work on joining the WTO.
If we talk about the position of the European side, the EU fully supports the desire of Uzbekistan to become a full member of the WTO and provides financial and technical assistance in this direction. In particular, in 2020, the European Union allocated 5 million euros to finance the project “Accession of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the World Trade Organization”, which is currently being successfully implemented in our country.
The analytical and business circles of the Benelux countries are also very enthusiastic about the prospect of Uzbekistan’s accession to the WTO. In their opinion, this will allow the country to use its economic potential more effectively, attract foreign investment, technology and knowledge, develop production capacities, defend and promote its interests in the world market.
Q: Along with Brussels, the Hague, the world capital of multilateral diplomacy, is also part of the diplomatic mission’s area of responsibility. What kind of work does the Embassy do in this direction?
A: I would like to add a little to your idea and note that both Brussels and The Hague represent very dynamic and unique poles of diplomatic work.
If we talk about the capital of Belgium, we are particularly interested in relations with the World Customs Organization (WCO), with which we have developed fruitful cooperation in recent years. In particular, WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya has visited Uzbekistan twice in recent years and was received by President Sh. M. Mirziyoyev.
In addition, we were able to contribute to strengthening the human resources of the customs service of the republic. Thus, within the framework of the “Career Development Program” in 2019-2021, an internship of a SCC employee was organized at the WCO headquarters in Brussels. The leadership of the Organization expresses its readiness to expand further cooperation with Uzbekistan. A dialogue is also developing with the Energy Charter Secretariat, whose leadership supports and promotes reforms in the energy sector of Uzbekistan.
As for The Hague, there are the headquarters and representative offices of 35 international organizations operating in the fields of international law, security, human rights protection, European integration, as well as those belonging to the UN structure.
Uzbekistan is a member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is headquartered in the Hague. In March 2020, the Republic became a member of the Hague Conference on Private International Law. In addition, the issue of joining the Permanent Court of Arbitration is currently at the final stage of consideration.
We are also interested in cooperation with such structures as Eurojust, which unites the judicial authorities of the EU countries, the European Institute of Public Administration, the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities, and many others.
Q: What kind of work is the embassy doing to develop relations and cooperation with the diaspora living in the Benelux countries?
A: This is a very topical issue. Unfortunately, for many years we have not used the potential of our compatriots living abroad. However, on the instructions of President Sh. M. Mirziyoyev, all diplomatic missions of Uzbekistan are currently actively working with compatriots who can be found in any part of the globe.
There are 836 citizens of Uzbekistan on the consular register of the diplomatic mission. In addition, in the Benelux countries and Denmark (also included in the consular district of the diplomatic mission), there are thousands of our compatriots who are no longer citizens of Uzbekistan, but continue to maintain contact with their historical Homeland and sincerely wish to contribute to its development with their knowledge, skills and investments.
In 2020 alone, the diplomatic mission organized about 30 “round tables”, video conferences and webinars with the participation of compatriots, during which specific agreements were reached on the implementation of a number of important projects in the trade and investment sector and tourism in the republic.
The Embassy provides all possible support to our citizens. Among the most memorable cases, I personally would like to mention the Uzbek aerial acrobats Kristina Vorobyova and Rustem Osmanov, who were injured during a performance at the World Christmas Circus show in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) in January 2020. The diplomatic mission provided all-round assistance to our artists, and also ensured the arrival of K. Vorobyova’s mother in the Netherlands.
The diplomatic mission also provided support and assistance to dozens of compatriots who were in a difficult situation due to the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, they were provided with financial assistance and assistance in departing on charter flights to Uzbekistan.
Q: In conclusion, considering your employment and your busy schedule, how do you manage to combine work and family responsibilities? What are your hobbies and sport interests?
A: To be honest, with the current pace of work and the bar set by the country’s leadership, unfortunately, there is not much time left for personal life. It helps that the work itself is very interesting and requires constant intellectual and physical readiness, as well as discipline, mobilization and self-improvement.
In my line of duty, I have to read a lot, which is something I’ve always loved to do. In addition, the materials prepared by the diplomats cover a wide variety of topics and areas, and also help to keep abreast of events and work with a variety of information. So from a certain point of view, we can say that work is my hobby and the main interest in this segment of my life.
As for the family, it, like any organism, requires care and attention. Therefore, in a busy schedule of meetings and events, which can be up to five or six a day and they can last until late in the evening, you have to use every opportunity to stay with the household, talk to them heart-to-heart, listen to their thoughts, plans, problems.
Regarding sports, I can say that although I do not have any special hobbies, lately I try to walk more and get on my bike as soon as possible. I usually ride my bike from home to work, if time permits, of course. Such trips charge for the whole day.