A formerly isolated Central Asian state, Uzbekistan, has begun incremental change under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, paving the way to become the political center of Central Asia.
"Mirziyoyev seems to realize that [former President Islam] Karimov's policies did not allow the country to develop economically. In the short term, opening up seems to be more about economic development than about an attempt to become the political center of Central Asia. But in time, this may change," Edward Lemon, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, said.
"We will have to wait and see. When the countries emerged from the Soviet Union, most analysts expected Uzbekistan to become the most powerful country in the region. It had the largest population, the largest city [Tashkent], the strongest military and was quicker to recover from the collapse of the USSR than the other countries in the region," he noted.
Since taking office, Mirziyoyev has taken a number of measures that appear to show willingness to open up one of the world's most isolated states and called for closer cooperation with other countries such as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
At an international conference on Central Asia's future, held in the historic city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan in early November, Mirziyoyev emphasized support for efforts to create a stable, economically developed and thriving region. Mirziyoyev said that he is ready for closer cooperation, including increased transit for imports from China and the Middle East, closer coordination over counterterrorism and radicalism and enhanced cultural and humanitarian ties. During the two-day meeting, Mirziyoyev also proposed to regularly hold regional summit meetings among the five Central Asian republics.
This will mark the first roundtable to discuss regional issues among Central Asian states without the influence of superpowers Russia and China, so Mirziyoyev's initiative has been interpreted as an attempt to make Uzbekistan the political center of Central Asia.
Asked about the possible results of cooperation of five Central Asian states as being a greater voice against Russia and China, Lemon said: "Central Asia remains one of the least interconnected regions in the world in terms of border crossings and regional trade. While Uzbekistan is opening up links with neighboring countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have closed their border crossings as part of a broader dispute. Each of the countries has taken a different stance on Russia and China. Where Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are firmly in Russia's orbit, Turkmenistan's relationship with Moscow is turbulent. China's relationship with all five countries is reasonably good, but most Central Asians are wary of China's interests in the region. Given that most multi-lateral organizations [Shanghai Cooperation organization (SCO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)] involve China and Russia, it is difficult to foresee the countries of the region banding together against external powers."
Regarding the possible powerful alternative cooperation of five states against Russia and China, Mehmet Akif Okur, a professor and international relations scholar at Yıldız Technical University, said: "The deepening integration between the countries of the region paves the way for the balancing of the powers that try to influence the Turkestan region. When we look at the possible geopolitical parameters of the near future, we can see that this is a necessity for the Turkestan region."
"Uzbekistan is the most important country in the Turkestan region in terms of population, history and cultural background. So, as relations with other states warm up, Uzbek influence will be on the increase. However, struggles concerning leadership are a long-standing issue that has weakened the Turkestan region in the last 500 years. So the region needs to deepen cooperation between equals. Especially in the leaderships of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the integration and cooperation process will give very valuable results," he added.