The SCO in the system of new Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. An interview with Vladimir Norov

Vladimir Norov
The acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan, Vladimir Norov (Credits: Dunyo Information Agency)

June 15th, 2022, marks the 21st anniversary of establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, one of the youngest, dynamically developing international organisations. Over the past period, it has made a rapid leap from the format of a consultative mechanism to a full-scale interstate association. Uzbekistan stood at the origins of the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and has made and continues to make a significant contribution to its progressive development. In 2021-2022, Uzbekistan chaired this high-profile Organisation.

The acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Norov spoke about the initiatives of Uzbekistan put forward by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the SCO and prospects of cooperation with this Organisation in an interview conducted by the Dunyo Information Agency and shared with SpecialEurasia.

Distinguished Vladimir Imamovich, we are grateful to you for kindly agreeing to answer our questions. Especially since the SCO is not only one of the priority areas of Uzbekistan’s international cooperation but also the Organisation in which you have had an opportunity to serve as a Secretary-General in 2019-2021. Would You mind telling us what the SCO is today and its role in the international arena?

First of all, I would like to note that within a relatively short time, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has made substantial development and has become an integral part of the global political and economic context. Today, the SCO is the world’s largest regional Organisation. The total area of ​​its member-states exceeds 34 million sq. km. This is more than 60% of the territory of the Eurasian continent. The total population of the SCO states is 3.2 billion people, which is about half of the world’s population.

The Organisation brings together eight permanent members, four observer states and nine dialogue partners. «The SCO’s big family» with 21 countries covers three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa. Along with this, the interest of other countries in interacting with the structure in one format or another continues to grow.

The SCO’s international authority is enhanced by the consistent expansion of the network of its partner organisations, the United Nations and its specialised institutions, ASEAN, CIS, CSTO, EAEU, CICA, and ECO. The relations are being established with the League of the Arab States and several other multilateral structures.

Currently, the SCO space is a self-sufficient region with huge reserves of raw materials, manufactured products, skilled labour and human capital, and technological potential.

The total volume of the economies of the SCO member-states is about 20 trillion dollars, which is 13 times more than since its establishment. The Organisation space represents the largest consumer market in the world. Today, the aggregate GDP of the SCO members has reached about ¼ of the global figure. By 2030, this figure could increase by 35-40% of the global GDP.

The SCO’s enormous transport and transit potential await its practical implementation. In the context of diversifying global supply chains, creating new international rail and road corridors in Eurasia along the East-West and North-South directions is acquiring a strategic dimension.

It should be borne in mind that the SCO is a promising platform for strengthening inter-civilisational dialogue, cultural and humanitarian cooperation. The relevance of this direction is especially growing against the backdrop of aggravated distrust and antagonistic moods in the world.

The participation of countries with a rich history and unique cultural heritage in one Organisation contributes to strengthening a mutual understanding and the spirit of cooperation in Eurasia.”

As it is well-known, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has identified the Central Asian Region as Uzbekistan’s top foreign policy priority. How do you assess the SCO’s role in strengthening Central Asian regionalism?

The SCO was primarily established owing to the new situation in Central Asia after the collapse of the bipolar system in the late 20th century when the world was entering a new century with complex problems and unpredictable consequences. In the challenging period, the need for institutionalised regional cooperation of the young independent Central Asian states in countering multifaceted new threats and problems was an objective reality.

In this sense, the SCO’s establishment directly resulted from the efforts to ensure stability and security in Central Asia. Consequently, the most important «added value» from the SCO’s formation and activities can be considered its contribution to strengthening stability and developing regional cooperation in Central Asia.

This is a recognised and time-honoured fact.

Today, the SCO contributes significantly to maintaining the region’s peace and stability. Its achievements, primarily in the field of combating the threats of terrorism, extremism and separatism, are indisputable. The world’s first multilateral document that defined the concept of «terrorism» – the SCO Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism of June 15th, 2001, was developed within the framework of the SCO.

The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the SCO (RATS SCO), headquartered in Tashkent, is carrying out consistent work in this direction. Under the coordination of RATS SCO, joint effective measures are being taken to eradicate the causes, sources and manifestations of the «forces of the three evils».

The SCO counter-terrorism exercises, including the detection and suppression of Internet use for terrorist, extremist and separatist purposes, as well as the international anti-drug operation «Web», are held regularly.

Through the secretaries of Security Councils, Ministers of Defense, Internal Affairs, and heads of anti-drug agencies of member states, a regular dialogue is maintained on a wide range of issues relating to the broad security segment.

The cooperation has been established to ensure international information security. There is a working group in this area, and Cooperation Program on International Information Security has been prepared and adopted with the active participation of the Uzbek side.

Nevertheless, the SCO’s contribution to regional stability goes beyond that.

In practice, the Organization considers security and economic development as interrelated key components. This is the important role of the SCO in maintaining stability and sustainable development in the region.

Despite the changes taking place in and around the region, Central Asia remains the geographical nucleus of the SCO after more than 20 years. There is a complete understanding among member states that stability and sustainable development in the region remain imperative. Therefore, these tasks should continue to be the focus of the Organization’s attention.

In the Declaration of the 2021 SCO Anniversary Summit in Dushanbe, the leaders of all member states unanimously expressed their support for the recent efforts of the Central Asian countries to ensure sustainable development and create a space of trust and friendship in the region, endorsed the idea of expanding the active role of the SCO in further strengthening their stability and social and economic development. They additionally welcomed holding regular Consultative Meetings of the Heads of States of the Central Asian Region, which the President of Uzbekistan initiated.

The SCO’s support for the new Central Asian process since 2017 is undoubtedly very important both for the region itself and for transforming the space of the Organization into a zone of stability, mutually beneficial development and effective cooperation. In this context, it is reasonable to be confident that the term «Central Asian Spirit» has emerged relatively recently in the international political lexicon and strengthens and enriches the doctrinal basis of the SCO – the «Shanghai Spirit».

It is evident that the expansion of the membership of the Organization, together with the rapidly changing situation in the region and the world as a whole, makes certain adjustments to the agenda of the SCO.

This is an objective process, but it in no way detracts from the role of the Organization in our region. In fact, the connection to the SCO «responsibility zone» of the largest countries of South Asia – India and Pakistan, as well as against the background of the emerging trajectory of expansion to the Middle East for the countries of Central Asia through the SCO opens up new prospects: it is developing into a powerful multilateral platform for joint development and implementation of the mutually beneficial initiatives in the development of multifunctional interconnections on the huge Eurasian space – from transport, infrastructure, energy to «green» economy and digital transformation.

Please tell us in this context about the priorities of cooperation between Uzbekistan and the SCO?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation occupies a special place in the structure of multilateral diplomacy of Uzbekistan. This is owing to two principal reasons:

1) First, our country, although it did not participate in the so-called «Shanghai Five», established in the mid-90s to settle border issues between China and some post-Soviet states (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), has played a very important role in transforming the dialogue platform into a full-fledged Organisation.

2) Second, as one of the six founding states of the SCO, Uzbekistan has participated directly and actively in the development of the basic principles and constituent documents of the Organization, as well as in the establishment and development of its institutional foundations.

The member states of this Organization are our country’s closest neighbours and strategic partners. Multidisciplinary cooperation as a part of the SCO strengthens multilateral regional and interregional cooperation and develops cooperation with each of these states.

In the system of foreign policy priorities of the New Uzbekistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is more than ever in demand as a multilateral platform for implementing an open, pragmatic, broad-based, and mutually beneficial cooperation.

Consequently, our country’s current strategy regarding the SCO is based on key principles such as initiative, constructiveness, pragmatism and openness to cooperation.

Uzbekistan is interested in fully tapping the potential of the Organization in the new conditions of its evolution, first of all, by increasing practical cooperation in promising areas that meet the vital interests of all participating countries.

From 2017 to 2021, our President put forward about 50 important and relevant initiatives at the SCO summits. Most importantly, these proposals are consistently implemented as a part of «road maps», legal, policy and conceptual documents of the SCO, as well as in the form of new mechanisms of multilateral cooperation.

The formula declared by the President of Uzbekistan at the summit of the Organization in 2020, «SCO is strong only when each of us is strong,» fully reveals the essence of the constructive approach of Uzbekistan towards this structure following the «Shanghai spirit».

Besides, the President of Uzbekistan has clearly demonstrated a policy of initiative and openness in his keynote speech during last year’s summit in Dushanbe, representing the priorities of the Uzbek Chairmanship at the SCO.

These initiatives, both reflecting the key objectives of internal development and interests of our country in the sphere of international cooperation, successfully integrate the goals and objectives of the SCO at the new stage of its development.

They include further strengthening the potential of the SCO by enhancing multilateral cooperation in the field of interregional trade, industrial cooperation, innovation, and the «green» and digital economy.

Moreover, the practical implementation of the «Shanghai Spirit» by public diplomacy, tourism, reinforcement of friendship and good neighbourliness, new cultural and humanitarian initiatives, enrichment of the SCO agenda by promoting new directions and forms of cooperation in such prospective areas as information and communication technologies, poverty reduction, plant quarantine, enhancing the global profile of SCO and expanding its international cooperation are important, as well.

Could You explain the objectives and initiatives of Uzbekistan’s chairmanship at the Organization in more detail?

Certainly, everything I have mentioned above is not a declarative statement, but real actions follow it. For instance, the Plan of Uzbekistan’s chairmanship involves more than 80 main activities, and more than half of them have been implemented.

They cover not only the already established directions of cooperation in the SCO but also new demanded areas, such as the development of cooperation in interregional trade, industrial cooperation, innovations, poverty reduction, digital transformation and other spheres.

Therefore, the Uzbek side has introduced several new areas of cooperation as part of the SCO, promoting the enrichment of its agenda according to the current circumstances.

New approaches and methods of organising SCO events have been introduced. They are held in Tashkent and the regions, which allows us to closely familiarise our SCO partners with regional cooperation potential.

In particular, meetings of the Council of SCO National Coordinators were organised in the cities of Nukus, Bukhara and Ferghana. A meeting of transport ministers was held on May 12th, 2022, in Khiva, and an international conference on the issues of poverty was held in Bukhara on May 26-27, 2022. Many events are scheduled to be held in Samarkand in August this year.

Meanwhile, the meetings and conferences of ministers are accompanied by thematic forums and conferences. The Uzbek Chairmanship has initiated and already implemented such major events as

  • the SCO Public Diplomacy Forum (May 11-12, 2022),
  • Tourism Forum (May 20th, 2022),
  • Traditional Medicine Forum (June 7th, 2022)
  • and a Competition among start-up projects by young talented people from the Organization’s member states.

Thus, all of these platforms are designed to provide a relevant agenda, reach important agreements and agree on further joint projects, which is vitally important in the conditions of the post-pandemic revival of the economy of SCO member states.

Hence, the format introduced by the Uzbek side allows us to secure practical results and outline new directions for representatives of business communities of our countries.

Obviously, the main focus of this chairmanship is to fill the current agenda of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s activities with significant substance.

To implement the initiatives, the President of Uzbekistan promoted 14 new conceptual documents that were prepared during its chairmanship. These documents focus on the SCO’s substantive and institutional expansion of cooperation spheres.

Particular attention should be paid to the new documents, such as the Transport Interconnection Strategy, Interregional Trade Development Plan, Infrastructure Development Program, and the establishment of the SCO Goodwill Ambassador Institute.

All of the initiatives put forward by the President of Uzbekistan are logically interlinked and complement each other. For example, the development of internal trade enables the elimination of trade barriers, the convergence of technical regulations and the digitalisation of customs procedures.

During Uzbek Chairmanship, these and other issues have found their place not only in the agenda of meetings and conferences of ministers.

They will also be discussed with the business communities of the SCO member states as part of major topical events such as the SCO Economic Forum, SCO Industrial Innovation Week, Forum of Heads of Regions, Industrial Cooperation Forum, and the fruit and vegetable exhibition «Sunny Uzbekistan», and other events.

A truly innovative project is being created in Samarkand Region as part of the Uzbekistan-SCO Industrial Zone.

This platform is intended to become an effective mechanism for implementing the Program for Stimulation of Industrial Cooperation between the SCO Business Circles initiated by the President of Uzbekistan, attracting additional investments and technological and innovative solutions for manufacturing high-value-added products.

Meanwhile, the initiative promoted by Tashkent to strengthen interconnectivity within the SCO is to effectively harness the enormous transport and transit potential in the broad space of the Organization.

In this regard, Uzbekistan intends, together with its partners, to use the potential of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to accelerate the practical implementation of the system of transport corridors such as Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China, Termez-Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar, Lanzhou-Kashgar-Irkeshtam-Osh-Andijan-Tashkent-Mari and other routes, which acquire a special strategic nature in the current geo-economic conditions.

The SCO Connectivity Strategy proposed by Uzbekistan also contributes to the revival of Afghanistan’s unique economic and transit role throughout Eurasia.

There is no doubt that Afghanistan is a key factor in ensuring long-term security and stability in the region. Unfortunately, due to the well-known events in the world, there has been a slight decline in the international community’s attention to Afghanistan. The tragedy of the Afghan people, if the state is left alone with a humanitarian catastrophe, could lead to the new flows of refugees, an increase in the drug threat and a surge in terrorism.

No SCO state is interested in leaving a hotbed of instability in the heart of Eurasia and threats to the security of neighbouring countries emanating from the Afghan territory.

Today’s realities require our Organisation to take more concrete actions and to involve Afghanistan in the regional initiatives, including the infrastructure projects.

In this regard, promoting the development of consolidated approaches within the SCO concerning the post-war development strategy of Afghanistan is naturally listed among the key priorities of our country’s chairmanship at the Organization.

In short, the key priorities of the SCO chairmanship outlined by the President of Uzbekistan are in the interests of all parties and, most importantly, are aimed at ensuring stability, sustainable development and strengthening friendship and good–neighbourliness throughout the SCO space.”.

As it is well-known, Uzbekistan, as chairman of the SCO, will host the Summit of the Heads of the Organization’s member-states this year. As far as we know, this meeting will take place in Samarkand in September this year. Could You tell us how the preparations for this summit are going and share your assessment of the role and significance of the upcoming event?

“Uzbekistan’s chairmanship in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is approaching the main event, the Council of Heads of States meeting in Samarkand, a solid package of new legal and conceptual documents to bring multifaceted interactions within the Organization to a new qualitative level.

The choice of Samarkand has a deep meaning – this city has been a place of historical meetings and civilisational dialogue since time immemorial, a bridge of cultural and humanitarian mutual enrichment and the development of international trade, strengthening good neighbourliness.

Samarkand has acquired a special dimension, acting as a unique platform for convening and promoting the most important international and diplomatic initiatives in New Uzbekistan’s dynamic and proactive diplomacy. In recent years, the city has hosted a number of major forums, such as:

  • the International Conference «Central Asia: One Past and a Common Future, Cooperation for Sustainable Development and Mutual Prosperity» (2017),
  • the Asian Forum on Human Rights (2018), which has later transformed into the Samarkand Forum on Human Rights (2020),
  • and others.

As the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and the Head of the Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia, Natalia German, has noted, the impetus received from these platforms is clearly reflected in the «Samarkand spirit» to discuss the topical issues of regional and global development in an atmosphere of good neighbourliness, friendship and openness, contributing to the formation of new formats of cooperation in Central Asia – the geographical axis of the SCO space.

The unique heritage of Samarkand and its new creative power does correspond to an SCO value base – the principles of trust, mutual benefit, equality, respect for the diversity of cultures and joint development.

Today, on the eve of the summit, a «pearl» of the Great Silk Road is experiencing a new birth with a large-scale reconstruction and is ready to host the largest political and diplomatic forum of the year in the Eurasian space.

In such a favourable atmosphere at the Samarkand Summit, the Heads of States shall discuss the new challenges and tasks facing the SCO in the light of a profound transformation of modern international relations and shall make several important decisions that will have historical significance for the further evolution of the Organization.

One of the key issues on the summit’s agenda is the further expansion of the SCO. A Memorandum of commitments of the Islamic Republic of Iran to obtain the status of an SCO member-state is already ready for signing. The document will practically pave the way to a full member of this large Middle Eastern country in our Organisation.

In addition, the applications from about 10 more countries for participation in the SCO activities as full members, observers and dialogue partners shall be considered.

The signing of memoranda on establishing partnership relations between the SCO and several other international and regional organisations, such as LAS, UNESCO and ESCAP, is also expected at the summit.

Against this background, the upcoming summit under the Uzbek chairmanship acquires a special significance by providing a very timely and effective platform for the leaders of the «Shanghai Eight» to discuss a whole range of topical issues on the regional and global agenda.

All of this inspires confidence that the Samarkand Summit will adequately mark the SCO’s entry into the third decade, opening a new milestone in its evolution.

Dunyo Information Agency wrote this interview, which was kindly shared in media partnership with SpecialEurasia.

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