Actors and factors of the foreign policy decision-making of Uzbekistan

Farkhod Tolipov, PhD, Director of the Non-governmental Research Institution “Knowledge Caravan”, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Since gaining independence, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has been subject to fluctuations driven by regional, international, and geopolitical developments. These developments have posed significant challenges to the Uzbek leadership, influencing both the strategic choices and decisions in foreign policy. Overall, the policymaking process in Uzbekistan has been marked by conservatism, characterized by its closed, non-democratic, elitist, slow, and reactive nature. Despite efforts by Tashkent to assert itself as an active participant on the international stage, the overall approach to Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has remained complex and highly personalized.


A comprehensive understanding of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy requires appreciating a set of characteristics illuminating Tashkent’s international engagement.

Prevalence of geopolitical lenses. The modality of any foreign policy activity reflects not only the nature of the international system but also the policymakers’ perceptions of that system. In Uzbekistan, the understanding of international relations is heavily influenced by concepts of “poles” or geopolitical lenses. Scholars and politicians alike construct political processes based on such notions as ‘bipolar’,’ unipolar’, or ‘multipolar’ world order. They still regard international relations as an arena of great power rivalry. This is peculiar not only to Uzbekistan but to other Central Asian states as well.

Two related concepts capture such vision in this part of the world: “the regime of geopolitics” and “the geopolitics of regimes”. The geopolitics of regimes is reflected in attempts at the “geopolitization” of their status by the current political regimes of Central Asia. The regime of geopolitics means the ad-hoc geopolitical regional order of relationships between and among states of the region. The swift dissolution of the Soviet Union and Central Asia’s advent into world politics strongly impacted geopolitical thought. These events reinforced once again geopolitical narratives, contemplations, and speculations after a long period of relative geopolitical stability. Thus, geopolitics became the ‘ultimate explanatory tool’ in the overall analyses of Uzbekistan’s behaviour in the international arena.

Soviet legacy. The foreign policy of Uzbekistan is a derivative of the Soviet state, institutions and policymaking traditions. Such a legacy is notable even after more than 30 years have passed since independence was gained. On the one hand, Soviet foreign policy practice left a deep trace in the former Soviet republics through their integration into the foreign policy sphere. Indeed, during the Soviet period, Uzbekistan had its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and some Uzbek diplomats were appointed as ambassadors to foreign states. On the other hand, the Soviet legacy is visible in the general perception of international relations and principles of foreign policy. This is evident in the continued relevance of the modalities of ‘cold war’ thinking in the international system, bringing more perplexities in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy.

Domestic public opinion and elitism. Public opinion in Uzbekistan neither challenges nor influences foreign policy. The latter remains an elitist domain. Policymakers benefit from the conformism of the broader public and the opportunism of political elites. Civil society organizations show some activism on domestic issues, but their participation is practically absent in the domain of foreign policy. Thus, the role of the broader public in shaping foreign policy discourse remains minimal.

In their turn, political parties in Uzbekistan are opportunist organizations, and in their programs, statements, and overall activities, they never raise and discuss foreign policy matters, expressing full loyalty to the president.

The shadow of Russia. This factor is intricately linked to the ones previously discussed. The influence of pro-Russian elements within political elites, expert communities, and the general populace remains significant in shaping foreign policy discourses. This influence is evident in ongoing debates concerning topics related to Russia. Notably, these pro-Russian actors advocate vigorously for Uzbekistan’s membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) despite the geopolitical risks posed by closer ties with Russia amidst its conflict with Ukraine. Interestingly, these advocates often cite the substantial number of Uzbek labour migrants in Russia—who rely on these jobs for their livelihood—as a key argument for Uzbekistan’s accession to the EAEU and, at times, even for supporting Russia in its conflict with Ukraine.

In October 2019, it was officially announced that Uzbekistan might join the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and by December 2021, Uzbekistan had secured observer status in the organization. Tellingly, the decision to move closer to the EAEU was based on consultations with international experts, including those from Russia, yet local experts were notably excluded from this process.

A weak state complex. The ideological rhetoric in Tashkent heavily emphasizes slogans like ‘peace and stability,’ which have become pervasive mantras in both domestic and foreign policy discussions. These concepts are obviously central in any nation’s foreign policy narratives. However, their repeated invocation in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy rhetoric appears to serve as a justification for excessive neutrality and caution in sensitive international matters. Relevant illustrations include the country’s voting at the U.N. General Assembly on issues like Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the presence of Russian propaganda channels in Uzbekistan, or (non)responses to joint statements on Central Asia by leaders such as Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This pronounced neutrality stems from what can be described as the ‘complex of a weak state.’ This complex reflects a priori conviction among Uzbek officials that the country cannot withstand the pressures, intimidation, and coercion exerted by more powerful nations. Consequently, this mindset influences the thoughts and actions of numerous policymakers, state leaders, and experts, driving a cautious and reserved foreign policy.

Strategic partnerships overkill. The prevalent geopolitical biases combined with the ‘complex of a weak state’ have led to what might be termed a “moneybox of strategic partnerships.” By definition, strategic partnerships and alliances are reserved for a select few chosen foreign policy partners and cannot be extended to just any nation. Yet, Tashkent has managed to establish such “strategic” level agreements with a wide array of countries, including some that are geopolitical rivals to one another, such as Russia and the USA. This proliferation of strategic agreements inevitably complicates the implementation of these alliances, presenting ongoing challenges for Uzbekistan’s foreign policy.

Focus on Central Asian regionalism. Regionalism in Central Asia is arguably a central aspect of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. Since gaining independence, the region has witnessed two concurrent developments: nation- and state-building on one side and region-building on the other. The commitment to regionalism was evident from the start, as the first president of Uzbekistan adopted the slogan “Turkestan is our common home.” Despite promising early progress in regional integration, Uzbekistan’s short-lived membership in the Eurasian Economic System (EvrAzES) from 2006 to 2008, which also led to the dissolution of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), led President Karimov to shift towards a bilateral approach, with neighbouring countries. This change resulted in increased tensions and a period of stagnant regional integration that lasted nearly a decade.

In 2017, the second president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, introduced a new initiative to rejuvenate regional interactions: the Consultative Meetings of the presidents of the five Central Asian states. The fifth such meeting occurred in Dushanbe in 2023, reinforcing the idea that regardless of leadership, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy—and indeed that of its neighbours—is intrinsically tied to regional dynamics.


Contrary to the longstanding principle that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has been markedly isolated from its domestic affairs. This area of state activity remains a relatively closed and privileged domain, distinctly separate from both domestic policy and public influence. At the heart of this isolation is a person-centric approach to decision-making, with the president playing a pivotal role. There are a few independent think tanks capable of developing foreign policy recommendations, but the government does not work with them. For that matter, even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) rarely issues substantive statements or conducts press conferences. This pattern suggests that foreign policymaking in Uzbekistan is highly personalized and centred predominantly around the president. [to read the full version, please download the paper].

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