Valérian Mazataud Le Devoir In the city center of Tashkent, the statue of the national hero Amir Timur, the great Turko-Mongol conqueror of the 14th century, better known under the name of Tamerlane, greets passers-by at the foot of the Uzbekistan Hotel, a flagship of the Soviet era.
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the titanic New Silk Roads project, officially called the Belt and Road Initiative. Since then, some 150 countries have joined this program aimed, among other things, at building roads, railways and ports to boost trade with China. Ten years later, Le Devoir visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two countries at the heart of these new trade routes. Sixth in a series of eight travel journals.
When we enter the Chorsu market, a huge bazaar in the old city of Tashkent, all our senses are awakened. Fragrances of spices float above the stalls of brightly colored pomegranates, eggplants and quinces. Our fingers discover the softness of Uzbek silk and cotton beneath the constant hubbub of haggling that accompanies each transaction. While our palate delights in naan breads fresh from the wood ovens.
This frenzy, so characteristic of places of exchange, reflects the neuralgic position that Uzbekistan occupies today on the new Silk Roads. Located at the interconnection of East and West, the territory located in the center of Central Asia is crossed by two routes of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and by the four corridors of the China-Central Asia gas pipeline .
Uzbekistan could thus become one of the “biggest beneficiaries” of the new Silk Roads if it continues the political and economic reforms started since 2016, estimates the World Bank. A sunny path for the economic development of this former Soviet republic, historically and economically linked to Russia, which inevitably brings it closer to the Chinese giant.
In 2016, in an undoubtedly strong gesture, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself traveled to the Uzbek Parliament to present the workings of the BRI. Rasul Kusherbayev then sat there as a deputy. “That’s when I realized the scope of the project and how important it was for China,” he recalls. According to political scientist Farkhad Tolipov, director of the non-governmental organization Caravan of Knowledge, since the launch of the BRI, “the highest authorities of our country have consistently shown their full and unreserved support for this project.”
Over the years, Uzbekistan has become a transit route for goods leaving China for the European market and a key player in transporting natural gas from Turkmenistan to China. The Middle Kingdom has also carved out a place of choice in several Uzbek economic sectors, by investing, among others, in green energies and cement factories.
Trade between the two countries is now approaching US$10 billion annually (last year it was US$8.9 billion, while trade between Uzbekistan and Russia was slightly higher at 9 .3 billion US$). Investments which undeniably stimulate the Uzbek economy, but which also fuel distrust towards China.
Open door to corruption
For Farkhad Tolipov, the BRI is not a “precise or clear” program, but rather “opaque and non-transparent.” Contracts are generally not made public, he says, leaving the door open to corruption, which is believed to be widespread, even endemic.
Met on a terrace in the center of Tashkent around a plov, the most popular dish in Uzbekistan consisting of rice pilaf garnished with meat and caramelized carrots, the economist Otabek Bakirov, has the same analysis. “Our authorities love the Chinese because they corrupt them,” he says bluntly. This lubrication would also lead to violations of environmental rules, particularly in the cement sector, while local authorities turn a blind eye to certain polluting practices of Chinese investors.
The debt trap
At the same time, fears also arise about the preservation of Uzbekistan's sovereignty. “If there are hidden objectives, political or ideological, in the BRI, we must stop it immediately,” says Rasul Kusherbayev. According to this MP who resigned from his post last winter, it is “easy to obtain loans from China, but we do not know what is hidden behind it”.
During our stay in Kazakhstan, economist Kassymkhan Kapparov compared China to a huge pawn shop offering loans, at unfavorable rates, to countries weighed down by a bad credit rating, failing to obtain loans from international financial institutions, which would lead them to over-indebtedness.
A quagmire that would not threaten Uzbekistan (in 2022, its debt to China was US$4 billion, which represents 17% of its external debt), but which led partner countries of the new Silk Roads to getting caught in the so-called “debt trap”: an inability to repay Chinese creditors, which has allowed China to get its hands on assets in these countries. This would notably be the case of Sri Lanka, which in 2017 leased the operating rights of the port of Hambantota to Chinese interests for 99 years – an example which is, however, controversial.
“China also tends to first influence a country’s economy, and then influence its policies,” warns Otabek Bakirov. An avenue that is all the more worrying for several experts interviewed as it is not in China's interest for the country to democratize. With democracy comes transparency, particularly in contracts awarded by the state, and also a free press and free elections, which could lead to the rise of Islamic groups and nationalist movements. According to political analyst Kamoliddin Rabbimov, “it will immediately be a problem for China if the forces in place in Central Asia start supporting the Uyghurs”, this Muslim minority in the Xinjiang province in China which is being persecuted by Beijing.
A few meters from the Chorsu market, Ziyouddin and Fayzullah, aged 20, chat in the interior courtyard of the sumptuous Koukeldach madrasa, built in the 16th century. The Koranic school, which fell into oblivion in the 18th century before being converted into a caravanserai, has started welcoming students again since 1999. “We are in the era of a return of Islam to Uzbekistan.” , rejoice the two young men who wish to become imams. A spiritual force that could one day turn into a political force.
With Askar Djumanov
This report was financed thanks to the support of the Fund of international journalism Transat-Le Devoir.