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Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to start by thanking the organisers of this event for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today and to explore ideas with you on working together in the coming years. The timing of today’s conference is auspicious for two reasons.
Firstly, there has been significant momentum in Uzbekistan and the region since President Mirziyoyev took office. Much has changed for the better.
Alongside many notable shifts in domestic policy in the country, we are experiencing an unexpected development – in the past year or two, Uzbekistan has worked systematically, resolutely and intensively to make its foreign policy more open and robust, particularly as regards improving relations with its neighbours, with which it has many interests in common.
At the initiative of President Mirziyoyev, the first meeting of Central Asian presidents in 13 years was held in Astana in March. And it is also thanks to him that relations with Tajikistan are improving, while endeavours are being made to stabilise Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is thus becoming a regional heavyweight in foreign policy and demonstrating a clear willingness to take on greater responsibility in the future.
Secondly, the European Union is publishing a Joint Communication on a future EU-Asian connectivity strategy today. Today’s conference also shows how important this step is. As part of the European Union, Germany is an active partner country to Central Asia. This is how Germany wants to be seen. And it wants to become even more involved in the region.
I am certain that there is great interest on both sides in working even more closely together, as the challenges we need to address make such cooperation increasingly necessary. The topics to be discussed here today range from sustainable development and tackling the effects of climate change to regional security and stability. I look forward to discussing these issues with all of you.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Uzbekistan is undertaking far-reaching reforms aimed at achieving sweeping changes. I would like to mention just a few examples that we regard as particularly important.
The planned judicial reforms will promote participation and the rule of law. We expressly welcome the release of political prisoners, the efforts to end child labour in cotton harvesting and the less complex legislation on NGOs aimed at strengthening civil society.
Progress is being made in Uzbekistan as regards working with neighbouring Central Asian countries, opening the borders and including Afghanistan in regional cooperation.
The far-reaching reforms aimed at liberalising and modernising the Uzbek economy are boosting market forces, fostering private enterprise and making Uzbekistan considerably more attractive to foreign investors.
These steps are courageous. They express a policy shift and wide-ranging ambitions that will bring great benefits and prosperity to Uzbekistan in the long run. This also creates opportunities to further our cooperation, something I would expressly welcome.
But I am not the only one to welcome the fact that the country has become more open. Many people are currently taking note of Uzbekistan. The outside world is becoming interested in Uzbekistan and the opportunities it offers, particularly those of an economic nature.
Germany is following this process with great interest and attention and wants to do its utmost to support it. The visit of a large trade delegation comprised of over 70 business people this spring underlines what I am saying.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Germany has felt a strong sense of connection with Central Asia for many years and is working hard to develop its relations with the region. We were one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Uzbekistan and the four other Central Asian countries.
In the Central Asia Strategy that was adopted under Germany’s Presidency of the EU in 2007, we and our partner countries drew up the first policy guidelines for our engagement in the region over ten years ago.
In a short time, Uzbekistan has become the driving force behind greatly intensified regional cooperation. German and European foreign policymakers are proud to be able to support this process within the framework of the Central Asia Strategy.
The new EU-Central Asia Strategy, which will be adopted in the first half of 2019, will be a milestone in our relations. Building on the valuable experiences of the current strategy and bearing in mind the changed circumstances in the region, we want to work with our Central Asian partners on an approach that takes the new needs and situation in the region into account. I am certain that our cooperation will lead to tangible results for the people of Central Asia.
Although the new Central Asia Strategy has not yet been finalised, I would still like to mention a few points that are important to me personally and should form a major part of the EU’s new strategy.
The EU wants to define priorities and to focus its efforts on achieving sustainable development and fostering security and stability.
We would also like to do more to support young people, for example, to create employment and education opportunities, thus generating long-term career prospects.
We also want to promote regional cooperation and thus play a part in reaching a joint and fair solution to wide-ranging issues in the fields of resource management and connectivity.
Ladies and gentlemen, you will have noted that nowadays, connectivity is top of the agenda. We see that China is creating opportunities and building infrastructure with its Belt and Road Initiative.
Working side by side with our partners, we want to ensure that the connections between Europe and Central Asia are developed in a way that leads to greater transparency and fairness.
In launching a European connectivity strategy, whose first elements will be published in Brussels today, as I mentioned earlier, the EU wants to offer its Eurasian partners the chance to forge greater economic, technological and infrastructure links in order to ensure that everyone benefits.
Working with you, ladies and gentlemen, we want to make sure that the expansion of the Eurasian transport corridors will be of lasting benefit to Central Asia. By developing economic corridors, we want to help increase local value-added, facilitate sustainable development and enable everyone to share in an economic upturn.
Germany and the EU have a significant foreign-policy interest in lasting comprehensive economic and political stabilisation in the region.
However, the partnership between the EU and Central Asia must be a partnership between equals. We cannot allow it to lead to excessive debt or unilateral dependencies. Our priorities are sound investments and adherence to social, environmental, security and human rights standards.
That is how our offer differs from China’s Belt and Road Initiative. We regard adherence to these standards as essential in order to prevent market distortion and political upheaval. Only in this way will the people in Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a whole truly benefit from new investments in a lasting way.
In other words, we want a partnership in which both sides make use of the opportunities and share the risks. We call for a rules-based world order in which norms and standards are negotiated together and fairly. In short, we want to be able to rely on one another.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Three weeks ago, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas addressed his audience at the opening of the Business Forum of the German Ambassadors Conference as “fellow multilateralists”. It is in this spirit that I want to speak to you today.
As you know, multilateralism has many mighty opponents these days – unfortunately also in Europe.
I am therefore all the more happy to be here with you today – because you want to move this country and the region of Central Asia forward, in cooperation with others – as multilateralists. I am fully convinced that collective action gets better results than going it alone.
I think that especially here – in Uzbekistan and in Central Asia – conditions are now particularly good for establishing people-to-people contacts and close, trusting cooperation among states. Recent developments in Uzbekistan and the region show that regional cooperation is possible.
Ladies and gentlemen,
One example for this is the Aral Sea. The progressive disappearance, since 1960, of what was once the fourth-largest lake in the world is one of the greatest environmental disasters on our planet. It is frightening to see the satellite images that document the massive shrinking of the lake.
There is an artwork by Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet and painter, that shows ships sailing on the Aral Sea in 1848. This painting reminds me of my home town of Hamburg, with its large maritime port. Hamburg’s harbour is not called “Gateway to the World” for nothing. We all know that, today, the rusting hulls of ships lie on cracked, salty ground that was formerly the bottom of the Aral Sea.
However, one thing gives reason for hope – the International Fund for saving the Aral Sea, or IFAS, which is the only regional institution that unites all five Central Asian countries. At the same time, it is the only regional organisational structure that is devoted to water management.
IFAS is the tool with which the countries of Central Asia can conduct a constructive exchange on the current situation and find solutions to sustainably protect and increase the size of the Aral Sea.
In this connection, I want to highlight the conclusions that were reached at the last IFAS summit meeting in Turkmenistan: The tasking to develop a special United Nations programme for the Aral Seal, as part of the programme of work of the Executive Committee of IFAS, and the adoption of a plan of action to support the countries of the Aral Sea Basin. These deserve our special attention, not least because the plan of action came about thanks in large part to support from Germany.
IFAS alone will not be enough to save the Aral Sea. But I strongly believe that negotiations in the context of IFAS promote long-term dialogue and trust, and that this institution benefits and integrates Central Asian societies.
We Germans want to do what we can to support the process of reaching an agreement on water management in the region. It is to this end that former Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, our current Federal President, established the Berlin Process in 2008. Its aim is for the countries on the upper and lower reaches of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers to develop joint approaches. Already in 2008, its motto was “Water Unites”.
We have made available 35 million euros so far for training, political advisory services and the establishment of institutions for transboundary water management in Central Asia. One element is the Master’s course in Integrated Water Management at Kazakh-German University in Almaty, which I had the opportunity to learn more about during my visit to the University yesterday.
In the past, the Aral Sea was not the only contentious issue among the Central Asian states. The courses and uses of the region’s rivers have time and again given rise to severe diplomatic tensions. Over the past two years, in Germany, we have also been observing with great interest the changes that Uzbekistan has been initiating in the region under its new leadership. Germany welcomes the opening of the country and the new opportunities for cooperation that have arisen. We see a clear improvement in regional relations, and we hope that this path on which your country has embarked will be a sustained and successful one. That is exactly what may stop and reverse the drying up of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, thus enabling the water to again find its way to the Aral Sea. Hope dies last, as the saying goes. After decades of indiscriminate exploitation, the Aral Sea may once again slowly but surely regain its former size, thereby benefiting everyone in the region.
As it is situated in the heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s location is strategically important. Its location is important for us in Germany, too. For thousands of years, your country has not only been a crossroads and a place where businessmen, languages and cultures meet.
It also has a particularly important border. Your boundary with Afghanistan is where the geographic region of Central Asia ends. Yet it is at the same time a bridge to the south. We all remember well the visit to Kabul by Uzbekh Foreign Minister Kamilov in January 2017. It was the first visit in nearly two decades.
The fact that this difficult relationship, too, is slowly being re-established is a symbol of what we multilateralists believe in. All of us are obliged to not wall ourselves in, but rather engage in dialogue – although it may be difficult and does require patience.
That is precisely what the European Union as a community of values and the Federal Republic of Germany are built on. We believe in dialogue and in cooperation among partners, partners with whom we want to interact as equals.
For this, democracy and the rule of law are absolutely essential. Uzbekistan appears to be making good progress down this path. Even though much remains to be done – and here I will specifically mention civil society and civil rights – we look forward to expanding our dialogue with Uzbekistan. Whether that be in the OSCE, or in connection with Uzbekistan’s desire to accede to the WTO.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Sustainable development also means developing long-term solutions for society. This includes actively promoting education, the health sector, a sustainable micro and macroeconomy, social justice and strong civil societies that can clearly and without fear point out deficiencies. In this connection, I specifically welcome the simplification of NGO legislation in Uzbekistan.
In the context of the EU Central Asia Strategy, and in particular its newest edition, we are helping to support and promote sustainable economic policies, education, the rule of law and civil society.
The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which is a co-organiser of this event – and for that I want to say a special thank you to Ms Kiefer, Ms Rezyapova and the entire team – is one of the institutions through which Germany wants to establish and intensify dialogue with Uzbekistan. With a view to achieving this objective, we also support other German, international and local organisations. At conferences like this, I am always happy to hear about the experiences you have had with German institutions. Please do give me your feedback.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the following: it is my desire that Uzbekistan play an important role and assume responsibility in Central Asia. Uzbekistan is located in the heart of a region that is increasingly taking command of its own destiny, through more collective action and in cooperation with its regional and international partners. It is my desire that Uzbekistan resolutely set its sights on the future and act as a motor for a prosperous and open Central Asia. It is my desire that, in future, the multi-ethnic societies of Central Asia can fully enjoy their human and civil rights, and that their economies may be sustainable, thereby bringing prosperity, peace and security to the entire region. Germany stands by to help you, also in the future, as you walk down this path.