Excitement is building in Uzbekistan ahead of this week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting, where Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will be the most prominent among more than a dozen world leaders visiting the Central Asian nation.
“The world is coming to Samarkand” has been the theme of the preparations for the annual meeting, to be hosted by the group’s current chairman, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
“All SCO member states are our closest neighbors, friends and strategic partners,” he said in a prepared statement ahead of the summit.
Mirziyoyev, who believes that Samarkand, the medieval capital of the empire of Uzbekistan’s national hero Amir Temur, will be a dramatic backdrop for the gathering of leaders from eight SCO member and three observer states alongside several dialogue partner countries.
Putin and Xi, who are expected to meet one-on-one on the sidelines of the two-day event, will be joined by leaders from India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
Leaders from the SCO observer nations — Belarus, Iran and Mongolia — are also expected at the September 15-16 summit, with the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Turkmenistan invited as special guests. Afghanistan’s future in the group is not certain because of the Taliban takeover.
The SCO was originally a Chinese vehicle, founded as the “Shanghai Five” to help settle lingering border disputes. Today, its member states include more than 3.5 billion people. Mirziyoyev aims to boost its unity and impact. “After a three-year pandemic that has caused serious disruption in trade, economic and industrial ties, the countries and peoples of the SCO need to communicate directly,” he said Monday in Tashkent.
But Evan Feigenbaum, vice president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington and a former deputy assistant secretary of state, says that unity has been elusive.
“The group struggles to tackle core security issues because it includes longtime antagonists like India and Pakistan. And it has struggled to drive regional economic integration because it is neither a trade pact nor an investment vehicle and its members often disagree about specific infrastructure and development schemes,” he told VOA.
The biggest challenge to Uzbekistan’s big summit lies to the west—in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some SCO members like Kazakhstan have publicly signaled their discomfort with Russia’s war.
Feigenbaum noted that while China has “fostered a strategic entente with Moscow” to counter Washington, “it has tried to straddle on the war by leavening its diplomatic support for Russia with a policy of complying with most Western sanctions.”
In attending the SCO summit, Xi is making his first trip outside China in nearly three years. “If he abandons this ‘Beijing straddle’ and leans ever harder into Chinese support for Russia, he risks driving a wedge with Central Asian neighbors while injecting rancor into the group” instead of the “unity” Mirziyoyev wants.
Uzbekistan’s one-year SCO chairmanship “has fallen in a dynamic and fraught period when one global era comes to an end and another begins,” Feigenbaum said.
VOA’s conversations with Uzbek intellectuals and professionals reflect this excitement but also cynicism about the summit.
Javohir Kudratov, a doctor, believes that Uzbekistan seeks prestige, credibility and investment by staging such a grandiose event in its “Silk Road jewel city,” highlighting that SCO members generate a quarter of the world’s GDP.
“Millions within the bloc rightly want concrete results and benefits from this event. But we also realize that the summit looks more like a ‘chaykhana’ for the leaders of countries who don’t get along and who have not been out for a while,” says Kudratov.
Chaykhana is a Central Asian teahouse where men dally over a cup of tea, share traditional dishes like plov, and discuss current affairs. It’s not a place for solutions but can enable candid exchanges.
Feruza Azimova, a young researcher in Tashkent, agreed with Kudratov, adding that each guest will come with his list of grievances and proposals. “I’m not sure what we gain from this summit other than private discussions. I doubt those will translate into anything real that we can see and feel.”
Uzbekistan has built dozens of new structures in Samarkand for this summit, spending millions. It’s useful investment, say officials, since the city needs world class hotels, business centers and conference halls.
Uzbeks are also excited about the expected talks between the leaders of Russia and China, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Iran and Turkey.
“Let’s see whether we just get dry official statements,” said a Samarkand-based entrepreneur who has business interests in Turkey, Russia and China. Requesting anonymity, he pointed to deep corruption within the SCO, arguing that the bloc is still run by Moscow and Beijing, no matter how hard Uzbekistan has pushed for relevance by focusing on security, economy and climate.
“The SCO is strong if each of us is strong,” Mirziyoyev said in his Monday statement. “The ongoing armed conflicts in different parts of the world destabilize trade and investment flows, exacerbate the problems of ensuring food and energy security.”
“Global climate shocks, growing scarcity of natural and water resources, decline in biodiversity, spread of dangerous infectious diseases have exposed the vulnerability of our societies as never before.”
The SCO has no history of tackling these issues, although it has developed cooperative structures on, for example, counternarcotics.
Sharofiddin Tulaganov, a political commentator in Tashkent, told VOA that the world should be pragmatic about the summit.
“It’s an annual event hosted by a chair. While it is remarkable that Xi will attend because he has not been out in the international arena since the pandemic, and the Russian leader has not been traveling much abroad because of the war in Ukraine, we still don’t know what these presidents will discuss,” he said.
“I expect Beijing to act as calm as ever, without emotion, urging the SCO to be more effective but not necessarily pushing for it to compete with NATO and act against the West.”
Tulaganov sees India and Pakistan taking the same geostrategic line. “These countries don’t want the SCO to position itself as an anti-Western bloc. Tashkent shares that view, promoting a “Samarkand spirit” of peace, mutual trust, and respect.
“China and Turkey are the only states at the summit who can ask Putin to stop the war in Ukraine, but we don’t know how they do that. It’s a polarized world and Uzbekistan clearly does not want to be pushed around and pressured to choose a side.”
Since Russia, China, Belarus, and Iran are all under Western sanctions, they may express their resentments toward Washington and Brussels. But no expert VOA talked with expects Washington or Brussels to be angered at Uzbekistan.
“We know that Americans and Europeans understand the geopolitical predicament Uzbekistan and rest of Central Asia are in,” said Tulaganov.