A country with great potential and ambitious plans for the future - speech of the President of British-Uzbek Society Lord Fred Ponsonby
The theme of my talk today is that Uzbekistan is a country with great potential and ambitious plans for the future. I address you as the President of the British Uzbek Society which is mainly concerned with promoting cultural relationships between Uzbekistan and Britain but as many of you will know I have also have fairly longstanding business experience and some political experience in Uzbekistan.
Over the last few years we have seen an increase in the cultural exchanges between UK and Uzbekistan, there have been exhibitions, dancers and musicians who have told us about the depth and quality of Uzbek culture. One recent example is ‘The History of One City’ photo exhibition which took place in Cambridge and London in March this year. It was a partnership between the Fund Forum, Uzbek Embassy here in London and the British-Uzbek Society. The exhibition consisted of around 80 photographs capturing Tashkent at important stages of its history from the late nineteenth century to the present day.
Of course to those of us who have visited Uzbekistan many times it is no surprise that Uzbekistan is rich in history and culture, however Uzbekistan is still a young country and many people in Britain do not know of its history and cultural achievements. These cultural exchanges not only promote Uzbekistan and provide us with great events to visit and enjoy but they show Uzbekistan wants to present itself to the wider world as a dynamic young country which is steeped in history and the arts.
One area where this ambition presents itself is in the area of education, I read with interest President Karimov’s statement on the importance he gives to education and the transition to 12 years of free education consisting of nine years of general schooling followed by 3 years of professional colleges and lyceums. We know of the initiatives by Cambridge University and the University of Westminster which are now well established and offering programmes which are sought after and respected in Uzbekistan. But I think it is important that the President’s ambition is that all Uzbekistan’s young people should get the best possible education and that he is putting in place the concrete measures to ensure that this is the case. It is true for all countries that their greatest asset is their educated young people, but it is particularly true in Uzbekistan where such high importance is given to education.
Another area I want to mention is the growing political contact between our parliaments; this is an initiative by my colleague Lord Waverley. He has set up a parliamentary group in the UK and visited Uzbekistan with a group of British parliamentarians. I know that a number of talks were held about human rights, issues related to women’s place in society and the evolution of democracy in Uzbekistan. It is worth putting on record that the evolution of democracy is a dynamic process and that the multiparty parliamentary elections in 2009 were a step on the road towards a genuinely elected parliament. I believe it is important that there is a genuine and long term commitment to dialogue about political, economic and social understanding. I hope and expect that the new parliamentary group will foster these discussions and there will be other such meetings in the future.
A third area I want to touch on is the development of trade relations between British companies and their counterparts in Uzbekistan. The title of today’s round table is ‘Strengthening the role of Non-Governmental Organisations in Developing Civil Society’. The common definition of an NGO is a ‘Not for profit’ organisation that is acting in a social context and not a business context. I would argue, however, that private businesses are also NGOs and can have social benefits apart from the profits and taxes they generate for their shareholders and the state. Now of course many of the business relationships established will be between privately owned British Companies and state owned Uzbek companies. This I hope will change in time as, of course, privately owned companies are by definition non-governmental organisations. I know that in my own previous business in Uzbekistan while our main contract was with the state owned Uzbekneftegaz we had numerous other smaller contracts with private suppliers such as lawyers, accountants and technical service companies, some of these were international companies and some were local companies but they all employed Uzbek staff who paid their taxes and worked in a normal way for the good of their employing companies. I think the social benefits of working for a private company are profound as every employee quickly learns that their best opportunities lie within a successful company and every private company needs to constantly change and adapt as market conditions change. This constant change and adaption can be frightening to those who are unused to it but it is also an opportunity for those companies and individuals who have the skills and knowledge to take advantage of the changing conditions.
I should also put on record that the forthcoming UBTIC trade conference is scheduled for early December and I understand it is the biggest in the organisation’s history; this is surely a good sign for the future. Mr Ganiev and Dr Booth deserve credit for their work over the years in building this up.
I have mentioned the growing cultural exchanges between Uzbekistan and Britain and the importance of education in this context. I have mentioned the parliamentary links which have been established and how links between parliaments can enhance links between governments. I have also mentioned the growing business relationships and how I believe the growth of private businesses will have a social impact as well as a monetary impact as people get used to working in an ever changing business environment.
So what of the future? It is clear that Uzbekistan wants to develop its relationships in a multifaceted way; this roundtable event itself shows that it is serious about the role of NGOs. The business side is developing and the parliamentary side is developing. I should also note that Dr Shirin Akiner’s recent article about Uzbekistan’s role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation also shows Uzbekistan wants to develop a multifaceted approach to its foreign relations. I believe that Uzbekistan, and Tashkent in particular, is once again playing a pivotal role in a geopolitical sense as we in the West see the rise of the East, and the rise of China in particular. In addition to this, the position in Afghanistan is difficult and the position in Pakistan is difficult too so it is natural that the international community will want to work with other countries, including Uzbekistan, which border Afghanistan. We all know the history of the Silk Road and we all know Uzbekistan is a young country but I think it is true to say the modern day Silk Road meets in Tashkent and it is possible that Tashkent will regain its historic role as a critical intermediary between powerful regions and powerful interest groups.
The theme of today’s roundtable meeting is the role of public associations and NGOs in developing civil society. I have argued that the development of NGOs, while welcome and important in itself, should be seen in the wider context of developing business relationships, a developing democracy and a developing role on the international political stage. All these elements go hand in hand and I wish Uzbekistan well as it addresses these important issues.