By Maksim Yeniseyev
TASHKENT -- Economic co-operation with the US will help Uzbekistan realise its export potential and its 20-year dream of joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO), predict observers.
"Membership in the WTO could open up new markets and opportunities for Uzbekistan, and finally put an end to this era of isolationism [that began since the end of the USSR in 1991]," Tashkent economist Shukurullo Mavlonov told Caravanserai. "Help from influential countries like the US ... should make the process significantly easier."
Uzbekistan's potential entry into WTO would be relatively late for the region. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are all members.
Uzbekistan has been trying to join the WTO since 1994, but economic isolationism under its long-time president, Islam Karimov, did not bode well for the country's membership prospects.
To protect domestic producers, the Karimov government maintained tariffs on various goods and severely limited the convertibility of Uzbekistani currency.
Such restrictions made membership in the free-trade-minded WTO a pipe dream, said Mavlonov.
Karimov died in 2016.
"We need to do a lot of work to fix those mistakes," said Mavlonov. "Assistance from developed countries [such as the US] will be very much needed."
The visit of Assistant US Trade Representative for South and Central Asian Affairs Mark Linscott to Tashkent December 14 represents a continuation of the growing closeness between the US and Uzbekistan.
During his trip, Linscott conferred with Uzbekistani Foreign Trade Ministry (MFT) officials about joining the WTO and other matters.
"The US delegation expressed willingness to help resolve technical matters during the process of Uzbekistan's accession into the WTO," according to a December 14 statement by the MFT.
The sides agreed to establish "constant contacts between the responsible MFT employees and the Office of the United States Trade Representative ... to efficiently resolve the above-mentioned issues", added the MFT.
Another country willing to help is South Korea, with which Uzbekistan has a burgeoning economic relationship in part due to Uzbekistan's large population of ethnic Koreans.
Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev publicly announced Uzbekistan's intent to join the WTO last November 23 while visiting Seoul for economic talks.
The same day, Mirziyoyev and South Korean President Moon Jae-in signed a memorandum of co-operation on Uzbekistan's drive to join the WTO.
The agreement calls on South Korea to help Uzbekistan assess the consequences of entering the WTO and to examine Uzbekistani law for compliance with WTO requirements. It also pledges South Korean advice and other support to Uzbekistani ministries and agencies, reported Gazeta.uz, citing Mirziyoyev's press office.
Economic relations with the US reached new heights last September.
An Uzbekistani delegation headed by Mirziyoyev signed contracts worth $2.6 billion (20.9 trillion UZS) during the US-Uzbekistan Business Forum held in New York September 20.
Mirziyoyev called the forum "unprecedented in its scope".
Exports to Uzbekistan supported 400 jobs in the US in 2015, according to the US Department of Commerce. Although trade started at a low level, it is accelerating -- US exports to Uzbekistan grew 490% from 2006 to 2016.
In 2016, trade between the two countries equalled $349 million (2.8 trillion UZS).