TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan's efforts to open up to the world, coupled with its refusal to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), are signals that the country aims to be more self-reliant and curb its dependence on Moscow, experts say.
The government is trying to build up its standing in the international community as one way to demonstrate it is leaning away from Russian influence, according to Mukhammad Bobur Malikov, a former Uzbek minister of justice.
"It is quite obvious that the president of Uzbekistan is trying to build a multi-pronged foreign policy, as demonstrated by his recent visit to Turkey, where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan," he said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent trip to Uzbekistan was a further sign of the country's growing stature on the international scene, noted Malikov, also a former Uzbek ambassador to Washington.
The visit by Pompeo demonstrated that the United States is becoming an increasingly attractive partner for Central Asian countries, he added.
During his time in Uzbekistan February 3, Pompeo "thanked President Mirziyoyev for his leadership in forging a closer, strategic partnership between the United States and Uzbekistan and for advancing a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan", the US State Department said in a statement.
With or without Russia?
At the same time, Uzbekistan is showing a willingness to curb its reliance on Russia, and since the countries have no common border, "this makes Uzbekistan less vulnerable to Russia than countries like Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine are", Malikov said.
To be sure, Uzbekistan still remains dependent on Russia, primarily in the natural-gas industry, he said, adding that this sector is Russian President Vladimir Putin's "personal fiefdom."
Despite Uzbekistan's dependence on Russia, Mirziyoyev understands that self-reliance is becoming more crucial as Russia embroils itself in long-term conflicts such as the one in the Donbas region of Ukraine, Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Syria, said Malikov.
In addition, "the emergence of new conflicts [instigated by the Kremlin] with such close Russian allies like Belarus" is worrisome, he said.
Such behaviour by Moscow makes a continued alliance with it risky, he said.
Alisher Taksanov, a former Uzbek diplomat and economist, agreed with Malikov.
"Recent events show that Uzbekistan is determined to establish a multi-vector and balanced foreign policy," he said.
"Yes, Uzbekistan is very dependent on Russia, but Russia badly needs Uzbekistan," said Taksanov.
Uzbekistan is still very dependent on Russia economically, he noted. Russia is the country's biggest trading partner, and about 5 million Uzbek migrant workers are employed as labourers there.
Still, Mirziyoyev undoubtedly sees the risk of continuing with a heavy reliance on Moscow, according to Taksanov.
"Putin is literally isolated right now," he said. "He has practically no allies abroad, so he is relying on former members of the USSR, and Uzbekistan is a very necessary partner in this regard."
"But Putin shouldn't expect the president of Uzbekistan to become his satellite," he added.
Demonstrating sovereignty, independence
The Uzbek leader already has sent a strong signal to Moscow that the country plans to fortify its independence by saying on January 20 that Uzbekistan would not sign on to the Russia-dominated EEU. Instead, Uzbekistan chose observer status.
"We will not be a member of this union," Mirziyoyev said in a speech to the first session of the upper chamber of parliament since the recent elections.
"Bear in mind one thing: nobody will ever give away our independence to anyone. Independence rests in the hands of a president whom the people trust," he said.
Uzbekistan's refusal to join the EEU is most likely a "demonstration -- to the world community and to his own people -- of President Mirziyoyev's commitment to the path of sovereignty and independence", said Malikov, the former Uzbek minister of justice.
The former president, Islam Karimov, took even more pointed steps. Karimov died in 2016.
Karimov rejected the use of the Soviet term "Great Patriotic War" in relation to Uzbekistan in World War II and renamed Victory Day (May 9) to Memorial Day, Malikov said.
Moreover, Karimov pulled the country out of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and moved Uzbekistan away from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet.
Another recent strain on Uzbekistan's ties with Moscow is the ongoing trial in Tashkent of a political analyst and a number of military personnel in connection with charges of spying for Moscow.
The Yunusabad District Criminal Court in Tashkent on February 10 conducted the second session of the closed trial of Rafik Saifulin, 61, a political analyst and former director of Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan (ISISPRU), a Tashkent think tank, and of 10 military personnel.
As part of their alleged charges of treason, the defendants spied for Moscow, disclosed state secrets and committed other crimes, prosecutors say.
However, the Saifulin case is "just the tip of the iceberg ... underpinned by even more significant figures lobbying for Russia's interests and blocking President Mirziyoyev's initiatives on establishing closer relations with the West", said Taksanov.
"Despite the exposure of Russian espionage, about half of the country's State Security Service specialists studied in Russia and have close ties with Russia. Their closest relatives have Russian citizenship. They also hold property and investments in the Russian Federation," he said.
Another asset for Putin in Uzbekistan is the ethnic Russian minority, said taksanov.
"While the majority of Russians are dissatisfied with Putin's policies and are critical of his actions, the Russian population in Uzbekistan has a very positive view of him and consider him to be their defender and bulwark," he said.