From the very beginning, Uzbekistan and Germany have enjoyed advanced and multifaceted relations in a wide range of cooperation areas. Political dialogue between the countries is maintained at the highest levels. Official mutual visits in 2019 of Presidents Sh. M. Mirziyoyev and F.-V. Steinmeier gave a new impetus to the political, trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian ties of the two countries, raising them to a new constructive level.
Gunter Overfeld has been Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Republic of Uzbekistan since September 2017. On the eve of the 29th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Germany, Mr. Ambassador kindly agreed to give an interview to the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine “Economic Bulletin of Uzbekistan” to share his assessments of the current state and prospects of bilateral cooperation.
– Mr. Ambassador, March 6 this year will mark the 29th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and the Republic of Uzbekistan, and the relationship between the countries is growing stronger every year. Can you share your opinion on the current level of cooperation between our countries?
– Germany and Uzbekistan have shared relations that go back to the beginning of the 20th century when, in the years immediately after the World War I a sizeable number of young Uzbek intellectuals and scientists lived in Germany to study or do research there. Tragically many of these were later killed under Stalin’s terror regime. A bond of friendship has always existed. Germany was the fourth country to recognize Uzbekistan after its independence in the early 1990s. Since the beginning of President Mirziyoyev’s reform policy our cooperation has reached a new level: Bilateral trade has tripled in a few years and reached about 1 billion Euros at the end of 2019. In view of the tremendous interest by Uzbek and German companies in further cooperation, I am very optimistic that we can start again were we left in early 2020 once the COVID pandemic is over.
Our cultural and scientific cooperation is equally very developed. Let me only mention that 500.000 Uzbek citizens are studying the German language –that is the highest number of German language students in all of Asia. During President Mirziyoyev’s visit to Berlin in January 2019 and the return-visit of German President Steinmeier to Tashkent in May 2019 the relationship was further deepened and given additional dynamics at the highest political level.
– Based on the results of intergovernmental negotiations held in May 2019, Germany confirmed to Uzbekistan the allocation of funds for financial and technical cooperation for 2019 and 2020 in the total amount of 123.8 million euros. In what areas are the commitments aimed at?
We have actually since increased the figure you mention to 180 million Euros. Indeed this reflects the positive dynamics of our overall relationship that I have outlined above. Both our implementing agencies for technical and financial cooperation are located in Tashkent. A major emphasis in this cooperation is put on health issues, notably on reforms and upgrading of hospitals and education centres in Karakalpakstan and Termez. But we are also active in telemedicine, the health of mothers and the fight against tuberculosis. During the Corona pandemic a close relationship has developed between our leading agency in the fight against COVID, the Robert Koch Institut in Berlin (RKI) and relevant Uzbek institutions.
Other areas of cooperation are or will be vocational training, support for small and medium enterprises and the agricultural and food processing sector.
– The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) implements projects in Uzbekistan commissioned by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), as well as other federal agencies, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Internal Affairs. A few months ago, Germany decided to curtail the direct assistance program for many partner countries, including Central Asian countries, except for Uzbekistan. What is the reason for this? Why only Uzbekistan remained among the partners?
We have made an overall policy decision to focus our development cooperation stronger on fewer countries in order to render it more efficient. Given the very close cooperation with Uzbekistan I outlined above, the country’s strong commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and its pivotal role for the economic and social development of all of Central Asia we have decided to focus our assistance on Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is now the only country in Central Asia with which we have a bilateral cooperation. By this we also hope to support the ongoing reform policies in your country in a concrete and meaningful manner.
– Your country has a diversified industrial economy, a high GDP per capita, and a developed infrastructure. Almost all areas in which Germany is strong are of great interest to Uzbekistan. The quality of German equipment and exceptional service have an excellent reputation in Uzbekistan. What are the relevant areas for investment projects today, and where else are there prospects for implementing joint projects?
– There are investment opportunities for German companies across the various sectors of the Uzbek economy. So far investment has in particular been taking place in the production of cars, trucks and agricultural machinery. The pandemic with its obstacles to travel and direct meetings has unfortunately interrupted these dynamics. I am convinced, however, that we will see a strong revival in this and other sectors.
This being said, it is important that the overall investment environment remain attractive for all foreign investors. I would particularly highlight the reliability of contracts and agreements, speedy and transparent decision making as well as transparent, effective and independent courts.
– In May 2010, in order to strengthen effective intergovernmental cooperation, establish closer ties with the business circles of other countries and expand the contacts with potential partners, the German-Uzbek Business Council was established by the decision of the President of Uzbekistan. Can you tell us about the activities of the Council, how actively does it function?
– The German-Uzbek Business Council is an Association of various companies to develop and promote new ideas and promising projects in order to improve the business climate between the two countries. It serves as a platform for dialogue between entrepreneurs from Germany and Uzbekistan. On the Uzbek side, the informal German-Uzbek Business Council is headed by Prime Minister Aripov.
Under the conditions of the worldwide economic crisis, the Business Council can be an effective mechanism to promote joint business activities.
– The European Commission has prematurely decided to grant Uzbekistan the status of beneficiary of the Universal System of Preferences plus “GSP+”. This will allow the country to double the number of goods delivered duty-free to the European Union. Germany is the main trade and economic partner of Uzbekistan in the European Union. Germany’s share in the foreign trade turnover of Uzbekistan at the end of 2019 is 2.3 percent. The Covid-19 pandemic led to a decrease in activity and negatively affected cooperation indicators over the past year. In your opinion, which sectors of the economy have the best potential for intensifying mutual trade cooperation?
– In January and February 2020, immediately before the outbreak of the pandemic, bilateral trade increased by 20% each month compared to the same month the year before. Bilateral trade took place across a wide spectrum of sectors such as agriculture, construction, machinery etc. I see huge potential across all sectors to pick up where we left before the pandemic. In that regard I would also like to mention tourism between our countries which experienced a very fast upswing in 2018/2019.
– Within the framework of the economic development of our country, the sphere of tourism development is also of particular importance. Can you tell us, how well the Germans are aware of the tourist potential of our country? Is this destination popular among tourists in your country?
– German tourism to Uzbekistan was on a very good route until the outbreak of Covid. We ranked first among the European countries for visitors to Uzbekistan. Our people mainly come to see the magnificent historical places like Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva.
I must say, though, that in my opinion Uzbekistan’s splendid nature also has a considerable potential to attract European and certainly German tourists. I think it would make sense to take a regional approach to tourism. Just consider the magnificent mountain ranges that stretch across several Central Asian countries.
– Mr. Ambassador, how do you assess the cultural and humanitarian cooperation between our countries?
– Our cultural and educational cooperation is extremely positive. I mentioned earlier that half a million Uzbek people are learning the German language in schools and university. We have German experts working throughout Uzbekistan to support the educational system here, in particular through teacher training. Our student exchange programmes, our German language competitions for reading, public speaking and theatre, the many exhibitions, concerts, film screenings and other cultural events we and the Goethe Institute in Tashkent organize and support are very popular, particularly among young people. I consider ourselves very lucky that it was possible despite the pandemic to maintain our projects in these fields by video conferencing and other IT tools.
– According to the tradition of our magazine, could you answer a few questions briefly? The first blitz question is: what are the main tasks that you set for yourself as Chief of Mission?
– The first and most important task of every leader is to motivate his staff and be a good team leader. I hope I succeeded reasonably well in this regard. It is the basis for all other work. Concerning our bilateral relationship: Throughout the world, every Ambassador’s focus has to be the political relationship with his or her host country. In addition, I have tried to put an emphasis on the development of our economic and scientific cooperation.
– What attracts you the most in our country?
– I like your historical cities, in particular Khiva, but I must say that I also thoroughly enjoy the mountain areas in the South of Uzbekistan.
– Do you find common features between our peoples?
– I think Uzbeks are a practically minded people, just as ordinary German citizens are. In addition I found to my surprise – a very pleasant surprise – that both Uzbeks and Germans have a strongly developed taste for tasty food and excellent beer!
– Thank you for an interesting conversation.