Russia writes off massive Uzbekistan debt

TASHKENT: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday agreed to write off most of the debt owed by Uzbekistan in an apparent bid to steer the Central Asian country towards joining the Eurasian Economic Union.

Uzbekistan and Russia agreed to hold consultations on the possibility of a free trade zone between Uzbekistan and the Moscow-led union, Putin said after talks with Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov.

“We have agreed that we will begin consultations on the possible signing of the agreement between Uzbekistan and the Eurasian Economic Union on free trade zone,” he told reporters.

“The agreement on regulating mutual financial demands will help widen our economic ties,” Putin added, referring to the deal to write off most of Tashkent’s debt, which Russian news agencies reported would total $865 million of Uzbekistan’s outstanding $890 million debt to Russia.

Tashkent’s position on a new economic union is critical as the populous Central Asian country has so far been hesitant fearing a loss of political independence.

Karimov on Wednesday suggested that Moscow should support the existing Commonwealth of Independent States of former Soviet countries rather than creating new blocs.

He said however that Uzbekistan “has always been open to Russia” and expressed hope for “strengthening the development of Uzbek-Russian relations.”

Created by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, the economic bloc comes into force on January 1, 2015, and will be built on the existing customs union between these three states.

It was recently joined by another former Soviet state, Armenia, which ditched plans to sign a pact on closer trade and diplomatic ties with Europe.

Russia and Uzbekistan also discussed security in the region, with Karimov raising concerns about the withdrawal of Western troops from neighbouring Afghanistan.

“What causes utmost concern is the expansion of militant extremism,” he said. “Any security vacuum in Afghanistan will quickly be filled by various terrorist groups… already there are signs of ISIL elements going into Afghanistan,” referring to the Islamic State militant group.