Gayrat Fazilov is the ambassador of the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan, a country that has long had ties with Japan and is recently experiencing continued economic growth. Its ancient city of Samarkand was located at the center of the Silk Road. Toshio Motoya spoke with Fazilov about Uzbekistan’s industries and must-visit sites in this country that has a great deal of historic heritage.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. In each issue, I speak with various people including ambassadors to Japan, politicians, and entrepreneurs. Up until now, I have interviewed the ambassadors of 40 to 50 countries.
(F) I actually presented my credentials to His Majesty the Emperor this morning. You are the first person I have met since then.
(M) Your ceremony was today? Did you ride in a state carriage from Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace?
(F) Yes, I did.
(M) Most ambassadors choose the carriage. I am honored to meet with you on this special day.
(F) As an ambassador to Japan, I am grateful for this opportunity to take part in a dialogue that will be printed in the media. I look forward to talking with you.
(M) Me, too. Could you start by telling us some basic information about Uzbekistan?
(F) Uzbekistan is located in Central Asia, bordered by Kazakhstan to the north and west, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the east, and Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to the south. The area is 1.2 times larger than Japan. The population is roughly 32 million people, and the capital is Toshkent. Ethnically speaking, over 80% of the people are Uzbeks. Our official language is Uzbek, but Russian is also spoken widely. Most people are part of the Sunni Islam religious denomination. The Republic of Uzbekistan was founded in 1991 after independence from the Soviet Union.
(M) APA Group holds biannual overseas study tours for our employees and interested members of companies we do business with. We are going to Uzbekistan for our first trip of 2018. I have been to 81 countries around the world, but this is the first visit to Uzbekistan for myself and all members of the 90-person tour. When we put out the call for participants, this trip was quite popular and many more people applied than we expected. Last time we went to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where we visited mainly old World War II battle sites and locations related to Japan. We have also traveled to Guam and Vietnam. I planned this trip because I wanted to go to Tashkent to see the Navoi Theater, which was built by some soldiers from the former Japanese Army who were interned in Siberia. The soldiers were subjected to harsh circumstances in Siberia yet they were treated kindly in Uzbekistan, and they worked hard to build the Navoi Theater out of gratitude. Many buildings were destroyed in the 1966 Tashkent earthquake, but the Navoi Theater survived and was used as an evacuation shelter for many people. I’ve heard that citizens once again praised the construction of this great building at that time. There are many tragic stories about internment in Siberia, but I think the Navoi Theater is the most moving tale, so much that we can say it is the only one.
(F) Thank you for deciding to hold your study tour in Uzbekistan! I think that’s a wonderful choice. An embassy staff member who recently attended your Wine Tasting and Discussion About Japan told me you are interested in Uzbekistan. I also feel that this interest is growing across Japan overall. Right after World War II, Japanese soldiers in Siberian internment camps came to Uzbekistan. The Soviet Union regarded the Japanese soldiers as prisoners of war at that time, but the Uzbeks saw them as internees.
(M) As a Japanese person, I am very grateful they were treated that way.
(F) The soldiers were interned in different locations, which is one reason there are eight cemeteries for the roughly 800 Japanese soldiers who unfortunately died in Uzbekistan.
(M) I hear the Soviet Union ordered the soldiers to be buried at a single gravesite, but the Uzbeks opposed this, which is why there are eight.
(F) That’s true. The Soviet Union wanted to dig one big hole and bury all of the Japanese soldiers in it. However, the Uzbeks resisted this burial method because they respected these soldiers who had built various facilities for them. Adherents of other religions traditionally cannot be interred in Muslim cemeteries, but graves for the Japanese soldiers were specially put there and managed carefully. One of these cemeteries is in Yakkasaray, Tashkent. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie visited this graveyard when they came to Uzbekistan in 2015. If you are going to Tashkent, I hope you will stop by.
(M) Yes, I will.
(F) In this way, the Uzbeks respected the Japanese. This is also shown by a nameplate in the Navoi Theater that stated it was built by Japanese prisoners of war. When Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, Islam Karimov, our first president, had the plaque removed because he did not think the term “prisoner of war” should be used. He did this because Uzbekistan had not fought against Japan, and he believed no such conflict would take place in the future.
(M) That was extremely kind.
(F) The ties between Uzbekistan and Japan are not limited to these internees. Looking back at history, the two countries were also connected by the Silk Road. Its eastern end was in Nara, and the center was in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Of course, there was exchange between these two cities.
(M) So, Samarkand has flourished since ancient times. Were there any oases?
(F) Yes. Anthropologist Kyuzo Kato, who sadly passed away in 2016, spent dozens of years researching Buddhist sites in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia. Uzbekistan has been a location where many civilizations mingled since ancient times, and it was a center of economic, cultural, and academic growth. Buddhism was very popular in Uzbekistan from the 1st century BC to the 1st century. Through his excavations, Kato proved that Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century via the Silk Road through China. Samarkand has many historical sightseeing spots where you can see the great achievements of our ancestors, so I hope you will visit!
(M) Of course! In addition to history, are abundant mineral resources also a feature of Uzbekistan?
(F) All chemical elements in Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table are produced in Uzbekistan. Still, not all of these are in large amounts. Our number-one resource is natural gas, most of which is consumed domestically. The rest is exported to Russia and China.
(M) Do you also produce oil?
(F) Yes, although not as much as natural gas. It is also consumed in Uzbekistan. In addition, we have a great deal of gold – the world’s seventh-largest production amount and fourth-largest reserves. We’re in the top ten for uranium reserves, and we also produce other rare metals. Moreover, mineral resource surveys have yet to be conducted in many areas. Today Uzbekistan, under the leadership of H.E. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, undertook very large and significant business reforms, which allowed the country to enter the top 10 global improvers for a third time. This is not my evaluation, but is noted in the World Bank Group’s latest Doing Business 2018: Reforming to Create Jobs report. The strategy of actions on five priority areas of development of the Republic of Uzbekistan in 2017-2021 was adopted on the initiative of our head of state. It serves such purposes as the radical improvement of reform efficiency in our country; the creation of conditions for the comprehensive, harmonious, and rapid development of state and society; and the modernization and liberalization of all spheres.
(M) Do you generate hydroelectric power?
(F) We have two large rivers: the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Both have hydroelectric power plants of various sizes. The hydroelectric power share is around 10% of the whole.
(M) Raw cotton cultivation immediately comes to mind as the principal industry of Uzbekistan. I heard that the Soviet Union’s promotion of this industry rapidly drained the water in the Aral Sea and had major impacts on the local climate and environment.
(F) The Aral Sea was a saltwater lake. As you say, a great deal of irrigation took place during the Soviet era in Uzbekistan, and the raw cotton production amount increased drastically. This irrigation water came from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, but the irrigation ditches were unlined, and most of the water was absorbed into the sand. This was exceedingly inefficient. The water flowed from these rivers into the Aral Sea, and its water level dropped suddenly from the 1960s. As you mentioned, the lake dried up, causing more extreme temperature variations in the surrounding region. Damage occurred; for instance, trees in large forests died, desertification took place including the lake, and sandstorms became more frequent. Uzbekistan proactively took on this issue starting directly after independence. First, we decreased water consumption using the latest irrigation technologies. We changed to different types of raw cotton that use little water, reduced the cultivation amount, and switched to other crops.
(M) Water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya flows into the Aral Sea, but there are no rivers that flow outward. The salt content is constant if the amount of water influx is the same as the evaporation amount, but the salinity becomes steadily denser if the influx decreases and evaporation increases. The Dead Sea in Jordan and Israel is famous for its high salinity. I have visited there twice. I did go in the water, but I was told in advance that drinking it could kill you and the water can damage your eyes. The Dead Sea has also turned into two lakes as the water level has decreased due to irrigation water taken from the Jordan River, and the falling Aral Sea has also been split into two lakes, one large and one smaller. How is its salinity?
(F) As you would expect, the falling water level has increased the lake’s salinity.
(M) Returning to the topic of industry, is it fair to say that cotton cultivation is still your major industry?
(F) It’s certainly true that cotton cultivation was our single focus until independence from the Soviet Union. However, we have proactively worked to diversify our economy since independence in 1991. We have developed the textile industry, which did not exist during the Soviet era, so we can cultivate raw cotton and also process it into textile products. Today this industry has grown so much that we import cotton, the raw material, from other countries. We also produce a great deal of processed products made from petroleum. One and a half years ago, a new processed petroleum product factory was completed as a joint venture with a South Korean corporation. A great deal of importance has also been placed on the automotive industry since independence. We initially worked with the South Korean Daewoo Group. After it went bankrupt, we have produced consumer automobiles with General Motors while cornering the domestic market and exporting vehicles to Russia as well. Medium- and small-size buses are manufactured at factories jointly operated with Itochu Corporation and Isuzu Motors, and large trucks at a factory with the German MAN.
(M) So, you produce a range of different automobiles. I did not know that.
(F) Among our industries, we particularly stress the importance of tourism. Fortunately, there are 7,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and historic buildings in towns that used to be thriving centers of culture and scholarship, such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Fergana, Shahrisabz, and Termez. Firstly, the entire town of Samarkand is a designated World Heritage Site as a “Crossroad of Cultures.” The townscapes themselves appear to be a different world, including the mosques and mausoleums made with lots of blue tiles in a shade colloquially known as “Samarkand Blue.” Registan, a public square with three blue buildings, used to be a political, cultural, and commercial center that drew many caravans traveling the Silk Road. If you walk one kilometer north from there, you will see the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, which is impressive for its giant blue dome. On a hill slightly away from the central part is Shah-i-Zinda, a necropolis with 11 mausoleums decorated in blue tiles.
(M) I cannot wait to go!
(F) The Historic Centre of Bukhara is also a World Heritage Site. It was built from the end of the 9th century to the first half of the 10th century. Its many historic buildings feature a shade of brown that differs from the blue of Samarkand, including the mausoleum of Isma’il ibn Ahmad (the oldest Islamic building in Central Asia) and the Ark of Bukhara, which was a prosperous fortress from the 4th century BC. Another World Heritage Site is the Historic Centre of Shakhrisyabz, which still has many buildings from the era of the Temurids in the 14th to 15th centuries.
(M) I can’t go that far on this trip, but I would definitely like to visit someday.
(F) The Second “Central Asia plus Japan” Business Dialogue, a dialogue framework organized by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was held in March. The theme was “The Current State and Potential of Business with Central Asia, Including the Tourism Field.” Officials from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan reported on their countries’ situations, and a question-and-answer session took place. We also introduced resorts where people can enjoy many World Heritage Sites and other historical sightseeing attractions, as well as activities like skiing, swimming, and boating in nature. I want to continue publicity activities to make these places into destinations that more Japanese people want to visit.
(M) Each month, 90,000 copies are published of Apple Town, this magazine. They are placed in APA Hotel rooms across the nation for many people to read. I hope they can learn more about Uzbekistan through this interview.
(F) That is wonderful.
(M) When I am in Uzbekistan, I am hoping to meet with ministers and other important government officials if there is time.
(F) I can arrange some meetings for you if you like. I particularly hope you can meet with the tourism minister. He is young, active, and has studied abroad in Japan, so his Japanese is quite good.
(M) I would definitely like to meet him.
(F) I have served one appointment in France and two in Belgium, and I have traveled around Europe. According to European people who have been to Uzbekistan, one visit makes them fall in love with the country and they always end up going there again. You will visit Tashkent and Samarkand, so I am certain you will fall in love with Uzbekistan and want to see more cities, such as Khiva (known as the “Pearl of Uzbekistan”) and Bukhara.
(M) I look forward to that! At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(F) First, young Japanese people should be fully aware that Japan’s current prosperity – as the world’s third-largest economic power – is the result of assiduous, great efforts by past generations. Japan has world-leading, advanced technologies, and I hope they will cherish these wonderful aspects. At the same time, I wish for them to positively work toward innovation and help Japan achieve great growth. They must study and devote energy for that purpose. I hope you will do your best!
(M) Thank you very much for joining me today.
(F) Thank you.
Date of dialogue: April 5, 2018
Born in 1974. After graduating from the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in 1996, he entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan in the same year. His past positions include councellor, Mission of the Republic of Uzbekistan, NATO; first secretary, councilor, and charge d’affaires ad interim, Embassy of Uzbekistan in Belgium; and vice minister of foreign affairs. He became the ambassador to Japan in December 2017.