Sayfullo Saipov put Uzbekistan into the headlines this week, after driving a truck onto a pedestrian path in lower Manhattan. It’s a country most of us aren’t familiar with. We caught up with FPI Fellow Kate Himes, the Director of the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research to get a better understanding of the country, US relations with Uzbekistan, and the possibility of growing extremism.

FPI: Uzbekistan has been dominating the news this week. What should we know about Uzbekistan?

Kate Himes: Uzbekistan, a former Soviet Republic, is located in Central Asia, bordered by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Home to nearly 33 million people, Uzbekistan is filled with vast regions of desert, mountains, technology-based agriculture, modern cities, high speed rail, and well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage sites from centuries on the Silk Road. The country is facing an uncertain political future, with the First President, Islam Karimov, passing in 2016. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the Second President, indicates that his leadership will pursue a less autocratic path than that of his predecessor. Of note: Uzbekistan has a proud science and technology tradition, with major contributions during the Islamic Golden Age. In fact, modern trigonometry was founded in Uzbekistan!

FPI: The U.S. cooperates with Uzbekistan on science and technology. How? 

KH: The U.S. and Uzbekistan entered into a formal Science & Technology Agreement in 2010, signed by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov. In 2014, the two countries met for the first time in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, to explore more deeply areas of scientific and technical cooperation. These included agriculture, renewable energy, and evidence-based medicine. Approximately 30 U.S. scientists, university researchers, government officials, and non-profit representatives joined 60 Uzbek scientists, researchers, and government officials to create a two-year action plan.

While the formal bilateral agreement is new, the two countries have cooperated for decades on agriculture research. For example, both the University of California-Davis and Texas A&M University explore a variety of agriculture topics with Uzbekistan colleagues, given the similarity in climate. Uzbek delegations have visited UC-Davis, even exploring the latest in viticulture, an area of economic growth in Uzbekistan. Over twenty varieties of table grapes alone are harvested in Uzbekistan!

FPI: Is Uzbekistan a hotbed for extremism? Or is it headed in that direction? If so, what can we do to stop it? 

KH: Uzbekistan is headed in that direction. Major challenges include slow economic growth, increasing unemployed or underemployed youth population, decreasing development aid and diplomatic engagement, and growing Russian interest in the region. The US Agency for International Development Mission to Central Asia supports four countries of the former Soviet Union (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) in areas of democracy and governance, economic growth, agriculture, and health, despite decreasing budgets. Diplomatic engagement in this region is not a priority for the current U.S. administration. Development and diplomacy now, rather than military or clandestine intervention in the future, are worth every penny (foreign affairs comprises less than 1% of the U.S. Federal Budget) to maintain peace in Central Asia.