A view from Britain on reforms in Uzbekistan. The Dialogue with Alan Duncan.

How do the British evaluate reforms in Uzbekistan? What needs to be done to attract investment? What is the role of education in the future of our country? The Dialogue with Alan Duncan. Subtitles are available on English, Russian and Uzbek.


Interview with Sir Alan Duncan

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: Sir Alan Duncan, welcome to Uzbek Review and thank you for making the time to meet with us today and welcome to Uzbekistan again.

Sir Alan Duncan: Thank you.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: You have the longest experience in both business and politics, incredible twenty-seven years career in the parliament. \[…] And today you’re back in the business. With your weight, political and business, you can choose any country in the world, so what are you doing in Uzbekistan?

Sir Alan Duncan: It is both the politics and the business that attracts me to Uzbekistan. Because when I was Foreign Minister, I saw Uzbekistan as one of the most interesting countries to visit. Because I think that you are in the hub of Central Asia at a time of great change and you have a fantastically reforming President. You are admired massively. So, I came and saw him very early on and we got on very well and one of his main messages is that he wants the country to be a good place for business, he wants to open it up, he wants not just the public sector, he wants the private sector as well, and so now that I’m back in the energy business, I thought I’d come and try and deliver for him and see if there’s any way that the company I work with can do business with this country here and companies in the country. And this also because I think that this country is on the journey. And I am a massive supporter of the reforming program of President Mirziyoyev and I came here in December to see the local and regional parliamentary elections. And things are changing and I think that’s a good news.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: You have… Throughout your career, you have met, indeed, a lot of leaders, starting with Margaret Thatcher, great Margaret Thatcher and with Donald Trump as well and actually had dinner with the Queen.

Sir Alan Duncan: They’ve got the same hairdo, I mean not the Queen, Donald and… (laughing).

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: At the Buckingham Palace on the occasion of the state visit in 2018. You met President Mirziyoyev at least three times; 2016, 2018 and 2019. Would you be able to recall what impression he made on you?

Sir Alan Duncan: Yeah, I mean, one of the exciting things about being a foreign minister is you do meet some fantastically interesting people across the world. And that’s you say, in politics, after she was Prime Minister, I used to take Margaret Thatcher out for lunch may be three times a year and I always learned something when I was sitting down with her. But when I came to Uzbekistan, I met President. And I was very taken by his… sort of… youthful energetic determination to reform his country in a good way. And one of the things that I found very impressive is that he wanted to do it for young people, you’ve got a large percentage of young people and he sort of said: ”If I don’t get this right now, it wouldn’t be good for them later, so let’s get it right”. So he has been very tough on corruption, he’s trying to reform the private sector and you know, he has addressed human rights, which is or has been one of the problems with Uzbekistan’s image. And so, you know, it gave me great pleasure to see, after I’d seen him that he, it’s laid in the BBC, The Economist and Reuters, he’s closed down a very, I think, unacceptable prison, that’s good. And Uzbekistan in The Economist magazine in December was the top country for progress, for change. And that’s the change we’ve got to see continue. And I see in the President’s determination to make sure that the reforms he’s promised will happen and they will be good for the country in the long term and I find his leadership in this drive great. It’s not for himself, it’s for his country and that’s what I like about it.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: Many of us still try to comprehend the fundamental and the significance of the change that has taken place for the last three years in the country.

Sir Alan Duncan: Yeah…

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: If you would advise the government today, what would you perhaps recommend or may be even do differently? Where would you say the government to focus on in the next phase of the reforms in the country?

Sir Alan Duncan: I think, I’d say: “Have the confidence to continue with what you’ve started and always be sure to communicate to people what you are doing and why you are doing it. And don’t let some of the old traditional forces somehow stop you”. I mean, this is the country with the fantastic path, the fantastic history: the Silk Road, you know, the history of this country is absolutely amazing. And now the challenge is to make sure that the future is as well. And so, as you move out of the Soviet age into an age where countries are more interdependent, you know, social media, the communications revolution, transport are all much faster and available to more people. This is a great opportunity. So, and I think, Uzbekistan has already done some good things, liberalizing, reforming, opening up and made proper friendships with all its neighbors where in the past there were tensions and difficulties. It’s proud and confident to say to the world: “Look, we’re changing, you’re welcome, treat us like a member of the modern family of nations – let’s get on with it”! And I just think, on one level it’s quite a simple message, but to make it actually happen in a society that needs to change a bit, it takes a bit of time, but I think what President Mirziyoyev is doing is absolutely right for the country and its future.

Mr. Oyber Shaykhov: You’ve been Foreign Office Minister for very long time and at the very critical time for the United Kingdom. I want to briefly touch upon the Uzbekistan-UK relations. Where would you see they stand today?

Sir Alan Duncan: Look, I think they are very good and not just because I’ve visited and your new, sort of young energetic ministers have visited, but also we’ve had a half billion dollar bond issue on the London stock exchange. But it’s the beginning and we’ve got to do a lot more. And so, when I was Foreign Minister, I was trying to persuade all my fellow politicians that Uzbekistan is actually particularly interesting and the country they ought to think about. So I heard that we can see investment here, we’ve got uptick, which is the investment conference happening in May in the UK. I know there would have been this big investment forum this week, but it had to be postponed but that’s why we wanted to come anyway to show that we have confidence in the country. So, I think it’s all about building up business, but also social, educational ties, the person to person ties are very important for building confidence and opportunities. So, I hope there’ll be a lot of freedom, travel and study and meet and lots more tourists from the UK and they’ve got to come to Bukhara and Samarkand and everywhere and discover Uzbekistan.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: What more should be done by the Uzbekistan government, you think to attract more British investment?

Sir Alan Duncan: Look, I’m always reluctant to tell any other country what they should do, except in general terms, you know, having a right business climate to attract business is important, so it means, you know, you have to have a trusted legal system in case there are disputes, the ability to bring money in and out, profit and investment; you need to make sure that the basis, on which people do business is fair, and is not open to any kind of improper influence or parries, so it’s all about trust, if you trust, the ability to do business in a way that’s going to be fair and sensible and proper competition, then all business increases. And the President gets this, I mean this is one of his main messages. So I think, things are well on the way and we need more British companies to come and spend some of their money in Tashkent and roundabout.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: If I were a British company, looking at the new frontier market developing dynamically, and some clear interest is building up about this market, what would you say, but I’m still a little bit cautious, given it’s a country which is quite far away, it is a country which is still very much a frontier market, emerging market, what would you say to me as a British company about Uzbekistan to give me a bit more confidence perhaps, to consider coming to Uzbekistan?

Sir Alan Duncan: Yeah, I mean, I think I’d say that it’s safe, that it’s very welcoming, that business counterpart did be trustworthy. I mean, one of the things is the connectivity of flights is not as good as it could be; from the UK we’ve got some direct flights, but it would be nice to have some more. But I think, you know, politicians should never tell business people what they should do. They must create the conditions, in which is in business people can go and do what they are good at and see the opportunities, take the risks and make the business happen. And it’s creating that climate of opportunity which is the most important part, I think, of a government’s work in attracting investment.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: And I have a slightly more personal question: as you see, a significant change is happening in Uzbekistan, a generational shift, if you will; you see much more young politicians and civil servants, taking important positions in the government, in the public life. The youngest Member of Parliament we have is actually twenty-five years old and the youngest minister is around forty. And we have more than one of them. Given your experience, you have started indeed with Margaret Thatcher; if I may put another question right away, would you consider her a mentor?

Sir Alan Duncan: Yes, she was an inspiration. I mean, really, and the reason she was an inspiration was that she had courage and determination to tackle a problem when she saw it and when she became Prime Minister in 1979, Britain was seen as the country in Europe that was going downhill. We had strikes, high inflation, low productivity, problems with our currency and for exchange and everything, balance of payment. And she came and said: “You’ve got to get the money right, you’ve got to have sensible economics, if we don’t do that, everybody loses”. And she took on the Trade Unions and she was tough on the money and that is what gave Britain the foundation of its success in the 30 years that have followed. She defeated all of the bad things that were happening in Britain starting in the 50s and the 60s, and that’s why I admire her, because she a peaceful revolutionary if you like, and she was a leader, and she had courage. And instead of, sort of changing her mind because of media pressure, she stood up to the media and said: “No! No! I’m going to do it this way”! And that’s why I think she had such a following and she is quite remarkable – what Churchill did in war, Thatcher did in peace.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: What’s the one thing that you can pinpoint that you have learned from her, that you could pass on to these young generations of politicians in Uzbekistan and civil servants?

Sir Alan Duncan: That’s quite a lot really from her one could say. Actually before I became a Member of Parliament and she just finished being the Prime Minister I went and had a cup of tea with her and I asked her about China and she said: “The thing about China, they’ve got the economics, they haven’t got the politics”. And she always believed in the freedom that can be delivered by democracy. So, she thought they were one and the same thing in a way. And so, she believed in freedom of markets, of business, of people and of government. And I think that’s a very important lesson that she taught. She had a philosophy, which was clear. And instead of just having simple opinions, she had intellectual clarity and that, I think, was a remarkable quality, which a lot of politicians simply don’t have.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: One thing that you mentioned that Uzbekistan is indeed a country full of young people. And in fact, more than 60% of our population is under the age of thirty. Many of them are considering public service or business. Could I ask you about some governing decisions or governing principles that in your remarkable career were governing your choice, especially of public service, within public service that could perhaps be a guide or an inspiration to the young generation?

Sir Alan Duncan: First of all, I think it’s fantastic if a young person wants to go into public service. I think, if you are going to go into politics, always try and have done something else first, so that you’ve got a foundation of experience, which makes your political decisions informed and useful. When I went to Oxford University, the chancellor who actually was a former Prime Minister called Harold Macmillan, who was about eighty years said: “Now, young boys, young people, all Oxford needs to teach you is to know when someone is talking rubbish”. And I think that if you’ve got that intellectual confidence to know what is right, what is wrong, what is true and what is false, then that equips you both for business and for politics, for anything. So I think, having a tidy mind, thought and understanding really what is rubbish, and what is not rubbish is the basis for everything.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: One of the biggest challenges the country is facing today is the lack of capacity to support President’s reforms, his vision, his ideas in terms of people, young people who are able to have the experience, the education and the knowledge in order to drive his ideas forward. And that with the very young population. So, how important you think education could be for the future of Uzbekistan and what should be done in order to build on the capacity, the key things that should be done to build the capacity necessary for that?

Sir Alan Duncan: Well, there was another conservative party Prime Minister about a hundred and fifty years ago called Benjamin Disraeli and he was famous for saying: “It is on the education of our people that the future of our country depends”. So if you get the education right, you guarantee your country’s future. So, education is crucial. Both for boys and for girls. And one of the most important modern messages is that women must be treated the same as men, girls and boys when it comes to education or, indeed, anything. And it’s wrong thing that the boys should be educated more than girls, no. Educate everybody and then you will have a better country. And it’s also important for creating jobs that add value, because if you haven’t done your mathematics and your engineering or something you’re not going to find people who can do those skilled jobs. So it’s very important to have education. I saw when I was here in December the one of the President’s schools, you know, very-very high quality, high achieving school. Well, that’s good; I mean, I don’t think we have one like that in the UK, because we try to make too many things equal, but I thought: “Good, go for the excellence”. You want the highest standards.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: Wouldn’t you call that elitism?

Sir Alan Duncan: You won’t win an Olympic medal, if you don’t have elitism. It doesn’t mean that it is privilege, it means that the best come out on top. So, elitism is not a bad word. It means, you’re going for the best. Your best soldiers are an elite, your best athletes, your best chemists.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: I had to challenge you on that. And I’ve challenged with that question. (laughing)

Sir Alan Duncan: Or am I challenging you? (laughing)

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: And the question that comes up when you build that kind of structure, of course, you know the Ivy League in US, there is a lot of criticism for that. And indeed, there are different views and all views are important that indeed meaning to speed up sometimes, you do have to make sure that you help the best to achieve the best.

Sir Alan Duncan: Yes, and everybody needs an opportunity to become one of the best.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: Twenty-seven years in politics. Three things that you have learned and you’ve taken out of the twenty-seven years being part of one of the most complex but efficient political systems in the world. Practice has shown that no matter how complex it is it actually works.

Sir Alan Duncan: Yes, the servants of the people are always right, even when they are wrong. I think, another lesson I learned was, you know, always be happy politician. Politicians who get bitter and upset about their own future are not good politicians. And in our system as in many systems is 90% luck. But whether you are just in Parliament, or you’re a Minister, or whatever, is not a perfect progress of talent. Politics has its different influences. But I think, the final thing I’d say is, it is a worthy thing to do and always believe that by going into politics and doing your best you can make a difference for the better for other people and for the country of which you are a part. Never say all politics is rubbish, it is of course only as good as people in it and the way people vote, but in the end you know without politics you have chaos. So, never be ashamed of going into politics.

Mr. Oybek Shaykhov: Thank you very much for being part of this interview.

Sir Alan Duncan: Thank you.

Special thanks to Universal Bank and Hyatt Regency Tashkent for their partnership within this project.

When quoting materials, an active link to the primary source is required: the analytical portal www.uzbek.review.

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