TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — During World War II, the family of Eddie Shapira’s mother fled the Nazi occupation of their native Kishinev, Moldova, taking refuge in the faraway Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.
No one imagined that half a century later, Shapira would join the Israeli Foreign Ministry and be sent as a junior officer to Tashkent — or that eventually, following assignments in Ukraine, Thailand, Russia and Belarus, he’d one day return to an independent Uzbekistan as Israel’s top diplomat here.
“Since I was a little child, I’ve heard about the good relations between Uzbeks and Jews, long before I could ever dream about being posted here as Israel’s ambassador,” said Shapira, 57. “Even during the Soviet era, Jews never suffered antisemitism. You can’t find a single Israeli born in Uzbekistan who will complain about discrimination. This is absolutely unprecedented.”
Shapira, who’s been ambassador here for the last two years, also represents Israel in neighboring Tajikistan. He recently spoke to the Times of Israel about developments in Uzbekistan, which — with 34 million inhabitants — is by far the most populous of the five “stans” that comprise Central Asia.
It’s also among the fastest-growing of the 15 former republics that, until 1991, comprised the USSR. Between 1989 and 2019, Uzbekistan’s population jumped by 65.7% (second only to much smaller Tajikistan, which grew by 75.9%). If current trends continue, Uzbekistan will surpass Ukraine in population by 2045 to become the second-largest former Soviet republic, behind only Russia itself.
Yet only 5,000 to 8,000 Jews live in Uzbekistan today, down from more than 100,000 during World War II. Most of them emigrated to Israel, Europe and the United States in the early 1990s; the majority who remain live in Tashkent, with maybe 200 to 300 each in Samarqand and Bukhara, and perhaps a handful scattered elsewhere.
“These people are not in very close contact with Jewish organizations,” said the ambassador. “But Uzbeks and Jews have enjoyed warm relations for centuries, and this forms the solid bridge between Israel and Uzbekistan today.”
Helping the Uzbek economy grow
Shapira, interviewed at the heavily fortified Israeli Embassy in Tashkent, said those relations have taken off under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who assumed leadership of Uzbekistan following the death of his predecessor, longtime autocrat Islam Karimov.
“The main purpose of this current regime is to improve the economic situation by creating more jobs and opening civil society,” he said. According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan’s per-capita GDP currently stands at around $7,000 per year, compared to $40,000 for Israel — and its total economy is only one-seventh the size of Israel’s.
As a doubly landlocked country, Uzbekistan must attract foreign investment to overcome the exorbitant shipping costs involved in exporting or importing goods — especially since reaching nearby ports on the Persian Gulf involves crossing either Afghanistan or Turkmenistan and Iran.
But when it comes to Israel’s engagement here, direct investment in rail networks, highways or other expensive infrastructure isn’t in the cards — at least not yet.
“Israel is doing very well, but our economy is not big enough that we can invest billions of dollars in this part of the world in order to upgrade their facilities and infrastructure,” he said. “Rather, our big advantage is providing cutting-edge solutions to improve the Uzbek economy.”
Specifically, those solutions could involve supplying quality drinking water to local utilities and selling drip irrigation equipment for growing crops.
“This used to be, and always will be, an agricultural country; 30% of its GDP depends on agriculture,” he said, naming chemical giant Gadot-Agro and irrigation equipment manufacturers Netafim and NaanDanJain as among the top Israeli companies already operating successfully in Uzbekistan. “We have instruments for providing training and can also provide government insurance and credit, as well as advanced financial solutions to realize these deals with Israeli companies.”
In 2018, total Uzbek-Israeli bilateral trade came to $52 million, with Israeli exports to Uzbekistan exceeding imports by $20 million — mainly in agricultural machinery, chemicals and food.
Israeli tourism up 57% this year
This year, said Shapira, two-way trade will increase by at least 20% over last year, and more than 50% when compared to 2017 figures. At the moment, Israel has 37 joint ventures with Uzbek companies.
“In terms of economic reforms, GDP growth and infrastructure, Kazakhstan is more advanced,” he said. “But in terms of future growth and where you’ll be looking to invest the day after tomorrow, the potential of Uzbekistan, in my opinion, is much higher.”
Although direct flights between Tel Aviv and Tashkent have existed since 1992 — right after the Soviet collapse — the main revenue stream for Uzbekistan Airways is offering cheap flights from Europe to Bangkok and other Southeast Asian destinations via Tashkent, rather than promoting Uzbekistan itself as a tourist attraction.
But that’s changing, said Shapira.
“Uzbekistan is not a destination for everyone, but Uzbek authorities have come to the conclusion that promoting tourism here is absolutely necessary in order to attract new visitors,” he said. “Many Israelis would like to see historical sites, ancient cities and also the graves of family members. We also have 1.6 million Israeli Arabs who would like to visit Islamic holy places.”
Among Uzbekistan’s charms: Samarqand, nicknamed “Crossroad of Cultures” for its strategic location along the ancient Silk Road; Bukhara, whose old city is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Tashkent, with 3 million people the largest metropolis in Central Asia; and Termez, the country’s southernmost city and home to the ancient Buddhist shrine of Fayeztepa.
In 2018, some 10,000 Israelis visited Uzbekistan, up from 2,500 the year before, according to Shapira. It helps that in February 2018, Israel became one of the first countries whose citizens could travel there without needing visas in advance.
That’s encouraged 7,300 Israelis to visit during the first seven months of 2019, a 57% jump over the 4,700 who came during the same period last year — meaning this ex-Soviet republic is now on track to receive a record 14,000 Israeli visitors in 2019.
“The whole idea is to improve the branding of this country,” he said, adding that “Uzbekistan has not even started to enjoy the potential of tourism.”
NOTE: This is the first of several articles to be published following the author’s Aug. 21-27 trip to Uzbekistan as part of an international press trip focusing on the country’s rich cultural heritage.