Jason Corcoran, Tashkent January 15 2023, The Sunday Times
Young entrepreneurs fleeing Putin’s draft are taking their wealth and ideas to Uzbekistan, spurring an economic boom
At the Afsona restaurant in the ancient Uzbek city of Tashkent, Anatoly Morozov and Gleb Belyaev are toasting the latter’s birthday with £6 shots of Beluga vodka.
Amid a babel of tongues from tables populated by Russians, French, Germans, Turks and locals salivating over meat cooked on long skewers over naked coals, the pair describe how they drove for three days to escape President Putin’s mobilisation decree, aimed at young Russians like them.
“Life is fairly good here,” said Morozov, 28, a serial start-up entrepreneur. “It’s not as wild and hedonistic as Moscow but at least we are not in the meat grinder in Ukraine.”
He and music promoter Belyaev, 29, who left his wife and two-year-old son in Moscow, are part of a 360,000-strong exodus of Russia’s most enterprising souls to Uzbekistan, to build new lives, and new businesses, while their home country’s economy implodes. Many are using the city as an entry point to ancient Silk Road trading routes linking east and west followed by Marco Polo in the 13th century. Their arrival has provided Uzbekistan with a shot in the arm, as the new arrivals have brought capital, companies and innovation.
The Central Asian economy, which is predicted to grow by 6 per cent this year, has gradually been opening up since its authoritarian president, Islam Karimov, died in 2016 after 25 years in charge. Karimov was succeeded by his prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who surprised many by turning out to be a reformer.
It is the most populous country in Central Asia, with a young and growing population of 35 million. And unlike many frontier markets, it has a diversified economy consisting of agriculture, manufacturing, gas, copper and gold, and booming consumer and retail sectors. Russian companies have been using it to set up joint ventures to rebadge their products and continue selling products to the West, avoiding sanctions.
Vladimir Putin and Uzbek-born tycoon Alisher Usmanov in 2018
SASHA MORDOVETS/GETTY IMAGES
Uzbekistan has become a more attractive refuge for Russians fleeing the war than many other former Soviet states, where anti-Russian protests and graffiti are widespread. Everyone in Uzbekistan speaks Russian, whereas many of the younger generation in Armenia, Georgia and the Baltics refuse to.
However, the new arrivals have brought most of their savings, which has triggered a spike in inflation and an unwelcome spurt in property prices.
The bars and restaurants of Tashkent have rarely had it so good.
London-based investment banker Alisher Djumanov, 50, was on a trip back to the capital, his home town, and had been trying to grab a bite with three Russian stockbroker friends who have decamped to Tashkent. After being turned down by four eateries off Amir Temur Avenue overrun by Russians, foreigners and local hipsters, Oxford- educated Djumanov finally called in a favour with the owner of City Grill, an upmarket steak restaurant.
“My friends, who were working for multinationals in Moscow, fled the country,” Djumanov said. “We are having a little get-together to explore a business opportunity in Uzbekistan.
“Russians have been blown away by the hospitality because they are not judged here.”
Uzbeks, he added, don’t fear Russian meddling because there is no common border and no sizeable Russian ethnic minority to justify fears about territorial annexation, as there are in Kazakhstan.
It is not just Russians who are filling up the city in the hunt for trade. Ian Woodcock, a businessman from north Wales, had to pull strings with a contact at the Radisson Blu hotel on Amir Temur Avenue to get a room for the night after arriving for his fourth trip in the past year.
Usmanov used to own a large chunk of Arsenal football club
STUART MACFARLANE/ARSENAL FC/GETTY IMAGES
“Russians are overrunning the hotels and it’s hard to get flights in and out,” said Woodcock, 61. After 25 years living in Moscow, the former paratrooper is pivoting his United Concrete Canvas business to Central Asia. “The ‘Stans’ are stepping up and really capitalising on the new situation commercially,” he added.
Woodcock said sanctions mean that his firm, which provides a concrete fabric for mining and irrigation sites, can no longer work with many existing Russian clients — such as Norilsk Nickel, the miner controlled by the country’s richest man, Vladimir Potanin. “We set up our Moscow headquarters about four or five years ago and now we are constantly being pestered by resettlement agencies to move to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan,” said Woodcock.
Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born Russian oligarch who used to own a large chunk of Arsenal football club, is also spending much more time in his native country after been slapped with sanctions by the EU. In April, German authorities impounded Usmanov’s his $600 million Dilbar superyacht, the world’s biggest with two helipads and the largest indoor pool ever installed in a yacht. President Mirziyoyev, who reportedly uses one of the tycoon’s jets for foreign trips, has been lobbying Brussels to lift the measures against Usmanov, 69, and his sister as the billionaire attempts to extricate himself from the fallout from Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Usmanov, whose associates already control Kapitalbank, one of the nation’s largest lenders, is reportedly looking to acquire goldmining licences in Uzbekistan for his holding company, USM.
The bars and restaurants of Tashkent have rarely had it so good as an influx of arrivals make it hard to find a table – XINHUA/ALAMY
“Russian oligarchs and businesses now have few geographies in which to invest,” said Chris Weafer, chief executive of Macro-Advisory, a consultancy that advises companies on doing business in Russia. “Central Asia is clearly benefiting from that.”
Weafer, who recently opened an office in Tashkent to cater for the increased interest in the country, said Uzbekistan is also benefiting as many multinationals look beyond Russia for opportunities to expand. “[It] not only has the largest population but offers relatively easy access to Almaty [Kazakhstan], Bishkek [Kyrgyzstan], Dushanbe [Tajikistan] and, eventually, Kabul,” he said. Weafer added that the US and Europe, keen to limit Moscow’s influence in the region, are offering development aid and preferential trade access. “So Uzbek melons are now sold in Germany,” he said.
American Quinn Martin, 41, set up the investment bank Bluestone in the region with a Wall Street partner in 2019, in recognition of the sizeable opportunity that Uzbekistan’s transition to a market economy represents. “The government is staffed with sophisticated ‘repats’ who have moved home after building careers in the West and are driving reform of pretty much everything,” said Martin, a former executive at Renaissance Capital in Moscow. “The sovereign balance sheet is rock solid, and the gold they produce acts as a shock absorber from events like the pandemic.”
Unravelling the state’s overwhelming grip on the biggest assets is the biggest challenge facing Uzbekistan, as well as corruption and nepotism, which persists in the new administration.
Rothschild, Deloitte, KPMG and the law firm Dentons are acting as advisers for an ambitious privatisation programme that covers 1,500 assets. But the embryonic nature of Uzbekistan’s capital and financial markets means there isn’t yet a huge flow of business to go around — and most of the initial deals are still small by international standards.
At the end of December, the government announced that ten of the country’s largest companies and banks will be put up for sale in 2023 as part of an acceleration of its programme of “People’s IPOs”. Small stakes will be sold in companies including the automaker UzAuto, which has a staggering 95 per cent market share via its ubiquitous white Chevrolet cars.
There are currently 23 companies in the IPO pipeline. Some are to be sold only to a limited pool of domestic investors, while the bigger deals are intended for international investors.
Back in Tashkent, the Russian pair of Anatoly Morozov and Belyaev party on. They have joined their friends across town at the Ye Olde Chelsea Arms after hailing a cab via Yandex Go the popular Russian app. The pub, a firm favourite with Russians and expat football fans, is styled in a Victorian style, complete with a huge clock tower and a beer garden adorned with Union Jacks. Belyaev, who has been busy trying to persuade top Russian rappers and musicians to play in Tashkent, orders two shisha pipes for the rowdy party of six, and reminisced about years past when he would travel to London to watch Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. “It’s a long way to Fulham Road from Uzbekistan, never mind Moscow,” the Russian said wistfully, requesting another bottle of Beluga.
. . . while Britain is missing the boat
British businesses are falling behind their French and German counterparts in tapping into Uzbekistan’s booming economy.
Trade between Britain and the Central Asian nation doubled last year to $478 million, but that figure is said to lag behind France and Germany, and is far behind Turkey, which has its sights on increasing bilateral trade with Uzbekistan to $5 billion within a year.
Eleanor Kramers, head of international communications at Artel
“The British haven’t prioritised Uzbekistan, whereas the French have just had the president over and he’s visited the Louvre and signed loads of deals,” said Eleanor Kramers, right, head of international communic-ations at Artel, the household electronics giant.
Kramers, 30, from Ipswich in Suffolk, was headhunted by the Uzbek company from the public relations firm FTI Consulting after impressing during a pitch for its business. She was brought in to help Artel and its 10,000 staff become a modern international company and get ready for a Eurobond this year, as well as, eventually, a stock market float.
A Russian-speaker, Kramers took part in the 26th Uzbek-British Trade and Industry Council meeting on November 30 in Tashkent but was underwhelmed.
“It was very last-minute and we didn’t even get a minister over,” she said. “It’s a massively wasted opportunity.”
The French welcomed President Mirziyoyev and members of his cabinet to Paris on a state visit in November. About 46 French companies or firms with French capital are operating in Uzbekistan, including Total, Suez, Assystem, EDF, Orano and Veolia. Uzbek exports to France grew significantly last year, while annual Uzbek imports from France have doubled since 2017.
German investment in the Uzbek economy soared to $1 billion last year, including in the automotive, chemical, pharmaceutical and electrical industries. Major investors include German blue-chips, including Siemens, Man, Knauf and Gühring. China tops the list of Uzbekistan’s trade partners.