Source: The Open Society Institute

Deputies in Uzbekistan’s parliament burst into regular rounds of enthusiastic, standing applause as they listened to a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Xi’s address on June 22 was the first ever given by a foreign leader in the Oliy Majlis.

“A new era of strategic Chinese-Uzbekistan partnership has begun. Both nations should stand side-by-side to unlock new opportunities for cooperation,” he said.

When Uzbek leader Islam Karimov spoke — in Russian, so his words could be translated more easily — there was palpable warmth in his voice.

“I want to tell you that we have a proverb: ‘You know a friend in times of hardship.’ China is indeed such a friend that has lent a hand at a difficult time,” Karimov said.

Karimov did not spell out the current hardships, but they are known by most households in Uzbekistan. While the government has pretended the economy is still enjoying bouncing health, there are many hints all is not so rosy. Recent Russian Central Bank figures showed that remittances sent home by Uzbek workers in Russia dropped to $256 million in the first quarter of this year, as compared to $910 million in the same period in 2014.

Uzbekistan has tried since independence to plot a course to maintain diplomatic equidistance from all its international partners out of fear of having to rely too much on any single one of them. Recent years, however, have seen a strong tilt toward Beijing.

China last year became Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner with $3 billion worth of trade done, leapfrogging Russia in the process. That was actually lower than in 2014, when the figure was $4.7 billion, but with Russia’s economy enduring an extended slump, the trend is unmistakable.