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Uzbekistan says it will become an observer of a Russia-led economic union before deciding whether it joins or not, Tashkent announced on March 7.

The Eurasian Economic Union (EES) was established by Russia and allies Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2015. It has since grown to include Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. Another former Soviet republic, Moldova, is an observer.

The bloc aims to ensure free flow of goods and capital within its borders, although some members have criticized it for allowing too many exceptions to free trade.

The EES has been courting Uzbekistan since President Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power in 2016 following the death of longtime leader Islam Karimov who showed no willingness to join.

Observers say Uzbek-Russian ties have warmed under Mirziyoev who has ended his predecessor’s isolationist policies and has sought to boost foreign investment.

With a population of 34 million Uzbekistan could potentially become the second-biggest consumer market in the EES after Russia.

In his State of the Union address to parliament on January 24, Mirziyoev said his government “is studying ways to cooperate with the Eurasian Economic Union.”

Mirziyoev noted that 80 percent of Uzbekistan’s products pass through EES member states, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.

“In addition,” he said, “the same countries are the final consumers of 50 to 80 percent of Uzbekistan’s exports.” He went on to add that “integration means better conditions for our migrants in Russia and Kazakhstan.”

Based on reporting by Reuters