By Polina Devitt
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov is helping the new leader of his native Uzbekistan open up the ex-Soviet state to the outside world and will invest "as much as I can" in the Uzbek economy, he told Reuters in an interview .
The interview was the first time Usmanov, a metals magnate who is also part owner of Britain's Arsenal soccer club, has publicly acknowledged working in partnership with Uzbekistan's leaders.
Usmanov's backing is likely to bolster President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is trying to re-make his country after a quarter century of repressive rule and Soviet-style economic policies but faces resistance from some domestic rivals.
"I am ready to help (Uzbekistan) in any way possible and I am already helping," Usmanov told Reuters in a telephone interview. "My role today is advice, consulting, and charitable projects."
Asked how much he was willing to invest in Uzbekistan, he said: "As much as I can."
He did not give further details about investments, though he said that ties were being strengthened between the Russian holding company, USM, in which he holds a 49 percent stake, and metal plants in Uzbekistan. He did not provide details on the current status of those ties.
Usmanov, 64, is Russia's fifth richest businessman; the Russian edition of Forbes magazine estimates his wealth at $15.2 billion (£11.3 billion). That is equivalent to about a fifth of Uzbek gross domestic product.
Usmanov was born in Uzbekistan but moved to Russia as a young man. His portfolio of assets includes a half of Russia's biggest iron producer, Metalloinvest, and telecoms and internet assets.
Mainly Muslim Uzbekistan was run from its independence in 1991 until 2016 by former president Islam Karimov, who mistrusted both Russia and the West, kept a tight grip on the economy, and stifled dissent.
When he died last September, Karimov was succeeded by Mirziyoyev, the longtime prime minister. Mirziyoyev has conducted a number of economic reforms, scrapping capital controls and improved fraught relations with other states.
"I have enormous respect for the boldness of the current leadership's financial reforms. I was thinking that they would take three to five years, this is how it happens in many countries. But here the situation was resolved in a year," the businessman said.
"Previously, everyone was afraid to invest in Uzbekistan because there was no mechanism for repatriation of income. Today, the problem has been almost solved from the point of view of the law," he said. "These are huge, breakthrough reforms for Uzbekistan."
Mirziyoyev's reform plans include the privatisation of state property.
Usmanov did not have a close relationship with the Uzbek authorities under Karimov. Even after Mirziyoyev became president, he denied any involvement in Uzbek political life.
His press office told Reuters in October last year that "the publication of rumours on this theme is speculative and bears no relation to reality". Usmanov has said, though, he was ready to help Uzbekistan if asked.
But signs have emerged of ties between Usmanov and the new president. In September, Mirziyoyev used Usmanov's private Airbus jet to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The state flag carrier said it paid market rates to lease the jet for the president.
Asked about the flight, Usmanov told Reuters "I was there when the question about Mirziyoyev's flight was being decided, but because of the long distance of the flight there was no aircraft of the necessary class which would be able to do it."
"I wanted to give my jet for free and would be happy to do that, but Uzbekistan insisted that it would be done only on a commercial basis. So, it was done this way."
According to media reports, Diora, a niece of Mirziyoyev's wife, was married to Usmanov's nephew, Babur, who died in a car accident in 2013.
Asked if this was true, Usmanov said: "Diora is not my nephew's widow anymore, she became the spouse of another man, and I wish her happiness."
Usmanov said he was already working with the Uzbek government on projects to renovate historic sites in Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, Uzbek cities which are centres of Islamic cultural heritage.
He said many countries would be keen to invest in Uzbekistan if they had guarantees their capital would be protected and a favourable investment climate.
"This is what the president set out as his tasks and he will achieve them, I think. I will be helping these in every possible way," said Usmanov.
He called on his fellow countrymen, including expatriate Uzbeks, to help their native country become prosperous and politically just.
"I see my mission in that because, being of pension age, all I can do is help and share my experience."
(Reporting by Polina Devitt, editing by Larry King)