As we’re receiving conflicting reports today about the health of Uzbek president Islam Karimov — official sources say he suffered a stroke and has been hospitalized, other outlets report he’s dead — I thought it worth reiterating the geopolitical importance of his country.
Much of this is copied from an article I wrote last year, when American secretary of state John Kerry visited Uzbekistan and held talks with Karimov in Samarkand.
I argued at the time that Uzbekistan’s role as the keystone of stability in Central Asia could be expected to expand as a consequence of the United States’ imminent withdrawal from nearby Afghanistan.
It was then also becoming another front in the wider East-West standoff between Russia and the West which started a year earlier, when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Uzbekistan withdrew from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012 and had been developing closer relations with the United States. It provided critical supply lines into Afghanistan and still maintains relations with that country’s northern militias who fought the Pakistani-backed Taliban in the 1990s.
Russia has been making efforts to repair the relationship. Vladimir Putin wrote off most Uzbekistan’s $890 million debt to Russia in 2014, for example.
Ethnicity and natural riches
One of the reasons Uzbekistan — unlike the other republics of Central Asia — can afford to pursue a relatively independent foreign policy from Moscow is that it is ethnically more homogenous.
The region’s borders were infamously drawn by the Soviets to keep its restive populations divided. But ethnic Uzbeks still account for 80 percent of Uzbekistan’s population, which, at 31 million, is the largest in Central Asia.
Another reason is that it’s rich in natural resources. It has among the world’s largest reserves of copper, lead, natural gas, oil, uranium and zinc.
Uzbekistan is landlocked, which means it depends on neighboring Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to export its resources across the Caspian Sea. But it also means it conducts a growing overland trade with China — which is now its biggest export market — giving it further freedom of action from Russia.
All this makes Uzbekistan a bellwether. If it turns further to the West, Russia will fear that countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan could follow.