On the day President Vladimir Putin visited former Soviet republic Uzbekistan, Russia’s Finance Ministry said it would write off most of the country’s $890 million debt.
Talks between Putin and Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, who has been in power since the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, were also expected to focus on increasing Uzbek agricultural exports to Russia. Russia needs new suppliers after banning various European food imports in retaliation against Western sanctions over its aggression in Ukraine.
Karimov has staked out a more independent course from Moscow that most Central Asian leaders but nevertheless praised Russia on Wednesday for its “stabilizing” influence in the region.
Putin, in turn, said “Uzbekistan is one of Russian priority partners in the region.”
It ought to be. Uzbekistan is the largest and most independent-minded of former Soviet republics in Central Asia. It is a bellwether for the rest of the region. If Uzbekistan turns West, countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are more likely to follow.
Uzbekistan owes its relative preponderance to several factors.
The country is endowed with many natural riches, however, it is also landlocked and would need to cooperate with either Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan to export its oil or gas across the Caspian Sea. It does conduct significant overland trade with China which has become its biggest export market.
Uzbekistan is also ethnically more homogenous than its neighbors. The borders of the four Central Asian republics were drawn by the Soviets with the intent of keeping the restive populations there divided. Uzbeks nevertheless comprise an 80 percent majority in their country. They also have a proud history, going back to the conqueror Tamerlane. The capital, Tashkent, has been a center of commerce and learning in the region for centuries.
For Putin, it is therefore imperative to prevent Uzbekistan from asserting itself in the region and seeking closer relations with either China or Europe — especially when it believes its “near abroad” in Eastern Europe is under threat from Western encroachment.