Kerry Visit Underscores Uzbekistan’s Pivotal Role

As America draws down in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is likely to start playing a bigger role in Central Asia.

American secretary of state John Kerry met with Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, on Sunday. The rare high-level encounter with the septuagenarian autocrat underscores the strategic importance the United States attaches to his nation.

The Reuters news agency reports that the two held talks in the ancient city of Samarkand on the fringes of a diplomatic gathering of Kerry and his five Central Asian counterparts aimed at reassuring them of America’s continued commitment to the region.

Karimov, in power since the fall of the Soviet Union, is routinely criticized for rights abuses in his country. But according to Reuters, such issues were unlikely to dominate his talks with Kerry.

As the United States draw down their involvement in neighboring Afghanistan, Uzbekistan’s role as a guarantor of Central Asian stability can be expected to expand.

It is also becoming another front in the wider East-West standoff that was triggered last year when Russia invaded another one of its former satellite states, Ukraine, when it was on the verge of signing a trade treaty with the European Union.

Since it withdrew from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012, Uzbekistan has got closer to the United States. It provides critical supply lines into Afghanistan and still has ties with the country’s northern militias that fought the Pakistani-backed Taliban during the 1990s.

Russia has recently made efforts to repair relations. President Vladimir Putin visited Tashkent in December and forgave most of the former Soviet republic’s $890 million debt to Russia.

The most populous and most independent-minded of the Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan is a bellwether for the rest of the region. If it turns West, Russia fears countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are more likely to follow.

Uzbekistan owes its relative preponderance to several factors.

One is natural riches. It has among the world’s largest reserves of copper, lead, natural gas, oil, uranium and zinc.

But it is also landlocked and needs to cooperate with either Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan to export its oil and gas across the Caspian Sea. It conducts a growing overland trade with China which is now its biggest export market.

Uzbekistan is also ethnically more homogenous than its neighbors. The borders in Central Asia were drawn by the Soviets to keep the restive populations there divided. Ethnic Uzbeks nevertheless account for 80 percent of the country’s population.

They have a proud history, going back to the conqueror Tamerlane. Tashkent, the capital, has been a center of commerce and learning 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.