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. Read more
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. Read more
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.
Despite the two state construct of Afghanistan and Pakistan within which American policymakers usually consider the former in the region, the role of Uzbekistan, with has deep relationships with and leverage over key Afghan assets, will grow in importance, especially if post 2014, conditions devolve into civil war.
By focusing squarely on the future influence of China, India and Iran in a post-2014 Afghanistan, American officials face the threat of being caught off guard by the ongoing contingency plans of Uzbek president Islam Karimov. Believed to have little faith in the Karzai government and its ability to function after the withdrawal of NATO forces by December 2014, Karimov’s administration, through its longstanding ties with northern, anti-Taliban forces, may exacerbate a potential conflict with military and financial support of anti-Islamist forces.
Karimov’s belief that post 2014, Afghanistan will descend into chaos is supported by the recent assassination of an ethnic Uzbek former mujahideen commander and key opposition figure, Ahmad Khan Samangani.
More worrying, Uzbekistan’s support of traditional anti-Taliban forces puts it indirectly in conflict with the main supporter of Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan, Pakistan. Read more
Two successful visits from State Secretary Hillary Clinton and a visit of the Uzbek parliamentary delegation to the United States point to an establishment of increasingly close ties between the two states.
The United States seek to cement their relationship with Uzbekistan, a valuable strategic ally in the region, in order to reopen a transit point on Uzbek territory. The United States aim to keep some military personnel and equipment in Central Asia after the anticipated withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and, as such, Washington is conducting bilateral talks with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. All three are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, with headquarters in Moscow. The United States’ bilateral strategic cooperation with either of these states would require the consent of the CSTO.
The United States State Department is extending relations with Uzbekistan now that it has left the CSTO.
The Pentagon has worked to strengthen its relationship with Uzbekistan as a geostrategic partner during the withdrawl of troops from Afghanistan. As Central Asia struggles to forge regional bonds, the United States have offered Tashkent the opportunity to develop beyond the Russian influence. The starting point will be the use of military bases in 2014.
This, however, will likely prove to be a sticking point for Russia which will not look kindly on Uzbekistan’s exit from the CSTO only to open bases for NATO. For hawks in Moscow, this translates into an ever expanding ring of containment around Russia and the degradation of their own security organization meant to oppose NATO expansion into the former Soviet space.
For its part, Russian fears of NATO encirclement will have to be allayed if the United States hope to create stability in Central Asia. Russia is seeks stability but on its term and not to the advantage of the the West.
Uzbekistan is not stable and among the world’s worst in terms of democratic freedoms and human rights.
The United States have recently eased restrictions on military assistance to Uzbekistan and adopted a policy of engagement with the regime. If governance and the human rights situation do not improve, the United States could find themselves tied to an endangered state facing civil unrest and international approbation. America does not need to be seen as again partnering with an unpopular, nondemocratic regime to achieve its strategic goals.
Furthermore, if Russia is not co-opted within some sort of regional security framework, the authoritarian regime in Tashkent could easily play the great powers against each other, all the while consolidating its domestic position. Russia itself could easily manipulate and destabilize conditions in Uzbekistan, making the American position even more difficult.
Wikistrat Bottom Lines
The United States could secure an important regional ally that could quarter a quick reaction force should things go awry in Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal. Uzbekistan could benefit from economic development assistance and possibly forestall Islamic radicalism.
The United States risk another unpopular foreign entanglement with a despotic regime while antagonizing Russia, possibly to the extent of losing access to its Northern Distribution Network.
How committed is the Uzbek regime to democratic liberalization?
How will the Russians react to Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO?
Is partnership with the United States really in Uzbekistan’s long-term interests?
How will domestic political factions respond to American entrenchment in Uzbekistan?
Michael Breen, Ruben Gzirian, Patrick Hall, Gunel Malikova and Michael Moreland contributed to this analysis.