Uzbekistan: The End of a Multi-vector Foreign Policy?

  • photo courtesy of United States Government Work http://www.flickr.com/photos/statephotos/5227167628/sizes/o/in/photostream/
    Sep 10, 2012

    Recently, bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and the United States have intensified. On August 17, 2012, the official U.S. delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, culminated a three-day visit to the region in Tashkent. Originally, this trip was planned as a regional tour that was to include several Central Asian republics. However, the rules of the diplomatic game changed. Kazakhstan’s portion of the visit was cut, and the focal point of the diplomatic agenda became the visit to Tashkent. Blake himself publicly stressed the importance of Uzbekistan for regional security. According to the senior U.S. diplomat, Tashkent has played a significant role in the construction of the railway to Mazar-i-Sharif, a project that is very important for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Washington also appreciates Uzbekistan’s role in providing electricity to Afghanistan. And on the eve of the withdrawal of the Western coalition in Afghanistan, Tashkent’s importance for U.S. interests in the region will certainly continue to increase. Accordingly, on August 17, the two countries agreed on two dozen joint projects amounting to a total of $2.8 billion. These agreements, which cover areas such as oil, gas, mining, pharmaceuticals, and “defense,” boast an impressive list of companies as partners.

    Naturally, experts and journalists observing the foreign policy of Uzbekistan could not pass up such a story, focusing on an extension of the military partnership between the two countries. Let us first examine the possible opening of U.S. military facilities on the territory of Uzbekistan. The Kazakh publication Liter recently suggested that the visit of Robert Blake would prompt the signing of a treaty that would legitimize U.S. military presence in the neighboring country. This view was widely supported and replicated in many Russian publications. In favor of this conclusion is the recent move by Tashkent to leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). But can we now make conclusions about the geopolitical turnabout of Uzbekistan and its transition to the anti-Russian position with absolute certainty? The answer to this question cannot be one sided.

    First, it is impossible to rely entirely in this delicate discussion on the opinion of the Kazakh media. For many years the two neighboring countries have been involved in a regional competition for leadership in Central Asia. However the competition itself is not reducible to a struggle for cooperation with Moscow. Kazakhstan, despite close ties with Russia and the many projects initiated by the Kremlin, will never forget about the West in its diplomacy. It is no coincidence that Hillary Clinton recently called Kazakhstan a U.S partner for “strategic dialogue.” Moreover the foreign policy concept of Uzbekistan—not allowing the presence of foreign military bases on its territory—was adopted by the national parliament on August 30, 2012. Of course, Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, has proven to be an experienced political player. He could facilitate, or postpone, the final adoption of the strategically important document by sending it back for revisions. Indeed while building a relationship with the Americans, the Uzbek leader has preferred and will continue to prefer to make bargains that are beneficial to him. However, the strategic interest is not unidirectional, as it goes from Tashkent to Washington and also vice versa. Anyway it will not mean a clear choice between the two partners in favor of one of them. Even if we assume that Liter is right and that a U.S. military base in Uzbekistan will be deployed, Tashkent would not transform into a pliable toy in the hands of Washington. The story of Andijan massacre of 2005 and consequent events, which for several years brought the United States and Uzbekistan into conflict, prompted, among other things, a certain convergence between Tashkent and Moscow. And it is doubtful that in 2013 or 2014 Islam Karimov will be enthusiastic about “advice from afar” on resolving the succession issue or on the development of domestic politics in his country. Let’s not forget about the legal nuances and details; the status of a potential military base is not a third-rate question. After all, Russia has offered its territory for the NATO transit center, and cooperation between Moscow and Washington on Afghanistan is no secret. However, perhaps it is difficult to assess these facts as proof of the pro-NATO and pro-American foreign policy of Russia.

    Second, Uzbekistan suspended its participation in the CSTO. Thus, while the door to this organization has not been slammed, it was quietly closed. Uzbekistan’s decision can have both positive and negative consequences, not only for Tashkent but for Eurasian political-military integration as well. The CSTO is considered by some experts and politicians to be “the narrow CIS.” This integration structure doesn’t include such challenging partners for Moscow as Ukraine, with its set of complex energy issues and the problem of the presence of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, or Azerbaijan, with its claims about Russian foreign policy bias toward Armenia and Moldova and its critical evaluation of Moscow’s role in the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict. However, even within this “narrow CIS,” Uzbekistan has practically always stood apart from the rest. This was reflected in its positions on a range of regional security issues and on specific conflicts such as the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Uzbekistan, unlike Kazakhstan, does not have a common border with Russia. Therefore it has been traditionally more interested in foreign policy diversification. In this regard, Tashkent’s interest in the integration project of GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), which was created outside of the CIS framework with the support of the United States and its allies and which restrained hostility from Moscow, was not accidental. Meanwhile, for the six-year period from 1999 to 2005, during which Uzbekistan maintained its membership in this organization, it was called GUUAM.
    Uzbekistan has already experienced the “divorce” with the “narrow CIS.” In 1999, Tashkent refused to extend the Collective Security Treaty, which was signed in May 1992, and joined GUAM. Thus, Uzbekistan missed the CSTO at the time of its creation (May 2002). Tashkent joined the organization later, in August 2006, after relations with the West were spoiled because of the tragic events in Andijan. And no one can guarantee that such events will not happen again.

    Today, radical Islam is on the rise not only in the Middle East. In Uzbekistan, as in the Middle Eastern countries, there are elements of the disproportionate use of force by the government that affect not just radicals but moderate opposition movements as well. The United States may turn a blind eye to it, but not always, since the debate among realists and advocates of democracy around the world and within the United States is not over. The dispute does subside sometimes but arises other times. And who knows whose arguments will prevail in the coming years. Therefore, Tashkent will keep its door to Moscow slightly open, not closing it completely.

    Third, Uzbekistan’s maneuvers on the international arena should not all be reduced to a game of choice between the West and Russia. China plays an equally important role in the foreign policy of Tashkent. For Beijing, the one-way intensification of U.S. policy in Central Asia is as disadvantageous as Russia’s absolute domination over the region. And the Chinese leadership is unlikely to be happy about the appearance of U.S. facilities on Uzbek territory. Meanwhile for Uzbekistan’s post-Andijan foreign policy, both economic and political support from China has been substantial. It is unlikely that this has been forgotten by the Uzbek leadership.

    In this regard, we should not rush to bury the multi-vector policy of Uzbekistan. Priorities and focus may change, of that there is no doubt. However the “final choice” in favor of only one partner looks problematic. Serious change in the geopolitical configuration cannot cancel those tectonic shifts that are currently underway in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. The growth of Islamist sentiment, as well as the almost complete absence of secular opposition, personalized by aging leaders and the problem of political succession, are factors that must be taken into the account. Today, no one can predict with absolute precision the resources that Uzbek authorities possess to face and overcome these challenges.

    (Reprinted with permission from Novaya Politika (New Policy), August 20, 2012, http://www.novopol.ru/-amerikano-uzbekskoe-sblijenie-text131888.html.)

    Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.