Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 88

On May 4-5 on an official visit to Russia, Uzbek President Islam Karimov engaged in one of his periodic fence-mending exercises with the Kremlin. This seems, however, more far-reaching than his earlier efforts and may be fraught with longer-term consequences. Inasmuch as Uzbekistan is the strongest country in Central Asia, those consequences could ripple throughout the region.

Karimov’s preceding exercise of December 1999–when Russia’s then prime minister and presidential heir apparent, Vladimir Putin, visited Uzbekistan–had produced only a short-lived improvement in relations. Tashkent soon grew apprehensive and openly critical of Moscow’s manipulation of conflicts in Central Asia. For two consecutive years, Russia’s ally Tajikistan and the massive Russian forces in that country gave the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) a free hand to attack Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan from Tajikistan’s territory. Resorting at the same time to antiterrorist rhetoric, Moscow attempted to inveigle Uzbekistan in the Afghan conflict, and sought to draw Uzbekistan into Russian-led collective security arrangements. Tashkent turned down those proposals, prepared for dealing with an expected third IMU campaign, and entered into a dialogue with Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities.

The Uzbek president is now shifting gears again. His statements on departure from Tashkent and on arrival in Moscow hinted at two of the reasons behind this shift. First, “we need better understanding in order to prevent another thrust by the [IMU] terrorists into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan this coming summer.” And second, “wide scale combat operations might soon start in Afghanistan between the Taliban and the [anti-Taliban] northern alliance near the border of our republic.”

Indeed during the early spring, there was again evidence of IMU fighters assembling in Tajikistan for a third campaign. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have complained repeatedly but in vain to Dushanbe and Moscow. Concurrently, Russia and some other countries have been supplying the anti-Taliban forces–also via Tajikistan–for a summer offensive. Those are two levers which can be used to pull reluctant or unwilling Central Asian countries into a Russian-led alliance. Apparently, the approach of the summer fighting season has increased the pressure on Tashkent to come to terms with Moscow.

Karimov stopped short of citing another factor which almost certainly weighed on his decision to make security arrangements with Russia. That factor is the consent of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to join with Russia and satellite Tajikistan in an incipient “collective security system” for Central Asia, complete with mainly Russian rapid-deployment forces to be stationed in the region. Such a system can–in spite of Kazakhstan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s wishes–evolve before long into a Russian-led military bloc. Karimov has no intention to join such a bloc, but neither can he afford isolation in the face of a threatening IMU, a hostile Tajikistan now seemingly licensed to hint at irredentism, a war-torn Afghanistan where Russia acts in tandem with Tashkent’s adversary Iran and–on top of all that–Russian rapid-deployment forces to be stationed in Tajikistan uncomfortably close to Uzbekistan. In order to obtain a measure of protection short of joining a bloc, Karimov is reaching for arrangements with Russia on a bilateral basis.