Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov re-launched his efforts to secure further Western support for his regime during a visit to Slovenia March 15-17. His campaign comes at a time when NATO officials are actively seeking to develop Uzbekistan’s role within the Partnership for Peace (PfP) and to reassure Tashkent of its ongoing strategic importance to the Alliance. However, Karimov has long understood the strategic significance of Uzbekistan and its role in the war on terrorism, though he is now showing signs of serious concern about the long-term political implications for the future of Uzbekistan’s Western ties as publicity and allegations of human rights abuses continue to mount.
Karimov recently met with his Slovenian counterpart, Janez Drnovsek, in order to build on close ties in the areas of medicine, science and education, cotton exports, and new technologies. Although the meetings were aimed at promoting bilateral trade, there was a clear political undercurrent in Karimov’s language. Slovenia is of interest to Tashkent based on its membership in the EU and NATO as well as its current chairmanship of the OSCE. It is also a country that has emerged from a process of rapid transition to successfully integrate within the Euro-Atlantic structures, and official Tashkent may regard Slovenia as a pivotal state in its efforts to understand the mechanics of Western cooperation and political integration.
Drnovsek wants to simplify trade relations and promote greater business ties with Uzbekistan, while exploring ways of deepening cultural understanding in order to tap into unrealized trading opportunities. Simultaneously, Drnovsek offered support for the stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and conceded that more troops may be needed to secure greater progress; in this effort he highlighted the multilateral responsibilities of both NATO and the EU, in whose direct interests the peace and security of Afghanistan is rooted. Such assertions serve to raise the international profile of Uzbekistan, by aligning itself closely with the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
While in Slovenia, Karimov admitted that there is at least a theoretical risk of “orange” or “velvet” revolutions elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. His assessment of that risk, based on events in Ukraine and Georgia, revealed the extent to which Karimov misrepresents or even misunderstands the nature of Uzbekistan’s government and its reputation at home and abroad. In his opinion, such revolutions can only be repeated if there is indigenous “potential for protest.” The perception among the population that the government fails to allow “social development, economic development, and living standards” puts protesters in the streets, especially if there is a widespread belief that the regime is permeated with corruption. This is coupled with the foreign influence factor, which many commentators highlighted in the Ukrainian and Georgian examples. Karimov claims not to fear foreign involvement in Uzbekistan, despite little obvious progress in democratizing the country.
Karimov’s remarks were clearly intended to promote Uzbekistan’s international image. Yet his views seem to run counter to recent Uzbek actions regarding political tensions in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Tashkent sealed the border with Kyrgyzstan on March 21. Indeed, some independent Uzbek political experts have warned that recent rioting in Kyrgyzstan and tensions emanating from parliamentary elections there may send the country into political chaos that could ignite ethnic tensions in the borderland areas and involve Uzbekistan in the indirect consequences. On March 22 the Uzbek Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing concern about events in the southern region of Kyrgyzstan and offered the following counsel: “We believe that Kyrgyzstan can maintain social and political stability without submitting to provocative calls and possible actions by destructive forces, primarily the third party, which may exploit the crisis to fuel the confrontations within Kyrgyz society, create chaos, and stir up enmity between nations.”
Karimov has watched anxiously as democratic protest has swept the CIS in recent months, and he realizes that events beyond his control in neighboring Kyrgyzstan may test his own image at home. Meanwhile, he wants desperately to secure more active foreign investment and involvement in Uzbekistan, allegedly not fearing the potential risks witnessed elsewhere of a disaffected populace susceptible to foreign political influence. On March 15 Ambassador Robert Simmons, Special Representative on Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Secretary-General of NATO, praised Uzbekistan’s continued commitment to the war on terror and its support for stabilizing Afghanistan. Yet he commented that Karimov follows the saying that if there is peace in your neighbor’s house there will be peace in your own house.
Karimov has begun to take steps that visibly demonstrate his awareness that there is an uneasy peace in Kyrgyzstan. But Karimov’s skilful handling of his visit to Slovenia confirms his reinvigorated search for Western support, promoting greater foreign involvement in Uzbekistan, in a managed and centrally controlled manner. For Karimov, this strategy will not be without political risk.
(Interfax, March 14, 21, 22; Uzbek TV 2, March 15; Uzbek TV 1, March 18, 22)