Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has staked much on his efforts to strengthen and sustain relations with both Russia and China. He predictably talked up Uzbekistan’s ties with China during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Shanghai on June 15-16. Nonetheless, behind the scenes Karimov is concerned about his country’s backward slide in its relations with the West and wants to open new doors for some type of rapprochement on his own terms.
While in Shanghai Russian President Vladimir Putin consolidated his assessment of Russia’s links with Uzbekistan, strengthened through its bilateral agreements with Tashkent and envisaging closer economic, military, and security cooperation. Putin said his support for the Karimov regime is rooted in Russia’s strategic concerns that Uzbekistan could degenerate and become another Afghanistan. In fact, he openly recognized the consern in Washington due to Tashkent’s closure of the U.S. base at Karshi-Khanabad. “I understand the dissatisfaction of the USA with the fact that Uzbekistan is closing its base. But if they didn’t behave there like a bull in a china shop, maybe the base would not have been closed,” observed Putin (Interfax, June 16).
Blaming Washington for the fracture in the U.S.-Uzbek strategic partnership coincides with Moscow’s efforts to discredit the Bush administration’s vision of spreading democracy as a stabilizing mechanism in the world’s trouble spots. “One has to give the country an opportunity to develop in a natural way and not to impose, as some states do, their own standards, even if they look attractive at first glance,” suggested Putin. The “natural way” presented the West with pressing political problems in reconciling engagement with human-rights issues in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek television broadcast images of Karimov sitting with Putin at the SCO summit. Karimov was also shown promoting the summit and its achievements, which he described as a “step towards expanding and deepening integration processes within the SCO and towards joint efforts to counter modern challenges. I am convinced that cooperation between our states is based on such fundamental principles as mutual trust and respect, constructive and pragmatic approach[es], and also on adherence to the balance of interests, which create a solid ground for solving issues related to maintaining security, peace, and stability and raising our peoples’ prosperity” (Uzbek TV First Channel, June 16). Yet underlying these public statements is the reality that the summit did not present the Uzbek leader with any tangible, practical progress within the SCO, despite the obvious support that Tashkent has offered the organization.
Karimov’s statements about the lack of effectiveness of the coalition troops operating in Afghanistan, particularly their unimpressive handling of narcotics production and drug smuggling syndicates, mirrored closely the official critiques regularly expounded from Moscow and Beijing. If there was any glimmer of hope that emerged in these negative remarks, it may be the fact that he backed away from attacking the U.S.-led counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, and perhaps he instead intended to question the U.K. military stabilization efforts, reflecting his anger with the strong British line taken over the Andijan tragedy in 2005. Tashkent now has no defense or security assistance relations with the United Kingdom, after these ties were formally ended by the Tashkent regime in May.
But Karimov also closely identified the Uzbek cause with that of China, even before his arrival at the summit. In interviews with the Chinese media he would comment, “Uzbekistan and China, as countries that directly experienced the reality of threats posed by terrorist, separatist, and extremist religious forces, have common approaches to maintaining regional stability and security. We also have a common aim to counter resolutely external attempts to impose Western methods of democratization and public development on our countries.” Karimov also talked of the growing importance of the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS): “The tasks tackled by RATS are not confined to just fighting terrorism, separatism, and extremism. It also counters the intensive ideological activities of numerous radical and extremist centers that, by brainwashing the youth and poisoning their minds, are setting up a kind of ‘conveyor belt’ to generate a stream of zombified performers of terrorist acts” (Uzbek National News Agency, June 12).
Most Uzbek media coverage focused on Uzbekistan’s relations with Russia and China, and its security agenda within the SCO. Nonetheless, the arrival in Tashkent on June 10 of a small delegation of parliamentarians from Germany provides a hint at what Uzbek diplomats are saying in private: Karimov believes the path to restoring more favorable relations with the West will be based on the passing of time, thus making Andijan a more distant event, and the prospect of Germany becoming the chairman of the EU in 2007. Karimov has avoided criticism aimed at Germany, even by default, since Berlin certainly concurred with the EU line on Andijan. Jochen-Konrad Fromme, head of the Christian Democratic Union-Christian Social Union, held talks with Colonel Alisher Sharafiddinov, deputy head of the Uzbek Interior Ministry, discussing how the Uzbek Interior Ministry combats terrorism and religious extremism. The German delegation also met Erkin Xalilov, speaker of the Uzbek parliament’s Legislative Chamber (Narodnoye slovo, June 10).
Tashkent’s assessment of Berlin’s capacity to assist in smoothing over its current problems with the EU may be inaccurate and reveals how out of touch the regime is with how Western multilateral bodies function. However, in Karimov’s mind it is worth a gamble.