Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has set an ambitious agenda to strengthen Uzbekistan’s armed forces, despite recent bilateral problems with Washington. The precise nature of what Karimov wants to improve, how this will be implemented, and the perception of U.S. foreign policy goals in the region will all influence the timeframe and potential foreign partners that the Karimov regime might use in this venture. He denies that any lasting damage has been done to the image of the Uzbek armed forces as a consequence of the controversial use of the army against civilians in Andijan in 2005.
Karimov delivered a report, “Strengthening Achieved Results and Gradually Striving for New Horizons,” during a February 10 Cabinet meeting held in the Central House of Officers with the participation of the hierarchy of the Ministry of Defense. Officers and commanders of military districts and the heads of services for the material and technical provision of troops were also present.
While the ramifications are still being digested within the Uzbek army, the broad parameters are clear. Military units will benefit from modernized conditions in the barracks, emphasizing their access to information technology and improving the management system of troops. Minister of Defense Ruslan Mirzayev believes that the government will strengthen the country’s defense capabilities in several essential areas. Officer training will receive greater attention, as will increased professional personnel training. This is regarded as the mechanism through which the constant combat readiness of subunits will be attained. Costs incurred by personnel in maintaining their families will also be carefully scrutinized in budgeting for the armed forces, although there are no defined targets for higher wages. The whole drive towards improving the armed forces is therefore geared towards creating decent living conditions for servicemen (Narodnoye slovo, March 1). All this places extreme financial demands on the government, and it is unclear how these new expenditures will be met.
Karimov’s military priorities have shifted, at least in emphasis, reflecting his changed attitude toward the United States and the whole issue of Uzbekistan’s relations with Western democracies. There is no longer any lip service paid to fostering the development of democratic control over the armed forces. Evidently the regime has now adjusted to the new dynamics at play in calibrating its policies on reforming the armed forces. In fact, the government is clearly utilizing every opportunity to promote the image that the success of military reform can be demonstrated even by reference to the mobilization of military reservists.
On March 2 Elbek Ostonov, section commander in the Pop District, predictably extolled the achievements of his troops, “Our soldiers doing their one-month service at the military mobilization reserve battalion are mastering properly their social and political knowledge and skills, which are necessary for military service within this short period” (Namangan TV, March 2). Such orchestrated publicity is not an uncommon theme in the Uzbek, yet its tone appears both defensive and reminiscent of Soviet-style broadcasting.
Qobilbek Karimbekov, an Uzbek political commentator, held up President George W. Bush’s recent tour of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as evidence that South Asia has become the “focus of Washington’s geopolitical interests.” On March 2 he aired these views on Uzbek radio, saying that the U.S. was attempting to gain control over the economic and political processes in this region. He expanded on his views to include the assertion that Uzbek observers detect a shift away from Central Asia in Washington’s foreign policy agenda, though its strategic value remains unchanged. Equally prominent in the Uzbek analyst’s thinking was the role of Russia, which has stepped up cooperation with Tashkent on a bilateral basis and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), alongside the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Community (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). (Radio Youth Channel, Tashkent, March 2). Though such ideas ignore the continued importance attached to security in Central Asia by Washington’s planners, it confirms the abiding difficulty the regime and its advisors have in properly reading the issue of U.S. geopolitical interests.
Discussions on promoting the growth of democracy in Uzbekistan, like those run in Tashkent by the Uzbek National Human Rights Center and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, now appear peripheral and unrealistic (Narodnoye slovo, February 24). The regime persists in its resistance to democratic ideas or practices. Hence Tashkent has effectively jettisoned the democratic experiment within the armed forces.
Karimov’s report on the current progress of Uzbekistan’s military reform program was undoubtedly delivered for both domestic and international audiences. He wants to downplay the impression that his plans to reform the military have expired with his reversal of the close relationship with Washington. In his mind, military reform is still progressing, and Uzbekistan does not need American help in order to achieve its targets. But he is seeking more help from his rather carefully crafted relationship with Moscow, as well as looking beyond for security cooperation with other potential partners, such as Bulgaria. Karimov’s reform plans are ambitious and cannot be achieved unless the country makes economic progress and invests sufficiently in its military structures. He believes he can do it alone, without specifying the means to be used in attaining real and lasting reform.