Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently visited Central Asia in a round of intensive diplomacy taking him to Ashgabat and Tashkent. In recent years such missions have been stressful affairs raising issues about Moscow’s once dominant influence in the region and the need for improved security arrangements taking the once reliable Central Asian leaders into new arrangements with Western powers (see EDM, October 25).
Lavrov’s reception in Tashkent was less than tense than in many years. At no time since the withdrawal of Uzbekistan from the Collective Security Treaty in 1999 has there been such an emphasis on respect and commonality of interests. That commonality of interests is easily explained by reference to terrorism, drug smuggling, and the mutual fears of Uzbekistan being internally destabilized and the ramifications this would have throughout the region. The new sense of respect between these parties and talk of “strategic” levels being attained in bilateral relations, as well as hints that Tashkent could be seeking more from the relationship, suggests each side may be searching for mechanisms through which to formally cement their growing partnership.
In many ways the diplomacy appeared standard and well rehearsed: Lavrov’s visit to Tashkent on October 21 and his working meetings with his Uzbek counterpart, Elyor Ganiyev, signaled little out of the ordinary. “We agree with your assessment of the importance of maintaining a high level of dialogue. We have much in common on regional issues. We need to fight against extremism and terrorism and attempts to destabilize this region that is important for Russia,” noted Lavrov on his arrival. In turn Ganiyev expressed his “gratitude for the stance that Russia holds in terms of supporting Uzbekistan. Our relations have been developing in a very positive manner of late” (Uzbek Television First Channel, October 21; Itar-Tass, October 21).
Yet behind these diplomatic overtures, both parties — for quite distinct reasons — are being pushed together through expediency and may seek to protect this new-found dynamic in bilateral relations. In this sense, Ganiyev hinted that Tashkent would welcome the development of practical expanded cooperation. Tashkent has solid and very well grounded interests in pursuing Moscow as a regional player. These stem from Tashkent’s recent isolation since the Andijan events, and his views about the warming of bilateral relations between Russia and Uzbekistan in the past two years. Both assented to the common security interests in seeking to find ways to cooperate against extremism and terrorism. According to Ganiyev this has now reached a “strategic point.”
Lavrov, although keen to strengthen the tie with Tashkent, offered an altogether differing outlook on what is serving to draw the two countries closer together. He observed that their cooperation was built upon “mutual trust and respect,” something that Uzbek officials often argued was distinctly lacking in Russian diplomacy towards Uzbekistan prior to 1999.
Lavrov also believes that bilateral trade is a significant factor now serving to push forward the strategic ties between the two countries. He explained that trade between Russia and Uzbekistan “may exceed $2 billion in 2005 for the first time.” That level of economic interest is rooted in the fuel and energy sector. “A number of major projects are being developed in the areas of exploration, extraction, and transportation of Uzbek natural gas. These are only the beginning of wide and mutually beneficial cooperation that will become an important factor of stability and steady progress in Central Asia,” Lavrov asserted. Economic cooperation is therefore driving forward the renewed vigor experienced in the military and security areas, which in turn intensifies political dialogue, as demonstrated in the increased frequency of meetings between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Islam Karimov in 2004 (Uzbek Television Second Channel, October 21; Itar-Tass, October 21).
Equally, as Lavrov dared not highlight, this whole process has benefited from Russia’s attempts to capitalize on the worsening in Uzbekistan’s relations with the West, since it is no secret that Moscow would like to minimize Washington’s influence within the region. In this context, it is highly important that Lavrov took the opportunity of his visit to Tashkent to illustrate Moscow’s approach to how best the regional republics might improve their relations with NATO: through multilateral contacts between the Alliance and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia would benefit from raising the profile of this organization and avoid the problems of “maverick” arrangements made on a country-by-country basis by NATO (Itar-Tass, October 21).
But selling this idea to Tashkent via the CSTO will be difficult, as Uzbekistan is not a member. Either Lavrov would like to see Uzbekistan re-enter the fold or maybe he would envisage a similar process between NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In any case, Moscow clearly wants to put an end, if possible, to Central Asian countries dealing directly with NATO; it much prefers the multilateral approach, implying that Moscow will have more say over what happens in such security relations. Tashkent may want to formalize its bilateral ties with Moscow, marking a healing of the rift that has dogged relations in recent years. Moscow’s agenda seems more politically and economically self-interested.