Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 4

By Igor Rotar

UZBEKISTAN’S “GLOBE” In the main square of the Uzbek capital Tashkent is an unusual monument known to locals as the “globe of Uzbekistan.” On the pedestal is a stone sphere which shows the contours of just one country–Uzbekistan–which seems to cover almost half the planet. According to the new version of Uzbekistan’s history, the founder of the Uzbek state was Timur Tamerlane. Born in 1336, Tamerlane founded a state with its capital at Samarkand and led military expeditions to Iran, the Caucasus, India, Turkey, Russia and Africa. He is known here as the sovereign of three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa). In the newly built and rather pompous Tamerlane museum is a map of the great emperor’s sphere of influence–the territories from which he exacted a tribute–which included not just North Africa and Northern India, but also a significant part of modern Russia, including Moscow. Lecturers at Uzbek colleges teach their students that it was Tamerlane who saved Russia from the Mongol yoke.

“Uzbekistan was undoubtedly trying to establish itself as the region’s superpower, and the new Uzbek historiography was designed to provide an academic basis for Tashkent’s geopolitical claims,” the Russian Embassy in Uzbekistan told me. “First, Tashkent was trying to strengthen its influence among its weaker neighbors–Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. To this end, Tashkent resorted both to economic pressure (for example Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on Uzbek gas, and electricity supplies to Northern Afghanistan, which was controlled by Tashkent’s ally General Dustum) and to force. However, it can be said today that the rout of Dustum–whom Tashkent had actively supported–and the subsequent collapse of Khudoiberdiev’s uprising in Tajikistan were turning points in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. Basically, Tashkent can no longer aspire to the role of regional superpower and is simply forced to concentrate on its domestic policies.”

Whatever one’s view of the Russian diplomat’s analysis, it is impossible to disagree that Colonel Khudoiberdiev’s unsuccessful rebellion in Northern Tajikistan last November represented a watershed in Uzbek foreign policy. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov accused Tashkent of supporting Khudoiberdiev; Tashkent categorically denied Uzbekistan’s involvement in the uprising. Islam Karimov’s irritation was so great that he openly insulted the Tajik authorities for the first time, declaring that the country was run by “narrow-minded, parochial people.” Furthermore, the Uzbek president believes that the events in Northern Tajikistan were instigated by the Russian secret services. Karimov declared at the end of November 1998 that the 201st Russian division, stationed in the republic, took part in quelling the uprising in Northern Tajikistan. Shortly after this declaration, Tashkent decided to make a stand and withdrew the Uzbek peace-keeping unit from the Shaartuz region of Tajikistan, as a result of which three stretches of the Afghan-Tajik border were left unguarded; the 201st division itself had to be used to fill the breach. Then in early February the Uzbek Foreign Ministry press secretary, Bakkhodyr Umarov, announced that Uzbekistan would no longer be taking part in the CIS collective security treaty. Umarov said that Uzbekistan had made this decision due to both dissent within the CIS “military activity” by Moscow in “certain parts of the Commonwealth.”

The First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Uzbekistan, Dmitri Trofimov, spoke to me concerning Umarov’s statement: “In fact, from the legal point of view, Umarov’s declaration is no more than words. According to the CIS collective security treaty, if a member country wishes to withdraw, it must submit an official declaration in writing six months before its planned withdrawal. Uzbekistan has not done this, either before or since the press secretary’s statement. At the same time, it cannot be denied that Umarov’s announcement is symptomatic of the disagreement between Moscow and Tashkent with regard to foreign policy in Central Asia. It is no secret that the main reason for the disagreement between our countries is Tajikistan, where Moscow supports the official leadership.”

Khudoiberdiev’s representatives also gave me an interesting explanation of the reasons for the accusations Dushanbe has leveled at Tashkent. They believe that by provoking a Tajik-Uzbek conflict with his accusations, Rakhmonov was simply carrying out Moscow’s will: Such a conflict, they believe, would suit Moscow, which is concerned about Uzbekistan’s growing influence in Central Asia. It is notable that in off-the-record conversations, Russian diplomats in Uzbekistan admitted that during negotiations between the United Tajik Opposition and official Dushanbe some of Moscow’s representatives were tempted to back the former Tajik premier Abdumalik Abdullajonov, the leader of the northern Tajiks and a close ally of Mahmud Khudoiberdiev. However, the decision was then made to continue supporting the Tajik president, Imomali Rakhmonov, because he was “more predictable and controllable.”

Nevertheless, talk of a Tashkent connection can hardly be considered too absurd; it is certainly more than coincidental. Interestingly, the Uzbek president, who formally supported the agreement between the Tajik opposition and the government, brokered by Moscow, believes that “as a result of the peace talks, cabinet posts are being shared out between the Kulyab clan, headed by Rakhmonov, and the United Tajik Opposition…. However, there are other regions and other political forces which also stake their claim to power. Because of the division of power and spheres of influence, there is now internal strife and bickering within the Kulyab clan itself. There are many examples of this. This is what causes the tension and the bitter struggle which leads to armed clashes” (2). Essentially, Islam Karimov thus supported the view of the rebel colonel Khudoiberdiev and his ally, ex-Premier Abdullajonov, who had both said on a number of occasions that the Moscow agreement ignored the interests of the Leninabad Tajiks in the north. As I noted in Prism in November 1998, Mahmud Khudoiberdiev is half Uzbek and has the implicit support of the local Uzbek community, which makes up about a third of the population of Leninabad oblast. He insisted that no fewer than 40 percent of jobs throughout the power structure should go to northern Tajiks, which suited Tashkent, given that the Uzbek and Leninabad political and economic elites have long had close ties. But Tashkent wanted a situation in which Khudoiberdiev controlled only Northern Tajikistan, giving Uzbekistan a kind of buffer zone controlled by allies.

This, however, did not suit the Kremlin, which did not want Uzbekistan’s influence in Central Asia to increase. “It cannot be denied that during the uprising in Northern Tajikistan, Moscow and Tashkent backed different forces,” an official in the Russian Embassy in Tashkent told me. “We cannot provide convincing proof that Tashkent was helping Khudoiberdiev, because most of this data is operational information from our agents. However, you can judge for yourselves: Tashkent does not deny that some of Khudoiberdiev’s guerrillas were in hiding in Uzbekistan; could hundreds of armed men really move unimpeded around a republic where there are checkpoints virtually every 300 meters? Can it be a coincidence that Khudoiberdiev’s main ally–the Tajik ex-Premier Abdumalik Abdullajonov–did not only live openly in Tashkent (although the Uzbek authorities do not have much time for undesirable politicians), but also ran the local branch of Chevrolet?! [Abdullajonov only left Tashkent after Khudoiberdiev’s uprising had failed, closing his car showroom “for renovation”–author.] The Uzbek authorities’ argument that they allowed Tajik government troops through their territory to put down the uprising is not very convincing. According to the information at our disposal, the Uzbek authorities deliberately delayed granting permission for the Tajik troops to cross their territory, thus giving Khudoiberdiev the opportunity to consolidate his position in Tajikistan.”

A further factor impeding an effective foreign policy is Tashkent’s awkward relations with the United States. Until 1995 human rights violations in Uzbekistan hampered closer ties between Tashkent and Washington. However, in 1995 the new American ambassador in Uzbekistan Stanley Escudero managed to persuade the White House that U.S. strategic interests in the region were more significant than the humanitarian issues, and that Uzbekistan should be Washington’s main ally in Central Asia. Having Washington’s support allowed Tashkent to feel at ease on the world stage and not to worry unduly about the opinion of its former parent state. However, since December 1997 Joseph Presell has been in charge at the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan, and human rights issues are once again on Washington’s agenda.

It is possible that Washington’s waning interest in Uzbekistan has compelled Tashkent to turn its attention back to Russia. Indeed, despite the political differences between Moscow and Tashkent, bilateral contacts have improved rather than weakened. “Today, Tashkent is interested in forming as close economic and political ties with Moscow as possible,” Dmitri Trofimov of the Russian Embassy told me. “The facts speak for themselves: In the last few months several dozen Russian governors have visited Tashkent. In mid-January the co-chairman of the joint Russian-Uzbek economic commission, Russian Vice Premier Genrikh Kulik paid an official visit to Uzbekistan, and Yegor Stroev, the speaker of the Federation Council, visited Tashkent on 10 February. In other words, the level of contact between our two countries is even higher than before.”

25 CENTS FOR A DAY’S WORK External factors are by no means the main impediment to Tashkent’s geopolitical ambitions. The appalling economic situation in the country effectively forces the authorities to focus their attention on domestic policy. Observers on the ground believe that Khudoiberdiev’s military action could have had a completely different outcome had the Uzbek authorities’ attention not been distracted at the crucial moment by internal problems: on the eve of Khudoiberdiev’s rebellion, Islam Karimov dismissed the heads of Samarkand, Dzhizak and Navoi oblasts, and, shortly after the uprising was put down, the Uzbek first vice premier, Ismail Dzhurabekov, was also dismissed.

The average salary in the republic is approximately US$20 per month. The situation is particularly tough in the countryside, where people go without salaries for months on end. A subsistence economy prevails here: The peasants grow everything themselves, including the grain from which they bake their own bread. It is very difficult to rent land, and what they grow on their small-holdings is sufficient only to feed themselves (by presidential decree, in rural areas these holdings may not exceed one-quarter of a hectare [about 3,000 square yards]).

The parlous state of the Uzbek economy is exemplified by the hired labor markets in Tashkent, where it is possible to hire labor for ridiculous sums, sometimes as little as 100 soms (about 25 cents) per day. Most of those who frequent these markets come from the rural regions of the Ferghana Basin, where there is a labor surplus. Some of these people told me that it is simply impossible to feed their families at home, and they consider themselves lucky if they manage to earn even US$2 a day.

Since 1996 it has been illegal to exchange foreign currency in Uzbekistan. The official exchange rate is 115 soms, but on the black market the going rate is already 400 soms. However, exchanging currency is fraught with risk. As was the case in the Soviet Union, an article in the Uzbek penal code stipulates a lengthy prison sentence for illegal currency exchange.

By outlawing the free circulation of foreign currency, Tashkent hoped to avoid a sharp increase in prices which would lead to the catastrophic impoverishment of the people. Tashkent’s official credo is that there should be neither very rich nor very poor people in Uzbekistan. However, in practice, apart from corrupt officials, it is difficult to find any well-off people in the republic at all. It is practically impossible to do business legally in Uzbekistan: “In order to make a profit you have to get a license to convert money–and those are granted by the president personally!” businessmen complain.

Corruption has become a real scourge in Uzbekistan. “It is practically impossible to run even a small business here,” explains one Russian-speaking Tashkent businessman. “In Russia you can just pay off one bandit, but here you have to pay everyone: the police, the sanitary health inspectors, the firemen. You are asked for bribes in all sorts of unlikely situations: An electrician might come to read the meter, and he says: ‘You’ve been using a lot of electricity, haven’t you? Why don’t we do this–I’ll put in a new meter, and you just pay me half of what you should be paying.'”

An intelligent and pragmatic politician, Islam Karimov cannot fail to understand that the current dire state of the economy could lead to social unrest, which given certain local conditions could easily develop into bloody revolt–as has already happened in neighboring Tajikistan. It can therefore be assumed that Tashkent will, at least for the time being, waive its geopolitical ambitions and concentrate its efforts on resolving its domestic problems.


NOTES: 1. “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” 4 February 1999 2. Statement by Uzbek president Islam Karimov at a press conference to mark the end of the official visit of Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev to Uzbekistan, November 30, 1998

Igor Rotar is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.