On the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Tashkent, June 16-17, a historic agreement was signed between Russia and Uzbekistan, which paves the way towards closer bilateral cooperation, as well as potentially undermining the significance of the role of the U.S. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the “strategic partnership” with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, in a move that signals a clear intention to raise the stakes in the security cooperation between Moscow and Tashkent. (ITAR-TASS, Moscow June 16).
The security dimension of the agreement is clear and simple in its nature. Russia will step up its supply of military hardware to Uzbekistan, also maintaining and modernizing dated Uzbek military equipment. In addition, Russia will upgrade air and air defense facilities in Uzbekistan, suggesting a level of military cooperation not seen since the withdrawal of the latter from the Collective Security Treaty in 1999. Russia will also increase access to its military educational establishments for the training of Uzbek servicemen, and grant each other the right to deploy military forces, when the occasion arises, on each other’s territory. In a crisis, Russian military forces could be deployed to Uzbekistan with the approval of the Uzbek government in what seems as an individual arrangement between the states outside of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — to which Uzbekistan does not belong. (ITAR-TASS, Moscow June 16)
Although each side clarified that the strategic partnership is not aimed against any third party, it is equally obvious that it could only have developed as a consequence of Uzbekistan’s strained relations with its western partners — notably, increased U.S. criticism since the terrorist attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara in March and April 2004, and suggestions that the regime in Tashkent ought to pay closer attention to its human rights record. An added factor, according to U.S. officials, was the specter of the “velvet revolution” in Georgia in fall 2003, which has coincided with reactionary measures by Karimov’s regime to ensure it does not follow the same fate.
However, underlying the rapprochement are real energy concerns, serving to bind the two states for the time being in a marriage of convenience. Indeed, this was alluded to by Putin himself, commenting on the import of the strategic partnership: “All of this together creates a good base and confidence for Russian businesses that you can work on Uzbekistan’s territory without looking behind your back. That is, a good stable situation for Russian business.” (ITAR-TASS, Moscow, June 17) This is the actual basis of the breakthrough in relations between the two countries, reflecting economic concerns, and will be made or broken in future on the success of joint energy concerns.
It is crucial to comprehend that the security ties flow from economic interests, in order to understand Russian diplomacy in Central Asia and in Uzbekistan in particular. Laid bare, the real breakthrough occurred in reaching agreement on a production-sharing venture between Lukoil and Uzbekneftegaz relating to the Kandym oilfield.
In April 2004, Gazprom and Uzbekneftegaz concluded an agreement on production sharing in order to jointly explore the Shakhpakty oilfield in Uzbekistan. This envisages the Uzbek export of 5 billion cubit meters of gas to Russia in 2004, rising to 10 billion cubic meters by 2010. This has stimulated interest among other Russian oil companies, including Soyuzneftegaz, hoping to secure similar deals. (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow, June 16)
An earlier agreement, involving the U.S.-British company UzPYeK, faltered in 2003 and required Russian capital investment to revitalize the project. It has subsequently become, on the personal assurance of Karimov, a larger project involving the U.S.-British company augmented by Russian capital. Thus, the Lukoil-Uzbekneftegaz deal concerning the Kandym oilfield represents the practical basis on which these additional security agreements were reached. The security arrangements, by themselves a step forward in bilateral relations, are simply an appendage to the economic realties involved in Russian attempts to shore up the near stagnant Uzbek economy. Russian business interests in Uzbekistan now dictate the political and security interests of Moscow in seeking closer military security ties with Tashkent. It is upon this criterion and nothing else, that the new strategic partnership will be tested and in the long-term upon which its success depends.
Minimizing U.S. input into the republic, predicated more on inculcating western democratic values and liberalization of the country, will be an additional bonus for Putin. Yet, he will not be keen to take on sole responsibility for guaranteeing the security of Uzbekistan, preferring instead to offer Russian business further opportunities, granting Karimov relatively modest military assistance. Meanwhile, nowhere is it more clear that the U.S. role in Uzbekistan is declining, for the time-being, than in Moscow, which will be patient enough to reserve judgment until after the US presidential election later this year. A future resurgence of U.S. interests must convince Moscow that its self-interests are served by a continuance of the “temporary” U.S. entry into the region.