As the Kremlin inked an alliance with Uzbekistan this week, the European Union banned arms sales to Tashkent and imposed visa restrictions on top Uzbek officials. While Russia may have scored a geopolitical victory in the short term, it will likely lose in the long run, some regional analysts suggest. Russia’s too-close ties with the repressive and unstable regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov will be a constant source of friction with the West. Furthermore, Russia’s new status as Tashkent’s principal political and military ally may draw it into an unsavory civil war in Uzbekistan, should Karimov’s ruling regime become locked in a bloody confrontation with domestic opponents.
On November 14, the leaders of Russia and Uzbekistan signed a treaty of alliance between their two countries. Both presidents and many commentators have already labeled the deal “unprecedented.” As recently as June 2004, Moscow and Tashkent concluded a treaty of strategic partnership. But with the signing of a new pact, the growing ties between Russia and Uzbekistan were upgraded, in the words of one commentary, to the level of a full-blown “military-strategic and defense alliance.” According to the draft treaty obtained by the Russian media, Moscow guarantees Tashkent its full backing in the event that the Karimov regime is threatened either from without or within. The new accord, some analysts argue, turns Uzbekistan into “Russia’s largest strategic bridgehead in Central Asia.”
Indeed, the current situation differs markedly from the one that existed only a year ago, when Karimov started his drift toward Russia but still kept his geopolitical options open, claiming that Uzbekistan had two equally important strategic partners — Washington and Moscow. But the Andijan massacre in May 2005 made sitting on the geopolitical fence impossible: both the United States and the EU reacted harshly to the ruthless suppression of the Fergana Valley riots. The Europeans and Americans’ unambiguous stance forced Karimov to turn his back on the West and fully embrace his “only true friend” — Russia.
Now, according to the available draft treaty, Moscow pledges to get involved if Karimov’s regime is endangered. The text also alludes to the possibility for Russia to establish a military base in Uzbekistan: “In case of necessity, the sides provide each other, on the basis of additional accords, the rights to use military installations situated on their territory.” As some defense analysts noted, now the Russian military can not only use around 10 Uzbek airfields, but Moscow can also start elaborating plans for a permanent deployment of Russian forces in Uzbekistan.
It is no wonder that many Russian commentators feel almost euphoric and proclaim the pact a “victory of Russian diplomacy.” They argue that Moscow has finally achieved one of its main strategic goals – namely, the restoration of its position in Uzbekistan. Other Russian analysts point to the significant economic benefits coming out of the newly forged alliance with Tashkent. As Uzbekistan becomes strategically dependent on Moscow, they say, the Kremlin will likely push for the signing of a new inter-governmental agreement in the energy sphere that would guarantee the Russian gas giant Gazprom’s interests in a number of lucrative gas projects in Uzbekistan. Some experts also suggest that now it will be much easier for Moscow to press its Uzbek ally into a trade-off that the Kremlin apparently covets: to swap Uzbekistan’s $500 million debt to Russia for two strategic aircraft factories.
It would appear, however, that not everyone in Moscow is thrilled with the sudden blossoming of relations with the surly Uzbek strongman. Dissenting voices can also be heard, pointing to the significant downsides of the Russian-Uzbek strategic alliance. First, critics of the pact say, Russia’s position vis-à-vis the Karimov regime continues to diverge from the Western stance. It is quite symbolic that on the very day that Russian President Vladimir Putin praised his Uzbek counterpart as a “trusted ally,” the EU governments introduced an embargo on arms trade with Tashkent and blocked the travel of 12 senior Uzbek officials to Europe. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov contemptuously said that Russia could not care less: “This embargo does not concern us… We will continue further developing relations with this friendly country.” But this growing disagreement in the assessment of the nature of Karimov’s autocratic rule will likely negatively affect Russia’s relationship with the West.
Second, the signing of the pact may well influence the overall situation in Central Asia, in particular the triangle of Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Russia. Until very recently Astana was considered to be the Kremlin’s main strategic ally. Some commentators suggest that, given uneasy relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the current “playing favorites” by Moscow will likely annoy Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and even prompt him to take steps that, at the end of day, may run counter Moscow’s strategic interests in the region.
And finally, having pledged to support Karimov, the Kremlin will inevitably find itself between a rock and a hard place when his regime eventually crumbles and social turmoil ensues. Then Russia will face a painful dilemma: to come to Karimov’s rescue would mean being drawn into a possibly violent internal conflict; to ignore the request for help would mean to badly let down an ally. Having signed the pact with Karimov, one commentary argues, “Russia automatically made a possible civil war in Uzbekistan its internal problem.”
(Nezavisimaya gazeta, Moskovsky komsomolets, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Ej.ru, Politcom.ru, November 15, Kommersant, Vremya novostei, NEWSru.com, Reuters, November 14)