Uzbekistan’s turbulent bilateral relations with Kazakhstan, steadily improving in recent years as both countries vied for the potential benefits of cooperating with the West in the War on Terror, have now become a key political target for Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Karimov’s state visit to Kazakhstan, which ended on September 6, signals further moves toward achieving synergy in security and military cooperation, as part of a wider drive to promote rapprochement between the two leading Central Asian countries. Consequently, official statements following Karimov’s meetings with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev indicated the development of deeper cooperation in trade, economic, and military ties, and specifically targeted transport communications. The two leaders also restated their political willingness to tackle jointly extremism, terrorism, and drug smuggling. Agreements were signed on cooperation in the mutual protection of classified information, improving aviation security and tourism, and working out the details for coordinated programs for fostering cultural and humanitarian ventures for 2006-2008 (Interfax, September 6).
Part of Karimov’s efforts focused on proposing joint military maneuvers between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Karimov reportedly told Nazarbayev, “There are still questions in the military sphere, which are equally interesting for both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.” It is these points of mutual “interest” that Karimov is pushing in his campaign to ignite a new dynamic in Uzbek-Kazakh security cooperation (Gazeta.uz, September 5).
The Uzbek leader pointed out that he could not remember previous joint military exercises with Kazakhstan, while alluding to the necessity of concentrating on aspects of the military structures and experience in each country that would benefit the other if such joint ventures were to prove effective. In turn, Nazarbayev highlighted plans to conduct joint staff maneuvers involving both countries’ armed forces. Moreover, both will exchange experience on cooperation in military-technical spheres. Clearly, this represents a move away from the competitive vector in bilateral relations, another facet of Karimov’s hope to avoid regional isolation and the instigation of a new cooperative factor in regional security calibrations. Western governments will likely treat such cooperation cautiously, since, in theory, any education and training provided through Western military assistance programs could be shared with or accessed by Uzbek counterparts.
On the sidelines of the Karimov-Nazarbayev talks, an informal summit was held in Astana on September 2 among the leaders of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The main topic during these negotiations was the issue of speeding up the creation of a Central Asian water and energy consortium (see EDM, September 5). The development of regional cooperation to facilitate efficient water and energy use, according to the Uzbek media, is Karimov’s brainchild. Implementation issues are currently being actively considered within the Eurasian Economic Community (Interfax, September 2). A pattern is emerging in Uzbek diplomacy, conveying an image of Karimov being at the heart of internal and regional processes aimed at strengthening security within Central Asia.
Equally, Tashkent is rapidly searching for reliable allies. Part of its rapprochement with Kazakhstan is the way it is actively fine-tuning its bilateral relations with Russia and China; all these measures are aimed precisely at improving key aspects of Uzbekistan’s security. On September 6 in Beijing, the heads of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs signed a protocol of cooperation for 2006-2007. Bahodir Matlubov, Uzbekistan’s interior minister, and Zhou Yongkang, Chinese State Councilor and minister of public security, signed the protocol after holding extensive talks. Both sides spoke highly of existing “friendly relations” between the two countries. Uzbekistan and China will now work more closely in anti-terrorism, anti-narcotics, and in fighting cross-border crimes. The agreement, according to Chinese sources, also envisages police assistance and training (Gazeta.ru, September 9). Karimov appreciates the influence of Beijing on the formulation of Astana’s foreign policy and readily understands the dividends involved in replacing the competitive dynamic in Uzbek-Kazakh relations with a genuine cooperative approach. In reality, Karimov is responding to Nazarbayev’s initiatives, but the timing is dictated by Karimov’s own agenda.
On September 9 the Uzbek media gave widespread coverage to the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of a comprehensive global strategy to counter terrorism. The strategy itself offers practical steps ranging from strengthening the capacity of individual states to combat terrorism to ensuring respect for human rights and the rule of law in the fight against terrorism. It also urges the importance of “consistently, unequivocally, and strongly condemning terrorism in all forms and manifestations, committed by whomever and for whatever purposes.” UN officials admitted that the problem of defining terrorism presented ongoing difficulties for many countries. Tashkent will be particularly keen to downplay any need for a definition of terms and will claim help from the UN while remaining sensitive to its political aspirations — as these run counter to the methods used by the Uzbek state security agencies (Uzbek Television First Channel, September 9).
With many Western governments backing away from Uzbekistan since the May 2005 Andijan massacre, Karimov has sought rapprochement with Russia, reintegration into the Collective Security Treaty Organization, deepening commitment to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, strengthening security ties with China, and exploring economic links with Japan. The linchpin of this strategy now rests on overcoming years of bickering and lethargy in bilateral relations with Kazakhstan. Karimov is hoping that a rapprochement with Kazakhstan will force Western governments to reassess their approach to Uzbekistan — and deal with it on Karimov’s terms.