Uzbek Foreign Policy: Looking To Moscow?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 8

According to the headline of an article that appeared on May 6 in the Uzbek newspaper Narodnoe slovo (“People’s Word”), “Uzbekistan considers Russia one of its most important economic partners.” The publication of an article with such a title in a newspaper that has among the largest circulations in Uzbekistan is a noteworthy event. Narodnoe slovo is, moreover, the official newspaper of the Uzbek parliament.

Though official censorship in the republic was revoked about a year ago (prior to that, Uzbek mass media were required to show all materials to government censors before publishing them), in practice the mass media outlets in Uzbekistan are still strictly controlled by the authorities. For example, no chief editor would dare release materials that contradict the positions of the political establishment. That is why the appearance of the above mentioned article in Narodnoe slovo, which has served as a government mouthpiece since Soviet times, represents such an unusual occurrence; it is possible to assert with certainty that the newspaper reflects the official view of Tashkent.

In the article, President Islam Karimov’s visit to Moscow on April 15-16 is described as “a breakthrough,” and the agreements reached during the visit are said to constitute “an event that will have long-term consequences for the entire region of Central Asia.” The lengthy article, which runs over 2,000 words and resembles an official government report, states that the current rapprochement with Russia is the result of economic pragmatism. According to the article, the revival of economic ties between Moscow and Tashkent can be explained by the steady growth rate of the Russian economy and the stable growth in the real income of the population. Russia is quickly becoming an attractive and accessible market in which a wide array of Uzbek exports can be profitably sold, the article said. Such a favorable description of the Russian economy, which had not previously been characteristic of the Uzbek press, undoubtedly indicates a sudden turn by Tashkent towards Moscow.

Similarly noteworthy is a recent interview with the Uzbek minister of foreign affairs, Sadik Safaev, that appeared in Nezavisimaya gazeta. When asked whether Tashkent would now orient itself mostly toward Russia rather than the United States or the European countries, Sadik stated, “The more attractive the Central Asian market is for foreign investments, the better. We see that Russian capital is ready to compete with foreigners and that not only is it [Russia] not scared, but on the contrary it seeks to rival the West. I think that this circumstance will prompt our Western partners to be more active and decisive. Everyone will benefit from healthy competition.”

Safaev continued on to say that: “…when it comes to Uzbekistan’s entry into NATO, no such question is being considered. At the same time, we consider our relationship with the Alliance as a very important direction in our foreign policy. NATO today is a real ‘player’ in the Central Asian landmass. The Alliance is in charge of the ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Accordingly, Uzbekistan, as well as other countries in the region, is assisting ISAF in carrying out this mission that is of vital importance for us as well” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 28).

In practical terms, one might suggest that the present rapprochement between Tashkent and Moscow reflects a cooling that has occurred in Uzbekistan’s relations with the countries of Western Europe and the United States. For instance, on April 6 the Board of Directors of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Cooperation announced that it is scaling back investments in Uzbekistan because of continuing human rights violations in that country. It must be noted that the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has stated openly that the recent terrorist acts in Uzbekistan were related to the severe economic hardships that exist in the country and to the constant human right abuses (Agency Fergana.RU, May 4).

Moreover, it appears that Washington might also be listening finally to the constant pleas coming from human rights activists. Human Rights Watch, whose headquarters is located in New York, has been relentless in describing the rights abuses taking place in Uzbekistan. Most recently, Uzbek human rights activists even appealed to the U.S. Department of State with a request that Washington stop funding Tashkent. And the fact remains that, particularly after the recent terrorist attacks, Tashkent is in desperate need of a reliable ally.