The Uzbek government’s decision to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) is yet another example of Uzbekistan’s determination to remain focused on what has come to be known as the "Uzbek Path." The EAEC website announced on November 12 that it had received a diplomatic note from the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs on October 20, saying that Uzbekistan intended to "suspend participation" in the EAEC (www.evrazes.com). RIA Novosti (www.rian.ru) and other major news sources such as Kommersant (www.kommersant.ru) reacted with a tone of puzzlement. Russian news commentators also pointed out that Uzbek President Islom Karimov had sent a letter stating Uzbekistan’s intention to the heads of state of the other EAEC countries—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has a long tradition of independence in foreign policy orientation, often having pursued economic and foreign policies at odds with its Central Asian neighbors, Russia, and other former Soviet states. But Uzbekistan’s abrupt and unexpected withdrawal from participation in the foremost economic cooperation organization in the former Soviet region represents a significant break with Russia’s strong pressure toward conformity. Russian foreign officials obviously did not welcome and were slow to acknowledge the Uzbek decision. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced in a press interview on November 17 that Russia would respect Uzbekistan’s right to make an independent decision but expressed the view that the decision was not in Russia’s best interests (Vremya Novostei, November 17).
The EAEC was formally established in October 2000 when the founding states adopted a plan for "Eurasian economic integration" first planned by Kazakhstan and later adopted and supported by Russia. Uzbekistan was a late-comer to the EAEC, only joining in January 2006 and only after it had soured relations with Western countries due to shortcomings in political and economic reform and human rights. Many observers interpreted Uzbekistan’s cooling relations with Western countries and its warming association with Russia as a sign of growing rapprochement with the post-Soviet community. The EAEC members committed themselves to adopting common policies on trade, migration, currency exchange, and infrastructure development. The EAEC quickly developed an institutional framework with an administrative Secretariat and an Inter-Parliamentary Assembly designed to coordinate legislation. The members adopted a range of normative acts and treaty agreements designed to coordinate labor, monetary, customs, employment, tax, and investment policies on a region-wide basis.
Recent attention has focused on the EAEC’s agreement that was signed in Moscow in January to forge a customs union, first among Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. (www.rian.ru, January 29). The customs union was structured in a way that made it far more beneficial to the more developed member states than to the less advanced. Uzbek economists were concerned that it would permanently consign Uzbekistan to the role of a primary commodities producer while other, more advanced regions would progress technologically and increase diversification.
The EAEC’s economic goals were closely aligned with Russian political objectives. As Russia, diminished for more than a decade following the collapse of the USSR, began reemerging as an important and influential actor on the world stage, thanks to soaring oil and natural gas prices, it began to see the EAEC as an instrument for Kremlin foreign policy objectives. The post-September 2001 period witnessed an increasingly assertive and self-confident foreign policy directed by an activist president, managed by a cadre of professionally schooled "intellicrats," and supported by a pantheon of well-ensconced and politically resourceful oligarchs. As Russian President Vladimir Putin changed hats, switching to the role of Prime Minister and bringing in the like-minded President Dmitry Medvedev, the strategic agenda of Russia’s foreign policy accelerated. The five-day Russo-Georgian war was the first illustration of a grand strategy that anticipated Russian dominance throughout the post-Soviet space. Russia sought to use its ability to corner energy supplies as an instrument for creating a special sphere of Russian influence while projecting its new image as a state willing and able to employ armed force. Russia sought to divide the opposition by forcing a wedge into Western-oriented coalitions. Medvedev, in his "Berlin Initiative," called for the creation of a new international security cooperation organization that would supplant the existing international organizations.
Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the EAEC takes some of the wind out of Russia’s sails. Even if Russia gracefully accepts Uzbekistan’s separate Uzbek Path, the idea of Uzbekistan’s "suspension" of participation in the EAEC still raises questions. The EAEC charter specifies provisions for withdrawal but not for "suspension." The charter specifies that members are free to withdraw with a year’s notice and with assurances of fulfilling financial and other membership commitments. The charter does not specify how suspension would be accomplished or what it entails. The members states of the EAEC are expected to take up this subject at a planned meeting of the organization in December.
Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw also seems to throw cold water on speculation about the expansion of the EAEC and its merger with the parallel security cooperation organization, the CSTO. The idea of merging the two organizations had been proposed as recently as June by Karimov (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 11); but the sentiment in favor of a grand coalition in the post-Soviet regions did not weather the Russo-Georgian conflict. Other than Russia, none of the post-Soviet states has explicitly endorsed the independence of Abkhazia and Ossetia. These states are looking with renewed circumspection at fresh Eurasian grand strategies.