Recent events in Uzbekistan seem to point to warming relations with the West and a possible re-adjustment of its relations with Russia. EU sanctions on Uzbekistan will remain in place for another year, despite Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Norov’s recent trip to Brussels.
Nevertheless, there are signs that bilateral relations with European countries are improving. On November 27-29 four Uzbek security officials attended a policy-level conference in Vienna devoted to border control issues in Central Asia, while both Germany and France have warmed their economic relations with Uzbekistan. Indeed, despite being liberal democracies, both voiced very little criticism of Uzbek policies following the Andijan massacre of May 2005, while the United States and Great Britain bore the brunt of the Uzbek backlash. In July 2006 a delegation of Uzbek MPs visited the French parliament, and a few weeks later a French Senate delegation was received in Tashkent (Narodnoye slovo, July 21). Meanwhile, Germany maintains its base in Termez and has invested in several projects in Uzbekistan, such as the Uzbek-German Bukharagyps venture, which began operations in the Bukhara region in late November.
These developments notwithstanding, Uzbekistan may once again be looking beyond Europe, specifically to the United States to counter an overbearing Russia. There appears to be an understanding in official circles that breaking relations in 2005 was a mistake for both sides. The United States had been able to count on Uzbekistan as a key ally in the war on terror, while Tashkent enjoyed strong economic and security links with the world’s sole superpower.
Relations with Russia in the past year had noticeably intensified beyond the year-old agreement on allied relations. This strengthened Russia’s military, political, and economic positions in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. Uzbekistan’s integration into the Eurasian Economic Community and its decision to join the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) are further examples of Russian influence and Uzbek opportunism. However, Uzbekistan has yet to comply with the customs treaty under EurAsEc, which calls for adjusting its customs code in order for visa-free travel to effectively operate in Central Asia. Furthermore, despite official proclamations regarding the CSTO’s relevance, Uzbekistan still avoids attending high-level meetings within the organization. The Uzbek defense minister was notably absent during the recent CSTO defense summit held in Belarus on November 23 (lenta.ru, November 23).
Growing Russian influence in Uzbekistan has forced Tashkent to attempt to rebalance its foreign policy, and Uzbekistan seems to be turning westward once again. Many analysts had predicted that the fallout from the Andijan events and the withdrawal of U.S. personnel from the Karshi-Khanabad military base meant a shift from Uzbekistan’s pro-Western orientation in favor of Russia and China. This tilt was further confirmed in September 2006 when tax authorities closed a major mining project by the Uzbek-U.S. joint venture Zarafshan Newmont. The company then declared bankruptcy, despite Newmont ranking as the world’s fourth-largest world’s mining industry.
However, there are recent signs that Uzbekistan wants to slow its drive toward Russia and perhaps create an opening toward the United States. One example was an order from Uzbek President Islam Karimov canceling a performance by renown Tashkent opera artists in Moscow for the grand opening of an Uzbek Art Festival in Russia on November 21-25, which effectively cancelled the festival itself (ANN, November 17). Interestingly, the American jazz singer and composer Adam Klipple performed at the Uzbek State Music Conservatory on November 30. This event was made possible through the “cultural diplomacy” channels of the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent and the Uzbek Ministry of Culture.
In addition, the July 12 appointment of the pro-Western Norov as foreign minister can be viewed as a step towards better relations with the West. A protégée of Sadik Safayev — the Western-oriented former foreign minister who appointed him to the post of first deputy minister in 1995 — Norov was educated in Moscow and served as Uzbek ambassador to both Belgium and Germany. His appointment also reflects another long-standing trend, the appointment of officials with security backgrounds. Norov is the former chief of police in Bukhara, while his replacement in Belgium, Isan Mustafayev, was deputy chief of national security in 2001-2003. Over 90% of Uzbek officials, from mayors to ministers, have a security background, including the current Fergana oblast governor, who is the former Namangan chief of police.
In another surprising development, this fall two U.S. NGOs, Mercy Corps and CHF International, won their cases against the government, regarding the forced departure of dozens of Western NGOs and the closure of USAID-funded projects. Uzbekistan’s sole automobile manufacturing plant (formerly Korean Dawoo Inc., which declared bankruptcy) formed a new partnership with General Motors in November (Fergana.ru, November 28).
Those familiar with Uzbekistan’s history understand these abrupt shifts to be an almost central component of the country’s foreign policy. For example, Karimov’s recent no-show at the Eighth Congress of Turkic-speaking nations on November 17 was surprising and interpreted by some as proof that Uzbekistan remains suspicious of Turkish influence in the region.
Ordinary geopolitical competition may also be partly behind the “realignment.” The rising star in Central Asia is Kazakhstan. While Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was present at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July and recently traveled to both Washington and London on official state visits, Karimov is still snubbed by all but Moscow.
While Uzbekistan now seems to be attempting to correct its over-reliance on Russia, it is still wary of Western attempts at democratization as reflected in the Uzbek media, which has been very critical of the United States for its imposition of “violence-based democracy” (Inson va Qonun, June 27). In addition, security relations between Russia and Uzbekistan remain strong and will likely remain so. Extraditions of terror suspects from Russia to Uzbekistan and intelligence sharing are routine and indicate mutual trust. Uzbekistan is one of the fiercest anti-extremist states in the world, and its anti-terrorism laws are some of the most stringent. Reading or possessing “extremist literature” is a criminal offense, and anti-terror financing legislation is currently being drafted (Nalogovyye i Tamozhennyye Vesti, July 11). The country also recently revised its banking regulations to prevent money laundering.
Valuable intelligence supplied by the Uzbeks to Washington has now gone dry and effective cooperation is almost non-existent. Because security has become central to its policy, the United States needs to re-center its anti-terrorism focus. If the Uzbek government’s current approach continues, it would offer an opportunity for the United States (and the West) to further mend their relations with this key Eurasian country.