On May 5, officials in Tashkent announced that Uzbekistan would shortly withdraw from GUUAM, the augmented Georgia-Ukraine-Azerbaijan-Moldova (GUAM) alliance formed in 1997. Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has always been a mixture of nationalism and pragmatism, and the latter ultimately caused Uzbekistan to opt out of GUUAM.
GUAM’s original vision was primarily economic. It would build on Eurasian developments that began in 1993 with the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia — TRACECA — an East-West transport corridor that would link Central Asia with Europe via the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Caspian Sea. Tashkent found the economic component of GUAM attractive for a number of reasons, and it joined the organization in 1999, expanding the number of members to five and changing the acronym to GUUAM.
Uzbekistan’s economy has a number of advantages, including great mineral wealth, the second largest cotton economy in the world, and a highly educated workforce. But to export its products overseas it had to cross two other national frontiers, and GUAM’s market and tariff advantages could help in these areas.
GUUAM’s original economic vision has remained largely dormant, and authorities in Tashkent concluded that the original economic agenda of GUUAM has not materialized. Instead, the organization has become increasingly ideological with a particular focus on unresolved “frozen conflicts” dating from the breakup of the USSR. Particularly irrelevant for Uzbekistan’s national interests was the perception that GUUAM was slowly replacing its economic orientation with increased military-political cooperation, including the formation of joint military units. As Uzbekistan does not share a contiguous border with the other GUUAM member states, the shift in emphasis away from commercial interests, combined with Uzbekistan’s geographical isolation, led Tashkent to conclude that its participation was no longer in the country’s best interests.
These divergences became evident during the GUUAM summit held in Chisinau, Moldova, on April 21-22 (see EDM, April 20, 21, 25, 26). While Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov did not attend, he was not the only no-show. Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, who had been invited as an observer, stayed home, while the Russian ambassador in Chisinau complained that Russia was not invited to attend.
It is not as if Uzbekistan has a dogged “go it alone” foreign policy. Tashkent has carefully weighed its options since independence, particularly in defense matters. The turmoil roiling neighboring Afghanistan and Tajikistan led Uzbekistan to join the Shanghai Five in 2001, expanding it to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Shanghai Five grouping was originally created in 1996 when the heads of states of Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan signed the “Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions” in Shanghai. Reflecting their cautious and pragmatic nature, it is notable that the Uzbek authorities waited five years before joining the organization. In contrast to GUUAM, the SCO is an example of an international organization that served both Uzbek national and regional interests; during the July 2004 SCO summit held in Tashkent, SCO members agreed to form the Regional Anti-terrorism Structure (RATS).
It is notable that while the SCO provides for cooperation with Russia and China, Tashkent has clearly chosen the United States as it closest partner in the war on terror. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks Uzbekistan offered the United States basing rights at its southern Khanabad air base. The subsequent military campaign against the Taliban in November 2001 also decimated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a major source of concern to Tashkent.
But the neutralization of the IMU did not solve all of Uzbekistan’s security concerns, as an increasingly restive Hizb-ut-Tahrir moved from the shadows to confront the authorities. After more than a year of silence, IMU leader Tahir Yuldashev recently remerged via a videotape delivered to Afghanistan Pajwok’s news agency (Pajhwok Afghan News, May 3). Speaking in fluent Dari for nearly an hour, Yuldashev renewed his vow to continue jihad against American forces in Afghanistan, urging listeners not to abandon the jihad against U.S. troops and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, commenting, “Under the leadership of Mullah Omar, we will fight on against the Americans and their puppets.” As if underlining the commonality of U.S.-Uzbek security concerns, Yuldashev maintained that the United States could eventually crumble like the USSR.
Tashkent’s need to focus on security over economic prosperity seems to have finally convinced Uzbek authorities that, after six years, GUUAM had failed to deliver financially, and was instead becoming an ideological conduit for advancing military integration. Uzbekistan’s pragmatism allows it to deal with China and Russia via the SCO and the United States through bilateral relations.
If the reemergence of Yuldashev was not enough of a warning for the unsettled Central Asian state, then the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Tajikistan and Iran in Teheran on April 23 removed any doubt that the “Great Game” is still afoot (see related article in this EDM).