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Uzbekistan - Foreign Relations

During its first 25 years of independence, Uzbekistan was a prickly neighbor, mired in disputes with its Central Asian neighbors and swinging from support to opposition and back again in its relations with the major powers. But the launch of economic reforms by a new leadership in 2017 shuffled the deck. Because Tashkent now needed stable external relations to implement its development strategy, it opened up for business and begun seeking cooperation. But it has been made clear to companies, NGOs and others interested in working with Uzbekistan that their activities must advance the country's reform agenda.

When he became president in 2016 after the death of Islam Karimov, an autocrat who had ruled for 27 years, Shavkat Mirziyoyev declared that Uzbekistan sought a place in the international community linked to universal principles, norms and laws. Tashkent, he said, would be a reliable partner and good neighbor. The new president pledged to improve the country's brutal, corrupt and closed image. He declared that a new Uzbekistan was stepping out: "We are committed to forming a new image of the country … to build a democratic state and a just society. … We have looked at ourselves from the outside, not only to objectively assess our potential and opportunities but to pay close attention to our failures and mistakes."

Mirziyoyev hedged his bets by pursuing agreements seemingly everywhere. He visited and hosted other major powers and regional players, signing billions in deals with China, Russia, France, India, Egypt and most important, as he put it, with Uzbekistan's neighbors, who had unusually turbulent relations with Tashkent in Karimov's time.

Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov argues that Tashkent's strategy for balanced relations with foreign partners means pursuing multidimensional ties in security, business, investment and trade. But, he says, a reforming Uzbekistan "is comfortable discussing any issue with the international community."

President Islam Karimov adopted a foreign policy of constant balancing and realignment as political winds shift. Although this behavior has made Uzbekistan unpredictable, it also enabled Karimov to maintain a greater degree of autonomy vis a vis other actors such as Russia, limiting the ability of Moscow to pressure Uzbekistan in the way that its weaker neighbors know all too well. The United States Government has been careful never to lend credence to the "Great Game" interpretations of politics in Central Asia. The Uzbeks, however, believe that they are in the middle of this chess board and must calculate their moves accordingly.

While Uzbekistan is a member of several regional organizations, it prefers to address issues bilaterally rather than in multilateral forums. Uzbekistan's often half-hearted participation in these regional organizations underscores its continuing wariness of such fora. The country’s relations with its neighbors, especially Tajikistan, are strained. Short skirmishes between border guards and closures of border crossings for security and political reasons are common. Uzbekistan has participated in efforts in the region to combat terrorism and the narcotics trade.

Uzbekistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the United Nations, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, NATO Partnership for Peace, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program, and the Economic Cooperation Organization--comprised of the five Central Asian countries, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In 1999, Uzbekistan joined the GUAM alliance (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), which was formed in 1997 (making it GUUAM), but formally withdrew in 2005. Uzbekistan hosts the SCO's Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in Tashkent. In 2006, Uzbekistan joined the Eurasian Economic Community (EurASEC), comprising Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, but subsequently withdrew in 2008. Uzbekistan is a member of the Central Asia Regional Information and Coordination Center (CARRIC), which is a regional counternarcotics information clearinghouse located in Almaty, Kazakhstan that will coordinate regional investigative leads on counternarcotics cases under the Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative.

Uzbekistan participated in the CIS peacekeeping force in Tajikistan and in UN-organized groups to help resolve the Tajik and Afghan conflicts, both of which it viewed as posing threats to its own stability. Uzbekistan is a supporter of U.S. efforts against worldwide terrorism and joined the coalition combating terrorism in Afghanistan. It continues to support coalition anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan by allowing shipment of non-lethal goods by rail as part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to Afghanistan and by granting access to Germany to an air base in southern Uzbekistan.

After what happened in Andijan in May of 2005, American strategists decided that Uzbekistan was dependent on them, so it could be pressured into agreeing to an 'international investigation' into the tragic Andijan events - giving the United States substantial leverage. But President Islam Karimov refused to give in to pressure. Instead, he learned some appropriate lessons from what had happened. The Andijan events could hardly be described as another "revolution" in the former Soviet Union. This was more like an armed uprising in one particular city, with the prospect of instability spreading to adjacent cities and the entire Ferghana Valley. If the first and second phases of the Ferghana Valley power-grab attempt had succeeded, the rebels could have escalated the situation and overthrown the existing political regime, or at least attempted to proclaim some sort of independent state formation in the Ferghana Valley.

In contrast to the West, Moscow and Beijing understood this - and in general, they did not condemn the resolute measures used to crush the revolt. Russia, for example, by refraining from any active involvement, and accepting the Tashkent government's official account of events in Andijan, not only maintained good relations with Karimov, but actually strengthened that relationship. What's more, while the West started portraying Karimov as some sort of "mad dog," Russian companies and politicians gained a window of opportunity for expanding cooperation with Uzbekistan.

These opportunities have been developed successfully, as confirmed by Uzbekistan's decision to renew its membership of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the gradual change in Tashkent's foreign policy priorities as it has re-entered Russia's sphere of influence. After being exposed to an alleged “color revolution” attempt committed in May 2005 by the so-called “Akromiya” group – a splinter of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) Islamic organization – in its provincial Andijan city, Uzbekistan decided in 2006 to restore its membership in the CSTO, perceiving the events as allegedly plotted by the US.

Even when relations with the West were at their worst, Uzbekistan never fully aligned with Russia in the way that Moscow hoped and has limited its engagement with Russian-dominated organization such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Eurasian Economic Community (EURASEC). The Uzbeks seem to be in another period of strategic reassessment in light of Russia's announcement of intent to build a military base in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, which is located adjacent to the Ferghana Valley-Uzbekistan's breadbasket and most troublesome and vulnerable region. The Uzbeks are linked to Russia by history, culture and economics but remain suspicious of Russia's intent.

Russia remains Uzbekistan's largest investor and trading partner and, despite the waning of the Russian language among the young, retains a strong cultural and media influence that is amplified by omnipresent Russian language television. At the same time, however, by 2009 the Government of Uzbekistan and Karimov in particular, had become increasingly mistrustful of Russia's political aims in the region. Events in Georgia in August 2008 stoked suspicions in many minds here that Russia seeks to reassert its dominion over its former colonies by any means, including military force.

Russian behavior in the region only exacerbated these suspicions. On the vital issue of water, for example, the Uzbeks believed that the Russians were playing a double game, seeking to sow discord among the Central Asian countries in an effort to "divide and conquer." Efforts on the part of Moscow to renegotiate gas contracts with Uzbekistan have further inflamed suspicions to the point that Karimov believed the Russians were actively fomenting extremist attacks as a means of creating a pretext for intervention. Uzbek gas, which heretofore had been marketed exclusively to Russia, was likely to reach new export markets as a pipeline to China and the Nabucco project move forward.

The perceived threat of Islamic fundamentalism in neighbouring Afghanistan, Tajikistan and increasingly Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where there are significant Uzbek minorities, has been a focus of Uzbek foreign policy. Relations have been strained with immediate neighbours, particular with respect to regulation of cross-border trade, movement and water and energy flows. Areas bordering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are mined. Uzbekistan has expressed a wish to de-mine, but has requested international assistance. This is complicated by the fact that Uzbekistan has not signed the Ottawa Convention, a treaty banning all types of anti-personnel mine.

Disputes over access to water and Uzbekistan's perception that its neighbors are not doing enough to combat the spread of drugs, terrorism, and contraband into the country fuel tension between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan continues to maintain that water is not a commodity and that water allocation should be based on agricultural needs and population levels. Cotton exports still generate the bulk of Uzbekistan's foreign currency earnings, and Tashkent fears the effects of a reduction in water flows on its cotton harvest. Indeed, Uzbek officials have complained that the upstream countries have been releasing too much water in the winter (to generate electricity), and not enough in the summer, which deprives Uzbekistan of the water it needs. In particular, Uzbekistan opposes any upstream projects--such as the planned Kambarata and Rogun hydropower projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, respectively--that would provide the upstream states with greater control over water flows.

Uzbekistan, one of Tajikistan’s wealthier and more powerful neighbors (and with whom it has a not innocuous rivalry), in particular, has tried to use the energy disparity against Tajikistan’s government by alternately threatening to and actually cutting off natural gas supplies to the country, as the majority of the natural gas used in Tajikistan comes from Turkmenistan and must transit Uzbekistan via a pipeline to reach the country.

On December 19, 2012, the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) adopted a decision according to which Uzbekistan de facto completely ceased its membership in this organization. It seems that such a decision is to the mutual disadvantage of both Uzbekistan and the CSTO. Uzbekistan lost one important, albeit weak, multilateral platform for international engagement; the CSTO lost one important, albeit stubborn, member.

The recently adopted new Foreign Policy Concept of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Karimov argued, was based on a strong strategic approach, especially in the security sphere, and requires among other things the utilization of all means to achieve vital ends. However, it also required a prudent combination of unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral instruments.

Uzbekistan was landlocked and had to struggle to defend its interests, but national interest would guide its actions, not sentiment. The Russians had specialized in false friendship, followed by the Turks. Uzbekistan would go where it needed to in order to find friends: the Arab world, China, Southeast Asia. After 70 years of Soviet rule, in which Russian nationals had played the key role, often behind the scenes, Uzbekistan was determined to do things its own way. Pride mattered above all else.

Under former President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was an obstacle to regional integration. Uzbekistan lies at the center of Central Asia, bordered by all the other Central Asian states and also sharing an approximately 160-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has proven to be a knot at the heart of the region. Tashkent's relations with its immediate neighbors have ranged from bad to horrible. Ties with Turkmenistan warmed after the country's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in late 2006, and in the last decade Karimov seemed to finally find some common ground with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, which eased Uzbek-Kazakh relations. But the Uzbek government had always been hard on eastern neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan's new leader, Shavkat Mirziyaev, quickly made a difference in regional politics in Central Asia. In less than one month, Mirziyaev moved to improve ties with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and in so doing sparked hopes for a new era of regional cooperation.

In a speech on his first day as acting president, Mirziyaev said Uzbekistan would continue the policy of not joining any international military alliances and not hosting any foreign military bases, along with not stationing its troops abroad. Uzbekistan, a major grower of cotton and a producer of natural gas, borders volatile Afghanistan and lies in a strategic region where Russia, China, and the West vie for influence. It is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia and China, but pulled out of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the second time in 2012.

In the 08 September 2016 speech, Mirziyaev also said that strengthening ties with neighboring Central Asian states is "the main priority' for Uzbekistan's foreign policy -- and has won praise for apparent steps in that direction. Within days of Karimov’s death, Uzbekistan released four nationals of neighboring Kyrgyzstan and withdrew policemen from a border area disputed by the two countries.

On September 23, Tajikistan announced that the two countries had agreed to resume flights between their capitals, Dushanbe and Tashkent, which were suspended in 1992. And media in Kazakhstan have reported that the Uzbek and Kazakh governments are close to reaching a deal on the long-standing issue of border demarcation. The developments sparked hopes that unlike Karimov -- who was seen as throwing up obstacles to regional cooperation -- the new leadership is eager to take a softer line towards neighbors.

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Page last modified: 09-03-2020 18:57:26 ZULU