As practice has shown, if Uzbekistan is moving closer to the US, it automatically moves away from Russia and vice versa. That, at least, has been the case in recent times whenever Tashkent has begun active cooperation with the United States. Currently, we are witnessing yet another phase of fairly close cooperation between Tashkent and Washington,” – Kazakh expert Ruslan Izimov writes in an article exclusively for cabar.asia.
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US Strategy in Central Asia has undergone significant changes in 25 years of the region’s independence. This strategy is now characterized by a focus on specific, key countries through whom it can ensure the spread of its influence to other countries. At the moment it is Uzbekistan that is most suited to a role as Washington’s key partner in the region.
However, it should be noted that Uzbek-US relations over the past 25 years have not been very stable. Ties between Tashkent and Washington are subject to periodical cooling before warmer relations re-emerge. This is mostly due to the specific nuances of the foreign policy pursued by the Republic of Uzbekistan, which adopts different vectors at different points in time.
As a rule, when one of the major powers deepens contacts with Tashkent, it does so at the expense of the country’s relations with other important partners. As practice has shown, if Uzbekistan is moving closer to the US, it automatically moves away from Russia and vice versa. That, at least, has been the case in recent times whenever Tashkent has begun active cooperation with the United States. Currently, we are witnessing yet another phase of fairly close cooperation between Tashkent and Washington. What is the reason for this present phase of strengthening ties and how long-term and stable will US- Uzbek relations prove to be? This article analyses these factors and future prospects for US-Uzbek relations.
Until recently, US strategy in Central Asia did not sufficiently take into account the interests of the region’s countries themselves. Central Asia, for the United States, has always been an instrument through which Washington sought to implement plans in the broader Eurasian region. US plans in Central Asia were mainly aimed at countering the plans of other external powers in the region. This was embodied in the creation of almost all US foreign policy programs in Central Asia, including the “Greater Central Asia” and the “New Silk Road” programs, which overwhelmingly focussed on the use of the region to solve strategic US objectives in Afghanistan while reducing Russian and Chinese influence.
But the attempt to integrate Afghanistan with Central Asian countries was perceived negatively, because in the eyes of Central Asian governments Afghanistan still remains a source of threats, chiefly terrorism and drug trafficking.
From this point of view, the new approach promoted by Washington in the form of the “C5 + 1” represents a modification. Attempts to integrate Afghanistan into the region have been reduced to a minimum, and Afghanistan is presented only as a link for potential transport and infrastructure projects. This makes “C5 + 1” — another policy directed against Russia and China — more attractive in the eyes of the Central Asian countries, where conditions have changed in recent times.
Against the background of events in Ukraine and economic pressure from China, the Central Asian republics now see the United States as the strongest balancing force that is capable of alleviating pressure from both China and Russia. This means US plans are more likely to find support in the region.There is every reason to believe that the main focus of “C5 + 1” is Uzbekistan. Tashkent represents to Washington a potential partner in confronting China and Russia, with a powerful protest potential that can be harnessed as and when necessary.
The focus of the new US strategy on Uzbekistan is also a consequence of the fact that the foreign policy orientation of all other countries in the region is towards Russia. The closure of the US military base in Kyrgyzstan and Bishkek’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union has alienated the United States. Elections to the parliament in Kyrgyzstan last autumn once again showed how effective the Kremlin’s leverage in this country is, with none of the six parties entering the parliament stating opposition towards the Kremlin. There is reason to believe that in the near future Tajikistan will also join the Eurasian Economic Union. Kazakhstan has always been and remains the key partner for Russia in the region. That leaves only Uzbekistan and officially neutral Turkmenistan. In such a situation, it seems that the United States has chosen a strategy of intensified rapprochement with Tashkent.
In its turn, Uzbekistan’s government sees in the United States an alternative to Russian influence and Tashkent would also like to receive new technologies from Washington, investment and, above all, a strengthening of its own military potential.
Judging by the number of high-level meetings and negotiations between politicians of Uzbekistan and the United States, Tashkent has not hidden its desire to get closer to the West. Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov appears to be the most important lobbyist in terms of deepening Uzbek-American dialogue and has been heavily involved in the “C5 + 1” initiative. Kamilov was moreover important in helping to achieve an Uzbek-American rapprochement after the cooling of relations that followed the 2005 Andijan events.
Another indicator of Uzbekistan’s openness to improving ties with the US and the West was German Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s trip to Uzbekistan, during which plans for further cooperation within the military sector were discussed.
Tashkent and Washington had moved away sharply from one another in 2005, immediately after events in Andijan, and there appeared to be little space for reconciliation. As Western media outlets probed the events, Uzbekistan began to persecute international non-governmental organizations. The influential Soros Foundation headquartered in New York was expelled from the country in 2004, for instance.
But under refreshed circumstances Tashkent and Washington were once more able to find common ground. And, 10 years on from Andijan, it can be said that relations between the two countries have reached a new level. The visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was able to gather the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries in Samarkand, signified the peak of warming in US-Uzbek relations. It was here that the “P5+1” mechanism for Central Asian-American cooperation came into being. Almost immediately afterwards, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also visited to Uzbekistan.
Since then, media reports suggest blossoming relations, with Uzbek-US talks and meetings at different levels involving the participation of politicians, businessmen and public figures from the two countries. In particular, from December 2015 through April 2016 the quantity of such meetings increased dramatically. In January, for instance Washington held Uzbek-US political consultations, during which Foreign Minister Komilov held talks with US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal. Subsequently there were talks between Uzbekistan and the United States on defense and security in which First Deputy Minister of Defence of Uzbekistan Shavkat Normatov represented the Uzbek side.
In March and April 2016 a US delegation headed by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labour Eric Biel, as well as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum visited Tashkent. The primary areas of bilateral cooperation on the agenda were military cooperation, investment and contracts in science and technological development.
United by matters of security
Unsolved problems in neighboring Afghanistan give Tashkent reason to prioritize security issues. Uzbekistan accepted the withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan with great reluctance. For one, the withdrawal increases the likelihood of terrorist groups with scores to settle with Uzbekistan growing more active. But an even greater threat is now presented by the so-called “returnees” – young people who have gone to fight in hot spots such as Iraq and Syria. According to experts, the bulk of the extremist contingent from Central Asia in groups such as ISIS and IMU hails from the Fergana Valley. Moreover, Uzbekistan’s government has claimed to have suffered attacks and coup attempts at the hands of organized terrorist groups. With the ISIS terrorist network under greater military threat, jeopardizing funding for the extremists, many of the fighters are returning to their native land.
This problem, coupled with worsening water, energy and border problems in the region, has forced the Uzbek authorities to seriously upgrade its military-technical capabilities, with the United States happy to contribute to this strategic goal.
According to recent reports Tashkent has already reformed its army along Western lines, replacing uniforms and equipment. These changes began following the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. The US has cooperated closely with the Uzbek military through its regional NATO office in Tashkent, open since 2013. The office’s activities are aimed at strengthening NATO’s cooperation with the Central Asian countries, particularly with Tashkent.
The results of cooperation between Uzbekistan and the United States are there for all to see. In 2015, Uzbekistan received the lion’s share of US military assistance allocated to Central Asian countries. Central Asia specialist A.Shustov noted that in August last year, the Pentagon concluded a free supply agreement consisting of 328 modern armored vehicles (308 armored M-ATV vehicles and 20 Armoured Recovery Vehicles). The transfer of this technology was the biggest single act of United States military assistance to a Central Asian country in history.
Moreover, on June 29, 2015, the Committee for the Protection of the State Border of the National Security Service of Uzbekistan received 20 MAN TGM all-terrain vehicles for their border guards from the United States. Also, the NATO Office in Tashkent ushered in a new program to train officers of the Uzbek military English to ensure the armed forces of the republic participated actively in NATO events.
Public diplomacy ineffective
In contrast to other countries in the region, America lacks leverage over Uzbekistan’s civil society and media space since NGOs sponsored by the country are not active there. In other words, US influence there is limited to contacts at the official level, with well-known American non-governmental organisations unable to open up affiliates in Uzbekistan.
Official statistics from 2000 show 2,300 registered NGOs across Uzbekistan (including international NGOs). In subsequent years, the number of non-governmental organizations, both international and Uzbek, began to decline. After 2005, executive courts of Uzbekistan issued a ruling banning a number of international non-governmental organizations, including those that receive US funding such as “Freedom House”, “American Council for Collaboration in Education and Language Study”, “Internews Network”, “IREX”, “Eurasia Foundation”, “Counterpart International”, “Partnership in Academics and Development”, “Central Asian Free Exchange”, “Global Involvement Through Education”, “Urban Institute”, the American Bar Association (ABA / CEELI), Counterpart International, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Radio Liberty/Free Europe and other organizations.
In recent years Uzbek media has reported on improving conditions for NGOs and noted an increase in the number of such organizations. The Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan noted the existence of about 7,800 such organizations, reporting a 20% growth of NGOs over the last 4 years.
However, the vast majority of these “non-governmental organisations” receive money from the government budget, and thus are subject to local, rather than US, influence.
Yet there is one other aspect of relations that is interesting. Unlike other countries in the region, the Uzbek diaspora abroad is considered the most organized and numerous. As of 2014, about 60,000 ethnic Uzbeks are living in the United States. We cannot say that the Uzbek community in the United States form a sort of opposition to official Tashkent, but, nevertheless, they have gradually formed an alternative discourse. As a result, the number of people wishing to leave Uzbekistan for the United States is growing rapidly. This is an indicator of the positive view many in Uzbekistan hold of the United States.
Аnd what next…?
When considering relations between the US and Uzbekistan it is difficult to ignore the importance of a looming change of power in the Central Asian country. This concerns the US just as much as other external powers in the region. Washington has not always enjoyed warm relations with Islam Karimov but then again, the United States has always lacked the kind of leverage over the country’s domestic affairs enjoyed by Moscow.
In this sense, Islam Karimov’s relatively independent foreign policy has been beneficial for Washington, while the identity of his successor and that person’s attitude towards Washington remain significant unknowns. In recent years, shifts in domestic political alignments among Uzbek political factions have been common. But at present it seems a certain balance has been struck and there is no observable infighting between political heavyweights. Different experts offer different views regarding the likely identity and ambitions of Uzbekistan’s future president, but for the moment this is at best an exercise in speculation.
Western analysts note that Uzbekistan can take on an even more significant role for US diplomacy in the region, if the government in power after Karimov’s departure will be less repressive and more reform-orientated. In terms of broader regional security and US actions in Afghanistan, however, this country remains perhaps the most important of the five. And although the United States is working to reduce its involvement in Afghan affairs, as long as Washington is interested in ensuring the security of Afghanistan, Tashkent will remain an important partner.
Based on the above, it is clear that the United States is generally satisfied with Islam Karimov and his policy of keeping distance from Russia and other “centers of power”. Despite a cooling of relations after 2005, the parties have since managed to build a dialogue and Washington intends to achieve even closer cooperation, particularly in the military sphere. Frequent contact at the highest level shows that the Uzbek side is interested in deepening its relations with the United States. Given uncertainty over the issue of succession and the currently positive trajectory of Tashkent-Washington ties, the US government has no particular interest in a quick change of power in Uzbekistan.
Between Moscow and Washington
The list of official meetings of the government of Uzbekistan over the last two years show that Tashkent seeks to balance its rapprochement with the United States with fairly close ties to Moscow. During this period Islam Karimov has met several times with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Moscow, apparently, understands the complexity of the situation, as it observes Tashkent moving closer towards the West once more. A number of indicators suggest Russia is not willing to sit idly while this happens. One evidence of Moscow’s desire to keep Tashkent in its sphere of influence is the recent decision to write off Uzbekistan’s debts to the country. In April this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law on ratifying an agreement with Uzbekistan on the cancellation of a debt to Moscow worth around $865 million. Currently, Russia is Uzbekistan’s second largest trade partner, sandwiched between China and Kazakhstan, while the US is only the Central Asian country’s 115th largest trade partner.
Put simply, as a state located in Central Asia, Uzbekistan will never be able to ignore Moscow and Beijing, its pivot towards the West notwithstanding.
In addition, Tashkent has a special relationship with Astana, which, in our opinion, the Uzbeks consider very important. The similarities between the positions of the leaders of the two countries lends itself towards a pattern of closer dialogue between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, while Nursultan Nazarbayev’s recent visit to Uzbekistan provides further hope for an “Astana-Tashkent” axis. If the leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are able to find a formula for genuinely close cooperation, they will be able to build their relations with various “centers of power” more easily.
US strategy in Central Asia at this stage is gradually taking on new forms. We cannot say that the goals and interests of Washington in the region have changed dramatically. However, it can be argued that Washington’s approach towards implementation of its regional policy in Central Asia has changed.
With the new “C5 + 1” formula, Central Asia-US relations seem to have received new impetus in their development. The appearance of this formula was precipitated by a significant warming of relations between Washington and Tashkent. Uzbekistan today represents the White House’s key partner in the region.
This analysis has highlighted that the partnership between the United States and the Republic of Uzbekistan lacks a solid foundation and is most likely temporary in nature. US-Uzbekistan relations have no basis in terms of close economic and trade relations or cooperation in the field of culture. Accordingly, Uzbekistan has not experienced a strong dependence on the US. For this very same reason, Uzbek-US relations could go on the wane at any point in the near future.
For the moment, however, we see how the interests of the two countries as a whole coincide and both countries use this. The US needs a close partner in the region with a more or less independent foreign policy. This country, at present, is Uzbekistan, which is able to keep sufficient distance from Russia. Having suspended its participation in EurAsEC and the CSTO, while ruling out joining the Eurasian Economic Union, Tashkent became noticeably more attractive in the eyes of the West.
Uzbekistan, in turn, uses its US ties to boost its defence capacity. Taking advantage of the withdrawal of troops and weapons from Afghanistan, Tashkent tends to get most of its weapons and equipment from NATO. As of today Uzbekistan has already received a considerable amount of equipment from the Americans.
Uzbekistan and the United States have some potential to become strategic partners with long-term interests. However, contradictions in the relationship across a range of subject areas remain. The West and particularly the United States, has been heavily critical of the Uzbek authorities on the subject of human rights violations in the country. The United States also continues to support projects that contradict Uzbekistan’s interests, such as “CASA-1000”, a regional electricity project involving Tashkent’s upstream neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Another obstacle to Uzbek-US cooperation can be seen in Tashkent’s ties to Beijing. The key advantage for Uzbekistan of cooperation with China is the lack of demands regarding political freedom and the other human rights. At the same time Beijing offers the same financial opportunities as the United States, and is always prepared to allocate them towards its close partners in the region. But China has its own vested interests in Uzbekistan [see. more info: http://analytics.cabar.asia/ru/rol-i-mesto-uzbekistana-v-tsentralnoaziatskoj-politike-kitaya/].
In summary it should be noted that Uzbekistan’s foreign policy strategy of maintaining equidistance from major actors in the region as a whole is quite successful. However, it seems that it would be most appropriate and desirable for Uzbekistan to implement a policy more geared towards regional integration. And a solid basis for such a project would be a Kazakh-Uzbek alliance.
 Terrorists of the ‘Islamic State’ Attempted to Enter National Territory – Government of Uzbekistan (乌兹别克斯坦情报部门：伊斯兰国脱逃武装分子试图进入该) http://sputniknews.cn/society/20151030/1016826170.html (25.02.2016\
 US Expands Military Assistance to Central Asia http://www.ng.ru/courier/2016-04-11/11_asia.html
Author: Ruslan Izimov, leading sinologist (Kazakhstan, Astana).
The author’s opinion may not reflect the views of cabar.asia.