Books on Uzbekistan
Update No: 328 - (28/04/08)
The basic dilemma - who leads Central Asia?
The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, is in a quandary. He feels his
inferiority to his counterpart in Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev at every
point. He is not sitting atop vast oil and gas reserves, indeed 60% of the FSU's
mineral reserves, and a vibrant, dynamic economy notching up 10% GDP growth
rates per annum, as is Nazarbayev.
They as absolute rulers are the last two holdovers from the USSR left in Central
Asia, indeed the FSU. The Uzbek leader, however, has not really managed to
re-invent himself, unlike Nazarbayev. He faces a far graver problem of Islamic
extremism, next to neighbouring Afghanistan, which he is exacerbating by
ferocious repression. The dictum that the blood of martyrs is the life-blood of
the faith is apparently unknown to him.
Karimov is aware that Nazarbayev has designs for his republic to become the
regional super-power. This he deeply resents. Uzbekistan, he feels, along with
nearly all Uzbeks, is the rightful centre geographically and historically of
Central Asia. It certainly has the great historic monuments of the region, as is
well known, Samarkand, Bokhara, et al, astride the ancient Silk Road. It was in
its city of Tashkent, the capital of Tsarist 'Turkestan'.
But it hasn't got that oil, etc.
Uzbek president pays an official visit to Kazakhstan
There was tension in the air then when Karimov paid an official visit to
Kazakhstan on April 22-23.
For all the rivalry between the two giants of former Soviet Central Asia there
is great scope for economic cooperation. According to the official data, trade
turnover between two countries in 2007 made up USD1,4 billion; in 2006 the index
was amounted to USD703 million. The growth of the bilateral goods turnover has
doubled in the last two years.
This can only help the struggling Uzbek economy, still hide-bound in Soviet
regulatory state-owned mode. It is more than likely that the Uzbeks will have to
accept the economic ascendancy of Kazakhstan over their fortunes, at first
economically and then geopolitically. They just lack the resources to compete.
The two presidents uttered the usual bromides in public on such occasions. It
would be interesting to know what was said in private.
Perhaps both bemoaning the lack of an obvious heir to the 'family business'? But
that of course was not divulged.
Karimov the key to Afghan imbroglio
Karimov and Putin seek new cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan.
Karimov did something unusual in April. He went to Europe for the first time
since Andijon, the infamous massacre on May 13, 2003 in the eastern Ferghana
Valley. Relations with the West rapidly deteriorated afterwards. The US was
obliged to pull out of its base on the Afghan border.
But Uzbekistan is just too strategically important to be be put in the deep
freeze for good. The West has been putting out feelers for some time,
particularly the Europeans.
The crunch came with the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2-4, which Karimov
attended. Afghanistan remains the key test for NATO and its long-term
credibility, at least for now. Uzbekistan cannot possibly be ignored here.
As Afghanistan was being addressed among its members, Russia and Uzbekistan made
offers of potentially far-reaching significance, the importance of which may be
lost in the early stages of consideration among key NATO members, as national
planning staffs grapple with a range of interrelated issues involving engagement
with both these states. President Putin’s offer of a humanitarian land
corridor, providing non-military support, not to be confused with the continuing
counter-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, was cemented on April 4 with an
agreement signed between NATO and Russia and with an additional re-commitment to
the relevance of NATO’s Russia Council, in promoting discussion and finding
possible solutions to problems.
Karimov arguably presented the most practical offer to come from Central Asia in
the past few years for cooperation with the alliance on Afghanistan. The offer
of increased cooperation with the West must be considered as a result of a
careful, painstaking Uzbek assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan
and the weaknesses of the existing approaches of multilateral structures, which
need to be revitalized and to find new ways of practical cooperation over
President Karimov offered several related initiatives to NATO in the areas of
defense, security, ecological and humanitarian matters. He emphasized a broad
range of security challenges from non-proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction (WMD), to terrorism and drug trafficking.
Specifically, Karimov offered to use the existing bilateral Uzbek-German
agreement for the transit of humanitarian supplies through the strategically
important border junction at Termez and transform this into an additional
agreement with NATO. His speech contained, however, a crucial caveat: "At
the same time, the sovereign interests in maintaining the security and
legislation of our country must be observed."
Karimov said that stabilization of Afghanistan was fundamental for Central Asia,
both socially and economically. He elaborated a series of factors necessary for
improving the security situation in Afghanistan: resolving social and economic
problems, promoting trust on the part of locals towards the international
coalition forces, stemming the supply of drugs, respecting traditional religious
and cultural values including those of national minorities, minimizing attacks
on Islam, consistently implementing reforms, and promoting cross-border
cooperation with Pakistan.
He called for re-establishing the 6+2 contact group on Afghanistan, which
included the representatives of states bordering Afghanistan and the US and
Russia but which fell into disuse after 2001. Karimov suggested this could be
transformed into a 6+3 configuration, involving NATO in its consultations.
Tashkent recognizes that stabilization in Afghanistan is not likely to happen
soon and will require consistent commitment to a gradual process that emphasizes
demilitarization, re-orientating people to a peaceful way of life, solving
social and economic problems and gradually and effectively implementing reforms.
Western interest in Karimov’s offer relates to the possible extension of the
transit corridor into Afghanistan, based on the existing agreement with Berlin.
It should, however, be noted that with Karimov’s offer of cooperation with
NATO and his readiness to reciprocate NATO’s renewed interest in Uzbekistan,
was an offer to promote discussions, which could include more practical security
There are problems, of course, in the West. Any efforts toward reengagement with
Uzbekistan will inevitably bring to the surface those who want political issues
high on the agenda, from human rights issues to the promotion of Western-style
democracy. It is no secret that they will use such topics to reinforce
scepticism about Tashkent, thus making the prospect of such cooperation less
likely. If NATO responds positively to Karimov’s offer, it will open the
prospect of NATO pursuing an agenda with Uzbekistan that is at odds with, or
accelerating faster than EU policy, which has diluted sanctions in place on
Tashkent. Within the EU there is the prospect of a public split over Uzbekistan.
Karimov’s first visit to Europe since Andijan is not only symbolic, it marks a
turning point. Some may describe it as rapprochement with NATO, which, despite
contrary ideas and misconceptions, is not entirely out of step with Moscow’s
stance. Tashkent would like to facilitate genuine cooperation that promotes real
security in Afghanistan and more widely in Central Asia. What many observers
have failed to note is the parallel between Moscow’s and Tashkent’s offers
of a corridor to NATO. Russia has signed such an agreement with the alliance,
which immediately raises the issue with Uzbekistan, since all such cargo would
go through Termez. In other words, the workability of the one offer may depend
on the other. Tashkent alone holds the key to this issue.
A new atmosphere of cooperation is possible, though not inevitable at this
stage. But nonetheless a window of opportunity has been presented by NATO’s
partners (Russia and Uzbekistan).
Western coverage of the NATO-Russia transit agreement focused on the continuing
differences with Moscow. In this context, it requires a degree of reassessment
on the part of western planning staffs, a new attitude to diplomacy towards this
strategically vital part of the world, which has not been the strong point of
Western policy over the past few years. Karimov’s offer to the alliance must
not be misunderstood, misrepresented, or seen in isolation from the deal with
Moscow. Now is not the time for the old cold warriors to bellow and snort. It is
more than just Tashkent that will scrutinize the West’s response to such