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Books on Uzbekistan

Update No: 378 - (28/07/12)

Uzbekistan is pursuing an isolationist policy amid the perceived threat to its sovereignty as the US and NATO withdraw from Afghanistan and Moscow tries to exert more influence in Central Asia.

On June 24, Uzbekistan suspended its membership to the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). In a letter to the CSTO, Uzbekistan said that it is ignored by the bloc and its opinions aren't listened to by other members.

The alliance, which is billed as an anti-terrorism organisation, was established in 1992 and includes six former Soviet republics, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. More puff than presence, the CSTO occasionally conducts military exercises, but the alliance is not a solid defence treaty. Uzbekistan has never been an active member of the alliance and has never participated in CSTO military exercises, so while Tashkent's move could be construed as a blow to military cooperation in Central Asia, the impact will be more subtle. Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, says the CSTO is “purely symbolic”.

“The CSTO is mainly a symbol of Russia's aspiration to become a great power and to be regarded as the leader of a bloc,” Socor says. “Russia has its own bilateral relationships with each member country of the CSTO. It follows the model of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact, which was similarly the sum total of bilateral relationships between Moscow and each individual member country. Conversely, individual member countries do not have bilateral relations [in the area of collective security among] themselves. Only Moscow has that privilege.”

The CSTO offers weapons and other types of military equipment to member countries at the prices of Russian manufacturing. However, such arms deliveries are limited to small, selected anti-terrorism units from the armed forces of each member country. The only exception is Armenia, to which Russia delivers arms and military equipment for the entire armed forces.

According to Socor, even the “anti-terrorism” exercises that select units from each SCTO member state go on are nothing to write home about. “Those exercises are conducted under an anti-terrorism label but this is a misnomer because these are conventional-force exercises,” he said. “They are in no sense exercises of rapid-deployment forces or of units specialising in anti-terrorism warfare.”

But that could change – or the perception of the CSTO could change – once NATO and US forces leave Afghanistan in 2014. The CSTO is not an internationally recognised alliance and Russia and the other CSTO countries would like to receive official recognition from NATO, the US and other Western players. Following the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan, it is expected that the CSTO will have a larger role to play in Central Asia and could gain greater prestige, giving Russia more sway on the international military arena.

Socor says, “The Russians will whip up the perception of threats emanating from Afghanistan to Central Asia in order to close the ranks of CSTO member countries around Russia. They will certainly play up the perception of threats from Afghanistan and will try to create a more tightly organised structure within the CSTO countries around Russia. In this sense, Uzbekistan's move to quit the CSTO might be a precautionary move, anticipating such moves on Moscow's part. It probably wants to be out of the danger zone and not to be subjected to pressures that would limit Uzbekistan's sovereignty.”

That seems likely. Uzbek president Islam Karimov has pursued an isolationist policy throughout the 20 years he has been in power. Whether directly hostile or twitchily tolerant, Karimov has treated his neighbours with extreme caution. As NATO and the US withdraw from Afghanistan he appears to be putting up his guard in the face of potential Russian dominance in Central Asia and instability in the region. On June 27, authorities in Uzbekistan said that they had reintroduced exit visa regimes for Uzbek nationals travelling to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Since gaining independence in 1991, Tashkent has continued the Soviet policy of requiring that Uzbek citizens who want to leave the country obtain an exit visa. The government previously abolished the exit visa regime for Uzbeks who want to visit states of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, which includes Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and no reason has been given for back-tracking on that agreement with those countries.

As well as battening down the hatches to prevent outside interference, the Uzbek authorities are also watching their backs within their own country. On June 30, opposition groups met in Prague to discuss how best to oust Islam Karimov. The People's Movement of Uzbekistan has taken inspiration from the Arab Spring and opposition against Karimov among exiles is mounting.

To protect his position, Karimov is hoping to become better armed by America. Uzbekistan has by far the strongest armed forces in Central Asia and Karimov would like to keep it that way so he wants the United States and NATO forces to leave some of their equipment in Uzbekistan when they make their way back to Europe. The issue hasn't been settled yet, but the US has already said that it may well leave some non-lethal equipment, such as communications gear and night-vision goggles, in Uzbekistan.

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