Tashkent approaches the US, but does so very carefully

Abdulaziz Kamilov and Nisha Biswal
Abdulaziz Kamilov and Nisha Biswal

The US is discussing the issue of Uzbekistan joining the coalition against the terrorist group Daesh. The Tashkent authorities make it clear that the government country remains a non-aligned state, it won’t join any military-political unions or coalitions and won’t allow foreign military bases or facilities to be built on its territory.

On January 20-21 the sixth round of the annual Uzbek-American political consultations took place in Washington. The Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan, Abdulaziz Kamilov, and the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Biswal, discussed the situation in Afghanistan, problems of bilateral relations and human rights. Experts do not rule out that the issue of Uzbekistan joining the US coalition against Daesh was discussed at the meeting. They probably touched on both military support and cooperation in the financial sphere, including prevention of money flows from Uzbekistan to Daesh. “The US is intensifying its policy against Daesh. And now it is ready to extend cooperation with all the main partners; and President Barack Obama has recently spoken about this. The American military traditionally considers Uzbekistan to be a key partner in Central Asia,” Andrei Kazantsev, the Director of the Analytical Center of IMI MGIMO, PhD (Politics), told Vestnik Kavkaza.

However, President Islam Karimov, predicting possible speculations about Uzbekistan joining the US coalition, stated on Defender of the Motherland Day on January 14th that he wouldn’t allow military bases to be built on the territory of Uzbekistan. “Our military doctrine has a defensive nature. The strengthening of the armed forces of the country is aimed at protecting its national sovereignty, territorial integrity, peace and the calm life of our people,” the Uzbek President said, stressing that Uzbekistan won’t join any military-political unions or coalitions and won’t allow foreign military bases or facilities to be built on its territory.

According to experts, there are reasons for such a harsh statement.

The first reason. “The specificity of the current Uzbek-American talks is that soon the administration will change in the US. Therefore, all signed agreements will have to be confirmed again. President Barack Obama and his team need at least symbolic foreign political successes ahead of their resignation. And Uzbekistan is no exception. The country is very important for the whole region of Central Asia, including its potential for influence in the north of Afghanistan,” Ivan Yippolitov, a scientist of the Central Asian Sector in the Center for the Study of Problems of Post-Soviet Countries at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, told Vestnik Kavkaza. Rafik Sayfulin, a political scientist from Uzbekistan, also believes that “regular Uzbek-American consultations are another time check. Obama’s administration, which is already ready to leave office, has to leave some kind of positive heritage,” Sayfulin told Vestnik Kavkaza.

The second reason: Tashkent is interested in military-political cooperation with the US due to the alarming situation in Afghanistan. “Despite long-standing promises, the Americans are not leaving Afghanistan; they will stay there for a long time as a powerful military force. Moreover, Uzbekistan needs the economic support, considering the difficult situation: world gas prices and metal prices have fallen; cotton prices are unstable – these resources are the basis of the republic’s exports. The volume of cash transfers by Uzbekistan’s citizens who work abroad to their homeland has fallen. There are problems with selling products of the Uzbek automobile industry and so on,” Yippolitov stated.

According Sayfulin, the US is slow to invest in Uzbekistan’s economy. And we shouldn’t expect investments in the future. As for the military and technical cooperation, the Uzbek expert says that it shouldn’t be overestimated, nor should the prospects of its extension. “A Kalashnikov is still more reliable than an M-16,” Rafik Sayfulin said.

Ivan Yippolitov also thinks that we shouldn’t expect a sudden turn in Uzbek-American relations. “It is more about the maneuvering of the sides, which are looking for mutually beneficial cooperation,” Yippolitov believes. At the same time, the expert is sure that “Uzbekistan is a complicated political partner for the US, considering the practical impossibility of realizing US demands in the ideological sphere. Of course, Tashkent remembers Washington’s direct support of the Islamic riot in Andijan, the tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and so on.” By the way, ahead of the consultations, Human Rights Watch made a statement and urged the US to put pressure on Uzbekistan due to the worsening treatment of political prisoners.

Andrei Kazantsev also thinks that after the Andijan riot, which was considered by the Uzbek authorities to be due to US influence, Tashkent is approaching the US very carefully. At the same time, they have a task not to spoil relations with China and Russia and avoiding US influence which would lead to demands for democratization of the regime. Moreover, Tashkent fears support for the opposition.

Nevertheless, the unstable and unpredictable situation in Afghanistan is a serious and multifaceted threat to the security of all countries of Central Asia. It demands active action. “However, it must be taken into account that modern Uzbekistan is a major, clearly managed, and stable state with regionally powerful armed forces and special services. They have practical experience in fighting Islamist bandits and riots,” Yippolitov stressed. That’s why Tashkent is taking it slowly to count on US support. Moreover, Rafik Sayfulin notes that, unlike neighboring countries where consolidation of regimes is taking place due to the crisis, Karimov’s strategic line is different in today's context. He doesn’t want to appoint a successor, but wants to prepare a system where a successor will appear. “But no Islamists! They have spent too much time taking off the yashmac to put it on again!” the expert stresses.