By Paul Goble
Even if conditions in post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus are so different from those in the Arab world that a repetition of an Arab Spring there remains unlikely, the authoritarian rulers in these two regions are sufficiently nervous about popular unrest that they are looking to Moscow for possible support in the event of disorders.
Indeed, according to an article by Viktoriya Panfilova in “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Russian and Uzbek experts say that the possibility of Russian support under such circumstances will be the focus of talks during President Dmitry Medvedev’s meetings with his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent next week (www.ng.ru/cis/2011-06-08/7_karimov.html).
Aleksey Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center explicitly says that “during the negotiations in Tashkent, Islam Karimov will seek to clarify how and to what extent Russia can support Uzbekistan,” an issue that has become more important to the Uzbek leader since the meeting of the Uzbek opposition in Berlin.
“Karimov does not fear the actions of the opposition,” Malashenko says. “Uzbekistan is not Egypt but nevertheless he understands that life is changing. And in this changed environment,” the US is changing its relations with key allies such as Israel. Consequently, for Karimov, “it is important to understand how Moscow will conduct itself.”
That is all the more important for the Uzbek leader because in recent weeks, there have been several developments in Moscow which raise concerns for him. The Duma has discussed introducing a visa requirement for Uzbeks and other Central Asians, and the Russian media have featured articles about Andijan, where Karimov forcibly suppressed his opponents.
At the same time, Panfilova reports, other Russian experts, including Yevgeny Boyko, say that the Uzbek leader has reason for concern about where the West is heading regarding him and his regime. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recently called for an end to assistance to Tashkent until Karimov guarantees freedom of religion.
This conjunction of Russian and American commentary, Malashenko says, means that Karimov may now be afraid of “the possibility of the development of a more consolidated position between Washington and Moscow concerning his own person,” a joint position that he may fear would threaten his political survival.
Boyko agrees, given that the situation of the Central Asian countries and particularly of Uzbekistan has often been profoundly affected by US-Russian relations. Consequently, the “Nezavismaya gazeta” writer suggests, he may seek to try to restore ties with Russia in order to reinsure his regime.
That is all the more so because the US is likely to pull its forces out of Afghanistan in the medium term and thus be less interested or willing to support Karimov’s regime. Moscow thus could be an increasingly important prop, but Moscow, other analysts say, will want a demonstration of loyalty, including the flow of gas northward to Russia rather than to Asia.
Many commentaries have speculated about the possible spread of the Arab Spring to the authoritarian states of the post-Soviet region, but it may be the case in many of these countries that the fears of the incumbent elites about such a political development will play a more important role in the geopolitics of the area than will any “disorders” that may arise.
Indeed, the fears of elites in these countries about challenges from below may drive them into the hands of Russia or open a new set of opportunities for China given that neither Moscow nor Beijing will put as high a value on human rights as the West, and that geopolitical opportunity is likely to be at the center of discussions in those two capitals as well.