By Emre Tunc Sakaoglu
Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan has been recalled in the past decade for its ambivalent attitude toward international treaties and agreements by which it fails to cooperate with as expected, in accordance with its liabilities. According to the official policy guidelines of the regime, the Uzbek government wishes to signal its neutrality in the region to the international pubic, and seeks to achieve a balance between its relations with Russia, China and the West in order to preserve a wider foreign policy vision. However, in terms of confidence building through foreign policy moves, Uzbekistan seems to follow an inconsistent line in international relations which harms its reputation region-wide.
The question of whether Uzbekistan is a reliable partner recently reemerged with the news coming from a meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) military officials last week. Faridun Makhmadaliev, a press secretary for the Tajik Defense Ministry, told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that Uzbekistan will be absent from the counterterrorism drills to be held under the banner of the SCO this summer at the Choruqdagon military training grounds in northern Tajikistan. Uzbekistan joined the “Shanghai Five” in 2001, five years after the organization was founded, as the most recent state and the only one which is not a founding member as well.
Uzbekistan was also a former member of the Collective Security Treaty, whose member profile and aim to maintain security and stability in Central Asia collide in general with the domain of the SCO. As a member of the CST, Uzbekistan declined to join the CSTO which was born out of CST in 1999. Later on, the Uzbek government decided to join the pro-Western GUAM initially as a measure to maintain Uzbekistan’s foreign policy inclination toward the West. However in 2005, the Uzbek government suddenly decided to close the American airbase (K2) in the country, which was a significant stronghold for NATO operations ongoing in Afghanistan and a symbol of cooperation between Uzbekistan and the West. The Karimov government then applied to join the de facto Russian-led CSTO as a counter move against the American support for regime change in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and the critical attitude of the U.S. and OSCE toward Karimov’s strict measures against insurgents during the events in Andijan the same year. Moreover, since the EU and U.S. began imposing economic sanctions on Uzbekistan after the events of Andijan, Karimov decided to join the Eurasian Economic Community (EURASEC), also a Russian-led initiative, created as a counterpart to the EU and emerging free trade areas in general, within the ex-Soviet sphere of influence.
Uzbekistan raised further suspicion about its prospects for cooperation within an international platform when it refused to sign a free trade agreement under the roof of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While this certainly seemed to be an acceptable stance adopted by the Uzbek government, as a member of the CIS Uzbekistan furthermore still does not participate in the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the CIS. Also among the few states which skipped the 2009 meetings of the CIS as a protest against Russia’s military intervention in Georgia, Uzbekistan suspended its EURASEC membership in 2008, just three years after its accession as the most recent member. The Karimov government advanced the argument that the Community was inefficient and unsatisfactory for the emerging economic needs of Uzbekistan. It is also thought-provoking that the decision to withdraw from active membership was made right after the EU lifted a considerable deal of economic sanctions on Uzbekistan.
Regional Conflicts as a Pretext
The ambivalent position of Uzbekistan with respect to various platforms of cooperation with global and regional powers seems to emerge out of concerns regarding conflicts of interest between Uzbekistan and its neighbors Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. For instance, the Uzbek government was firmly opposing Russian plans for the inauguration of a second military base in Kyrgyzstan in 2009. Kyrgyz leaders expected to reap considerable benefits from the presence of the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force in southern Kyrgyzstan as a result of the construction of the new military base. In particular, the presence of a base would help strengthen Kyrgyz sovereignty at a time when the country was proceeding with plans to build the controversial Kambarata hydroelectric power plant on the Naryn River. It is a well-known fact that hydrocarbon-rich Uzbekistan, mountainous and relatively poor Kyrgyzstan as well as Tajikistan frequently tussle over electricity. In a similar fashion, relations between the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which will host the SCO’s “Peace Mission 2012” exercises in June, have been tense for some time.