Uzbekistan and Russia: Cooperation at Arm’s Length


2012-10-27 By Richard Weitz

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the leaders of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, supported various measures to preserve economic, security, and other ties with the other former Soviet republics.

Uzbekistan was a founding signer of the May 1992 Collective Security Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Tashkent, where it was signed.

But in a few years Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov, who began leading Uzbekistan during the end of the Soviet era as an ally of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and other Uzbekistani officials came to see little value in regional integration schemes that were never implemented due to the weakness of the multinational institutions in the former Soviet space, especially the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as the continuing economic and security turmoil in most of these legacy countries.

In 1999, Uzbekistan did not renew its participation in the Tashkent Treaty, when it was to be renewed.

Instead, Tashkent joined Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova in the GUUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, a pro-Western block of former Soviet republics. Uzbekistan also began to align itself more closely with NATO countries. Uzbekistan was the first Central Asian state to offer the Pentagon basing rights after 9/11.

Uzbekistan has a troubled relationship with NATO. And a difficult strategic relationship with Moscow. But is is an important region strategically. Credit Image: Bigstock 

The Uzbekistani government largely stood aside during the formation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2002 and 2003. The organization comprised the most pro-Moscow governments of the CIS: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as well as the Russian Federation.

The original declared focus of the CSTO was to counter external military aggression against member countries, but its members have since expanded its mandate for a wider range of possible missions. The CSTO now has programs to counter terrorism, Internet extremism, illegal immigration, narcotics trafficking, and other transnational organized criminal activities. Its members also pledge to coordinate their foreign and defense policies, including not to accept foreign military bases without the approval of all other members. CSTO members issue joint statements concerning various international security issues such as missile defense, Iran, and Syria. These statements almost alway coincide with Moscow’s position.

It was only after Tashkent broke with NATO in May 2005 over the Uzbekistani military crackdown in Andijan that Uzbekistan decided to join the CSTO in June 2006.

In November 2005, Presidents Karimov and Putin signed a mutual cooperation agreement in Moscow. Uzbekistan also agreed to join the main Moscow-led regional economic organization in the region, joining the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) in January 2006, and commit to selling Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, large quantities of natural gas at a low price.

However, Tashkent never was comfortable remaining so close to Moscow.

The Uzbekistani government refused to ratify many CSTO agreements or integrate Uzbekistan fully into the organization. Uzbekistan resisted Russian-backed initiatives to strengthen the CSTO, and Uzbekistani officials skipped important CSTO meetings, citing their ineffectiveness.

Notwithstanding Tashkent’s opposition, Moscow proceeded to push for a relaxation of the CSTO’s consensus decision-making procedures (weakening Uzbekistan’s veto powers). Russia also pushed to develop a new rapid reaction force that could intervene in Central Asia to fight terrorists and support CSTO-led mediation and peacekeeping efforts between CSTO members in conflict. Moscow’s attempts to secure additional bases in southern Kyrgyzstan, where many ethnic Uzbeks had recently been attacked by the dominant ethnic Kyrgyz majority, only poured salt into Uzbek wounds.

Tashkent eventually ended its CSTO membership in June 2012.

Uzbekistan cited its objections to the creation of the 20,000 person CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces and amendments to the CSTO charter allowing military action in response to more security crises, including domestic and civil problems, based on a majority vote of CSTO members. Karimov has also indicated he will not soon join Putin’s proposed Eurasian Inion of former Soviet republics.

Russians worried that that, outside the CSTO, Uzbekistan no longer needs the approval of all the other members to allow NATO to establish bases on its territory.

But Tashkent moved quickly to reassure Moscow that it would continue to collaborate with Russia bilaterally and within the CIS, a less constraining multinational institution than the CSTO. The Uzbekistani Defense Ministry made the point of attending a meeting of the CIS Defense Ministers Council in Kaliningrad in July. The Uzbekistani legislature also enacted legislation prohibiting foreign bases on national territory.

In any case, Russian-Uzbekistani economic ties remain strong.

Russia is Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner. According to the State Statistics Committee of Uzbekistan, its share of the country’s trade turnover was 24.3% during this reporting period. Uzbekistan’s total turnover in January-September 2011 amounted to $18.874 billion ($7.757 billion with other CIS countries) The trade between Russia and Uzbekistan grew by 5.64% year-on-year in January-September 2011, to $4.591 billion. During this period, Uzbekistan exported $2.927 billion worth of goods and imported $1.664 billion.GM Uzbekistan was the tenth largest seller of cars in Russia during January-October 2011 period.

The Russian company Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) claims that Uzbek authorities unfairly deprived MTS of its subsidiary Uzdunrobita, a $700-million concern that MTS bought in 2004.

But Lukoil, the largest foreign direct investor in Uzbekistan, is eager to help develop the country’s natural gas industry.

According to the Uzbekistani government, only one fourth of the country’s total hydrocarbon resources have been extracted. Lukoil’s four concessions (Southwest Gissar, Aral, Kungrad and Kandym-Khauzak-Shady) account for 54% of Lukoil’s total marketable gas output outside Russia. The company recently announced a major discovery at its Shurdarye field.Another constraint on Tashkent regarding Moscow is the presence of a large number of Uzbek migrant laborers in Russia, who are vulnerable to persecution and expulsion.

Putin traveled to Tashkent in early June for a summit with Karimov.

Two documents were signed at the meting: a declaration on deepening the Russia-Uzbekistan strategic partnership and a memorandum of understanding on Uzbekistan’s accession to the free trade zone that was established by most CIS members on October 18, 2011. According to the latter document, Tashkent would close negotiations on its accession to the free trade zone by the end of 2012 and joins the zone from 2013 on.

For Russia it is important to enhance its relations with Tashkent after a four year long stagnation.

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia. Furthermore, its central geographical location makes the country of key importance, especially for current Russian efforts to promote regional integration in the post-Soviet region.

Without Uzbekistan’s participation, Russia cannot develop direct economic ties with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which have already expressed their intention to join the Russian-Belarusian-Kazakh Customs Union.

Tashkent, above all, is eager to retain good security relations with Moscow for now while Uzbekistani policymakers grapple with the problems presented by the impending NATO military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

At their June summit in Tashkent, Karimov and Putin urged NATO to accelerate its efforts to strengthen the Afghanistan National Security Forces to avoid creating a regional security vacuum by its departure.