Uzbekistan After Karimov: A Potential Power Vacuum in a Key Region


2016-09-05 By Richard Weitz

With the death of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, the country’s political leaders are in the process of deciding who will be Kasimov’s successor.

Predicting the country’s future leadership is difficult given that Karimov has been the country’s only president since Uzbekistan gained independence on August 31, 1991.

A 2015 photo of the recently deceased President of Uzbekistan. Credit: AP
A 2015 photo of the recently deceased President of Uzbekistan. Credit: AP

There is great uncertainty over whether, when and how Karimov’s successor might pursue domestic and foreign policies that differ from Karimov.

What is clear is that Uzbekistan’s political transition could have major implications for Eurasian security.

Uzbekistan has the largest population of the five Central Asian countries.

Furthermore, many ethnic Uzbeks reside in neighboring countries, making it likely that any internal instability in Uzbekistan would spill across the national boundaries.

Conversely, Uzbekistan also is the only Central Asian country to border the other four states, which has allowed Uzbekistan to block regional economic and political integration efforts that lack Tashkent’s backing.

Under Karimov, who prioritized Uzbekistan’s national autonomy and regime stability, Tashkent has generally opposed regional integration schemes.

A frustrating early experience trying to promote cooperation within the dysfunctional Commonwealth of Independent States has reinforced Tashkent’s skepticism regarding the likely benefits of regional integration schemes.

Karimov has pursued a strongly autonomous foreign policy grounded in realist principles and a prioritization of national sovereignty.

Uzbek policy makers have thus far relied primarily on their powerful internal security complex to suppress domestic terrorist groups.

Uzbekistan is also reshaping its military into a leaner counterterrorist-focused force in line with the country’s National Security doctrine, which defines the major threats to Uzbekistan’s national security as international terrorism and Islamic extremism.

Meanwhile, Uzbek diplomats insist that the inseparability of Central Asia from Afghanistan require greater international efforts to resolve that country’s internal conflict.

Uzbekistan stands as a “front-line” state regarding the war in Afghanistan. Not only does it have a 137 km-border with Afghanistan, but many ethnic Uzbeks reside in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan has helped the Afghan government by supplying significant economic assistance, including electricity.

Uzbekistan has also helped construct Afghanistan’s transportation, telecommunications and other national infrastructure, including the country’s first national railway line.

However, Uzbek experts worry that the Afghan government and military lacks the strength to suppress the Taliban insurgency.

They also fear that instability will continue to spill across Afghanistan’s borders—in the form of narcotics and human trafficking as well as transnational terrorists and refugees–given its close ties with its Central Asian neighbors.

Under Karimov, Uzbekistan has pushed for a”6+3 proposal” in which Russia, China, ad NATO would join China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to conduct direct negotiations between the Afghan government and so-called moderate members of the Taliban. The Afghan government and other countries, such as India, has opposed this proposal.

Until the Afghan conflict is resolved, Uzbek leaders would likely continue pursuing a border buffer zone by supporting their allies in the Northern Alliance, whose coalition of non-Pashtun warlords offered the main resistance to the Taliban in the 1990s.

Under Karimov, the country has tried to sustain its national security and autonomy by avoiding close ties with any foreign actor.

In particular, Uzbekistan has refused to permit Russia to have military bases on its territory and has tried to maintain a U.S. and Chinese presence in Central Asia to help balance Moscow’s influence.

Given its large population and pivotal location, Uzbekistan’s refusal to ally with Russia, China, or the United States has prevented any of these countries from dominating Central Asia.


In contrast with the other Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan does not border Russia or China, which gives Tashkent greater manoeuvring room.

Uzbekistan’s ties with some of its Central Asian neighbors have at times been tense due to disputes over water rights, regional integration proposals, or other issues.

In particular, Uzbekistan objects to Tajikistan’s construction of the Rogun Dam and other major hydroelectric projects.

Whereas Uzbeks use Central Asian water resources for irrigation, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been constructing dams to generate electricity from controlled water flows.

Since Uzbekistan has the largest population in Central Asia, its neighbors have also occasionally feared its aspiration for regional hegemony.

But Uzbekistan’s emphasis on sustaining its national autonomy approach has made Tashkent a major impediment to Moscow’s drive to reassert its control over the region.

Ties with Moscow have also been tense due to Uzbekistan’s refusal to join Russian-led multinational institutions, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Under Karimov, Uzbekistan adopted a Foreign Policy Concept that states Uzbekistan will not join politico-military blocs or host foreign military bases on its territory.

Karimov’s ties with Washington have been tense due to U.S. criticism over Uzbekistan’s human rights abuses and Uzbek criticism that U.S. policy is naïve in presuming that Central Asian countries could become liberal democracies.

For a few years after the U.S. military intervened in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and the United States had a strong military partnership. In particular, Uzbekistan allowed the United States and its NATO allies to use the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) air base and other former Soviet military bases to support limited combat operations in Afghanistan.

But when the Karimov government suppressed anti-regime protests in Andijon in 2005, and U.S. diplomats supported the asylum claims of some protesters who had fled to neighboring countries, Uzbekistan ordered the removal of all U.S. military forces from its territory.

Relations have recovered since then. Uzbekistan has joined other Central Asian governments in allowing the United States and other Western countries to send supplies through Uzbekistan’s territory to the their military forces in Afghanistan through the so-called Northern Distribution Network.

However, in addition to persistent differences over human rights, Uzbek officials have blamed the United States for serving as a weak external balancer against Moscow’s regional ambitions.

More recently, Uzbekistan has sought to improve economic and security ties with Beijing. Thus far, China has focused its cooperation with Uzbekistan on energy and other commercial arrangements, while deferring to Moscow in the expectation that Russia will maintain the stability in Central Asia that Chinese companies need to pursue their economic projects there.

Karimov’s departure now adds another challenge to the region’s security, already threatened by the civil war in Afghanistan, growth of the so-called Islamic State and other transnational terrorist groups that have explicit desires to rule Uzbekistan as a radical Islamic regime, and decreasing U.S. influence in Central Asia.