Interview

Moscow's Doors Still Open to Uzbekistan

Leading Russian expert says it’s up to Tashkent to decide what kind of relationship it wants with Moscow.

Uzbekistan may be trying to realign itself with the West but Moscow is still willing to work with it on security and economic matters on any terms it chooses, a leading Russian analyst says.

In an interview for NBCentralAsia, Alexander Shustov of the Russian Centre for Strategic Studies unpicked Uzbekistan’s complex foreign-policy relationships with Moscow and the West, and what that means for its position in Central Asia.

NBCentralAsia: It’s recently been suggested that Uzbek foreign policy is tilting towards the West. The trend became more apparent when Uzbekistan withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, CSTO, the Kremlin-backed regional grouping. What do you think has led to this turnaround?

Alexander Shustov: Most analysts conclude that Uzbekistan has received guarantees of military and political security from the United States. It would otherwise be hard to explain the Uzbek decision to leave the CSTO at a time when the US is planning to either end or substantially curtail its military presence in Afghanistan by 2014.

Uzbekistan began distancing itself from Russia a long time ago. By 2008 or 2009, it was discreetly probing the possibility of restoring relations with the western powers, after the disruption caused by the Andijan violence of 2005. Western elites had, incidentally, been reluctant to see the deterioration in relations that happened at that time, since they wanted to carry on using Uzbekistan as a based for military actions in Afghanistan. But they had to do it because of public and media pressure.

NBCentralAsia: Uzbekistan has adopted a policy of neutrality in military conflicts. Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov has ruled out a US military base, but some kind of “coordinating centre” with American involvement is a possibility. Is the government using neutral wording to mask a de facto western military build-up?

Shustov: It’s still unclear whether there is to be a US military base in Uzbekistan. Both the Americans and the Uzbeks are denying that it’s a possibility. At the same time, though, the active US engagement with Tashkent, including on defence matters, tend to point to just such a scenario. Why otherwise would Uzbekistan be given the arms and equipment which the US removes from Afghanistan? And what was the purpose of the recent [October 2012] visit to Tashkent by 17 senior American generals and admirals?

It’s possible that American military sites will spring up in Uzbekistan, but they’ll be described as “transit hubs”, “coordinating centres” and the like instead of bases.

A lot depends on what happens to the American airbase in Kyrgyzstan. The new Kyrgyz administration has confirmed that it wants the US base at Manas out by 2014, while the Americans say they want to carry on using it. If they do have to leave, they will need another location.

NBCentralAsia: When Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Kyrgyzstan in September, he annoyed Uzbekistan by pledging support for the completion of the Kambarata-2 hydroelectric power station, and reaching agreement on a military base in Kyrgyzstan. Is Russia using Kyrgyzstan in its dispute with Uzbekistan?

Shustov: Putin did not actually agree to set up a Russian military base – the deal is simply to incorporate under one structure the four facilities that have existed in Kyrgyzstan for a long time. These military facilities are not directed against Uzbekistan. Their purpose is to ensure Kyrgyzstan’s own security and defend the CSTO’s southern flank.

The hydroelectric plant issue is more complex. Water is more important than oil and gas for Central Asia. If Russia takes no part in such projects, other players that have the resources to do so, like China, Iran and India, will move in. As for using the power plant as a bargaining chip against Uzbekistan, Putin proposed that all interested countries should be involved in such projects, including in managing them. That kind of involvement would make any form of pressure impossible.

NBCentralAsia: How are Uzbek-Russian relations likely to evolve?

Shustov: Cooperation between them really depends on Tashkent, and how its relationships with the US and NATO develop.

Neither Russia nor the CSTO has any desire for an upset in relations with Uzbekistan. Furthermore, we’d like to see Tashkent participating in CSTO, if it changes the direction of its foreign policy. The same applies to economic relations – no one is going to drive Uzbekistan out of the common economic space of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Moscow is keen to see economic integration, and would welcome Tashkent as part of a free trade zone.

This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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