Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Could Uzbekistan Lead Central Asia?

In surprise move, previously isolated state calls for tighter regional integration.
By Timur Toktonaliev
  • Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev. (Photo: Uzbek president's press service)
    Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev. (Photo: Uzbek president's press service)

Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has called for closer cooperation between all five countries of Central Asia in a move which some believe signals a new and more vigorous regional role for Tashkent.

At an international conference on the Central Asia’s future, held in the historic Uzbek city of Samarkand in early November, Mirziyoyev emphasised that he supported efforts to create “a stable, economically developed and thriving region”.

 “I am sure that all will win from this – both the Central Asian states and other countries,” Mirziyoyev told the event, held under the auspices of the UN and attended by senior officials, diplomats and experts from the region, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and further afield.

The event itself and Mirziyoyev’s address were both unusual.  Initial attempts at regional unity following the fall of the Soviet Union were short-lived. For more than a decade the five states have not seriously discussed cooperating on domestic development and remain embroiled in disputes over water resources, borders and market protectionism amid general mistrust between the leadership.

In fact, it was Uzbekistan, under the rule of former president Islam Karimov, which was the most sceptical about regional cooperation.

As the successor to Karimov, who died in September 2016, Mirziyoyev has taken a number of measures that appear to show willingness to open up one of the world’s most isolated states.

(See Could Uzbekistan be Opening Up?).

Now, it seems, Uzbekistan is calling on its neighbours to address the exact issue it has studiously avoided for a quarter of century.

Given the distrust between state leaders in the region, Mirziyoyev’s initiative has been interpreted in some quarters as an attempt to make Uzbekistan the political centre of Central Asia.

In Samarkand, Mirziyoyev said that since the beginning of 2017, Uzbek trade with the region had increased by 20 per cent on average, and almost 70 per cent with certain states.

He touched on further  areas he said were ready for closer cooperation, including increased transit for imports from China and the Middle East, closer coordination over counterterrorism and radicalism and enhanced cultural and humanitarian ties.

Tashkent-based political analyst Farkhod Tolipov explained that these actions were intended to augment Uzbekistan’s prestige, one of Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy priorities.

“There are no objective obstacles to that [Uzbekistan becoming the regional leader],” he said. “Other challenges exist: the success of reforms he has initiated, including in regional relations, depends crucially on the wisdom and potential of the national leadership. Now it’s important to develop the right strategic policy.”

But Alexey Malashenko, chief researcher at the Dialogue of Civilisations think-tank (DOC), said that Mirzoyev was not making a play for regional supremacy.

“Mirziyoyev is a pragmatic person,” he continued. “He relies upon a need for the expansion of regional cooperation. He thinks that Uzbekistan can play a more significant role in the region. But he doesn’t think he’s the leader… if he were to emphasise [his own role], he would damage relations with everybody,” Malashenko said.

The relationships between the five Central Asian states were so complicated, he continued, that he doubted anyone would make a serious play for domination.

“Therefore I think no one is seriously seeking the leadership,” Malashenko said.

Azhdar Kurtov, an expert in Central Asia at the State Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, also expressed reservations about the vision expressed by the Uzbek leader.

“Cooperation between some Central Asian states on certain aspects is possible, but long-standing historical contradictions and differing views on various issues are unlikely to unite the Central Asian states,” Kurtov said.

Water is a central issue of contention in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with major water resources, have long wanted to develop hydro energy projects. This alarms the countries downstream from them - Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Turkmenistan – who fear they will lose out on vital irrigation resources.

Due to Uzbekistan’s strong reliance on its cotton industry, Karimov strongly opposed efforts by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to develop hydro energy resources, in 2014 even warning that a Central Asian war could be triggered by water issues.

In contrast, after Mirziyoyev visited Bishkek last year he said he had assurances that no hydro station would be built without Uzbek involvement and even hinted that Uzbekistan might participate in such a project.

(See also A Turning Point for Kyrgyz-Uzbek Relations?).

Other long running disputes involve border demarcations between Kygyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as competition between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan over contracts to export gas to China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan.

A historic dispute between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over Bukhara, handed to the Uzbeks during the Soviet era, has also soured relations.

But Mirziyoyev told the Samarkand conference that “we need to understand that today the region has a real need for jointly settling common regional issues” and called for the establishment of a regional economic forum as well as an association of regional leaders and business communities.

He stressed that the objective was simply practical coordination over key issues, adding, “This isn’t about the establishment of a new international organisation of Central Asia or any integration entity with its charter and supranational bodies.

MOSCOW STILL LEADS

The Uzbek proposal is not the first Central Asian attempt to improve cooperation.

There were attempts at creating an economic union after the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s. Orozbek Moldaliev, a regional security expert, said that in that decade there was interest in forming an alliance against regional common threats and conflicts, such as in Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

When those issues became less acute, the importance of joint cooperation also receded.

And it was Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev who most often raised ambitious ideas of regional cooperation. Over the last decade, however, this has appeared of less interest to the 77-year-old Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country for 27 years.

“Sooner or later Kazakhstan will face a transition of power,” Malashenko said. “And I don’t know if these new persons will ever be concerned [with becoming the regional leaders].”

Tolipov said that Nazarbayev was unlikely to block any initiatives Mirziyoyev might take towards regional cooperation, noting that Kazakhstan had already expressed interest in being the first to host the informal forum of Central Asian leaders that Mirziyoyev proposed in Samarkand.

According to Kazak news agency tengrinews.kz, Nazarbayev told an Astana security forum November 16 that “after a quarter of century we all understand that since we have common history, religion, culture and mentality, we all have to be together, help each other and together ensure the security of this region”.

Another factor which played a part in preventing the alliance of Central Asian states has been Russia’s resurgence.

In 2005, the Central Asian Cooperation (CAC)  - the latest incarnation of an economic union - was dissolved after its four regional members joined the Eurasian Economic Community led by Russia.

“Russia joined as an observer and then has became a member, and then said, ‘Why do we need the [CAC]?’” Moldaliev continued.

As to whether Moscow would support an alliance of Central Asian states, he said, “No way, it is not in their best interests. It’s just five states nearby who would join together and make demands on Russia.”