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

Russian Leader Tries to Keep Uzbeks on Side

Will President Medvedev succeed in restoring Tashkent’s pro-Moscow orientation?
By Inga Sikorskaya

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Tashkent last week was an attempt to shore up his country’s alliance with Uzbekistan. The relationship has been close in the last few years, but has been growing more distant over recent months.



The only major document signed at the end of the Russian leader’s talks on January 22 and 23 was a gas supply agreement that had already been reached earlier, under which the Uzbeks are to increase the amount of natural gas they export to Russia.



The real purpose of Medvedev’s visit may have been to sound out the intentions of his counterpart Islam Karimov ahead of a joint summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, CSTO, and the Eurasian Economic Community, EurAsEC, scheduled to take place in Moscow in February.



The Uzbeks have blown hot and cold on the CSTO over the years as they have shifted between pro-Moscow and pro-western orientations, and last autumn they announced they were withdrawing from EurAsEC.



After his three-hour private meeting with Medvedev, President Islam Karimov said only that the talks were “very frank”, but that they had brought some clarity and would provide a basis for further decisions.



Analysts say Moscow is determined to prevent Tashkent slipping out of its sphere of influence and pursuing either its own ambitions for regional dominance or seeking alliances with western states. Karimov pursued both these policies through the Nineties and the first half of the present decade.



In 2005, international criticism of the massacre of civilians in Andijan caused Karimov to break with his western partners, close down the American military airbase set up to assist Coalition operations in Afghanistan after 2001, and renew ties with Moscow.



From around the beginning of 2008, however, Tashkent publicly began putting out feelers to the West again, and both the United States and the European Union reciprocated with renewed attempts at dialogue.



In April last year, the Uzbek leader attended a NATO summit in Bucharest, while in October he signalled he might be amenable to the kind of energy cooperation in which European states have expressed interest. The same month, the EU eased sanctions imposed because of Tashkent’s refusal to allow a full international investigation into what happened in Tashkent.



Signs that Uzbekistan was about to change direction again seem to have alarmed the Kremlin, which regards Central Asia as its backyard from the point of view of security and in recent years has sought to exert greater influence over what happens to oil, gas and electricity produced in the region.



“Russia is now even prepared to sustain losses in order to remove the western presence from Uzbekistan,” said Farhad Tolipov, an academic in Tashkent.



Another local analyst, based in the eastern town of Fergana, believes Medvedev used his visit to engage with Karimov “so as not to derail his ambitions to draw Tashkent into Moscow’s sphere of influence”.



He added that the Russian leader probably also wanted to check whether Karimov would be attending the CSTO summit after pulling away from EurAsEC last year. “The Kremlin is worried that Karimov might now refuse to be part of the CSTO as well,” he said.



The CSTO was set up in 2002, developing out of the Collective Security Treaty signed in 1992. Its current members are Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks were members of the pact, but Karimov felt the others did not back him up sufficiently when militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan staged armed incursions in 1999-2000. Dismissing the bloc as “of no benefit”, he declared a moratorium on his country’s participation.



After Andijan and the reorientation towards Moscow that followed, the Uzbeks renewed their membership of the CSTO in July 2006, and the upper house of parliament formalised full membership at the end of March 2008.



All the CSTO states, with the exception of Armenia, are also members of EurAsEC, established in 1995 with the aim of promoting free trade and a customs union. Yet Karimov’s instinct has always been to go it alone, and despite accords on greater integration signed by both the security and economic blocs, he has kept strict border controls and barriers to free trade in place.



In September 2008, all four Central Asian members of EurAsEC appeared to be close to a deal that would allow the region’s water and energy resources to mutual advantage. This has been a constant bone of contention between the two oil- and gas-rich states, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, and the Tajiks and Kyrgyz who control the sources of rivers that keep their neighbours’ agriculture alive. Both sides feel they get a raw deal from the other – the former claiming they are starved of water in the farming season, and the latter complaining that their wealthier neighbours charge them commercial rates for natural gas supplies.



In the end, no final agreement was signed because the Uzbeks were reluctant to enter into a multilateral agreement on water resources that transcend national boundaries.



Their decision to withdraw from EurAsEC can therefore be seen as a rejection of other Central Asian states, but Moscow took it badly, perceiving it as a blow to its own reputation as regional leader.



In an attempt to reel the Uzbeks back in, Medvedev offered them a surprise olive branch during his trip, saying Russian-led projects to build hydroelectric power stations in the region would take into account the interests of all Central Asian states, not just the beneficiary countries.



Uzbekistan has expressed concern at plans to complete the giant Rogun hydroelectric dam scheme in Tajikistan and a series of power stations called Kambarata in Kyrgyzstan. These Russian-financed projects could would make these states more self-sufficient in energy, but could result in restricted water flows to the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, respectively.



Tashkent has repeatedly expressed concern over the dam projects, as Uzbek scientists fear the consequences could be catastrophic for a heavily-populated country that is largely dependent on irrigation by these two great waterways.



Uzbekistan-watchers say that after Medvedev’s visit, Tashkent’s true intentions remain far from clear.



Since independence in 1991, its leadership has shifted back and forth between Russia and the West for reasons of political convenience, and sometimes depending on how strong or vulnerable it feels its position is in the Central Asian region.



Tashpulat Yoldashev, an Uzbek political scientist who now lives abroad, thinks the government wants to see what kind of policies US president Barack Obama’s administration will adopt towards the region before taking a definitive stance.



“Karimov is waiting for the new US administration’s position to become clear on Central Asia and Uzbekistan,” he said. “In the interim, he can flirt with Moscow.”



Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR’s editor for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.