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

Tashkent Courts Moscow and Beijing

Regional gathering underlines Uzbekistan’s shifting foreign policy priorities.
By IWPR staff

President Islam Karimov last week gave the clearest sign yet that his growing frustration with the West over its criticism of Uzbekistan’s human rights record and economic reforms is prompting him to ally Tashkent more strongly with Russia and China.

During the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, SCO, meeting in Tashkent on June 17 and 18, he and other regional leaders rounded on western countries for offering “protection” to radical Islamic groups banned in Central Asia.

Shortly before the gathering, Karimov signed a strategic partnership with Russia, effectively opening the way for Moscow to exert more influence over Uzbekistan – which to date has been a key American ally in the “war on terror”. China also signed bilateral agreements with Tashkent ahead of the event.

At the SCO event, Karimov did not pull punches in his criticism of western policy towards radical Islamic groups. He told the conference that the fact that a number of these groups are able to operate legally in some European countries is much more likely to lead to terrorism than political and economic factors in Central Asia.

“I would like to stress that yes – the poverty, backwardness of countries, and unsatisfactory social problems are the food that terrorists grow on, but the main problem is that unfortunately [Islamic radicals] work quite legally in the West [and] need to be rooted out,” said Karimov.

His provocative remarks, which appear to stem from his annoyance with American and European criticism of the country’s repressive political measures and the slow pace of its efforts to alleviate poverty and other hardships, offended a number of western diplomats based in the capital.

“If we allow a [radical] organisation to operate in our countries, this does not mean that we approve of its goals but rather that we believe in freedom of belief and freedom of speech,” said one ambassador.

The diplomat said the key to tackling terrorism was in addressing the factors Karimov cited in the first part of his speech, namely poverty, backwardness and social discontent.

“Why does President Karimov not talk about these problems in more detail? If he admits they are ‘food for terrorism’, why doesn’t he try to fight poverty, stimulate small business and give the opposition more room to breathe?” asked the diplomat.

Western, specifically American, criticism of Tashkent government policy is seen to be behind Karimov’s apparent desire to strengthen ties with his more powerful regional neighbours. He appears to be doing so by lobbying hard to turn the SCO into a more proactive organisation - both China and Russia see it as a useful counterweight to American engagement in the region - and by securing agreements with these two countries.

“We’ve signed a document that opens a new page in the history of our relations, and lays down a solid foundation for a Russian-Uzbek strategic partnership,” President Vladimir Putin said of his country’s treaty with Uzbekistan.

The agreement will see more cooperation on the security front and significant Russian investment in Uzbekistan. Putin said the gas monopoly Gazprom is ready to invest more than one billion US dollars in the local oil and gas producer Uzbekneftegaz, while Russia’s LUKoil has signed a production-sharing agreement worth a similar amount to develop gas fields in the country.

The financial boost follows the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s announcement earlier this year that it intends to limit investment in Uzbekistan because of a lack of progress on democracy and economic liberalisation.

David Lewis, director of the Central Asian office of the International Crisis Group, says Uzbekistan’s criticism of the West and embrace of Moscow and Beijing is not surprising.

“It’s fashionable to criticise the West in Central Asia at the moment. The Uzbek leadership wants to hold on to power, but it is difficult to do this under the conditions of democracy that the West insists on, and this explains the shift in foreign policy towards Russia and China,” he said.

Alex Vatanka, of the authoritative international security journal Jane’s Sentinel, told Radio Liberty that the strategic partnership with Moscow will build on growing security ties between the two countries.

“The notable increasing cooperation has been around now for over a year. The Uzbek security service has helped the Russian foreign intelligence service to block Chechen funds coming from the Gulf Arab states. And in return the Russian Federal Security Service has clamped down on Uzbek opposition leaders who reside in Russia,” he said.

The importance of the SCO summit to the authorities was such that they banned demonstrations during the gathering.

A number of politicians and human rights activists who had threatened to draw attention to Uzbek government abuses claim to have been beaten up just prior to the event.

A member of the opposition party Erk, Gaukhar Oripova, said she was attacked by two women outside her home, thrown to the ground and kicked repeatedly. She was left unconscious with a broken leg.

Human rights activist Elena Urlaeva said she had been beaten up by police officers, who told her that it was punishment for planning to hold a protest during the gathering.