Uzbekistan Looks for New Allies

Following its break with the US, Tashkent moves to forge ties with Russia and China.

Uzbekistan Looks for New Allies

Following its break with the US, Tashkent moves to forge ties with Russia and China.

Monday, 15 February, 2010

When Tashkent announced on July 29 that it had officially asked the United States to remove its forces from the Khanabad airbase in southern Uzbekistan - where they had been deployed for the past few years - the move came as no surprise given the growing friction between both countries following the May 13 events in Andijan. Still, this decision represents a major U-turn in Uzbek foreign policy, and will have long term consequences for Uzbekistan and the entire Central Asian region.

The Uzbek leadership surprised many when following the September 11 extremist attacks in New York and Washington, it suddenly aligned itself with America and openly supported US action in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq.

At that time, Tashkent emerged as an outsider among Central Asian states that remained loyal to former ally Russia and refused to side with Washington so openly.

Kyrgyzstan was a notable exception, as it too allowed US planes and soldiers to be based in its Manas base near Bishkek. But former Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev’s policy of maintaining a balance between Russia and the West had meant that a US military presence was possible, whereas it had not seemed likely in politically conservative Uzbekistan.

Until 2003, relations between Tashkent and Washington remained largely cordial, each benefiting from the alliance: the US had found an unexpected predominantly Muslim ally bordering Afghanistan, while Uzbekistan gained sudden respectability and a substantial development and military aid.

But the relationship was shattered by May 13 this year. On that date, Uzbek government troops fired at unarmed demonstrators in the Fergana Valley city of Andijan, most probably killing over 700 civilians, including women and children.

While Tashkent’s immediate response was to blame international Islamic extremists for the unrest, Washington, as well European countries, requested an international enquiry into the incident, after receiving testimony from many sources that the public protest reflected social and economic frustration by an impoverished population.

Despite growing pressure and later veiled political threats by Washington, Tashkent maintained its position and reading of Andijan as an act of international terrorism.

The first open signs that Uzbek-US relations were under serious strain came on July 5 in Astana when the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – comprising Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan – held its summit. Members urged the organisation to issue an official statement calling into question the presence of US military bases in the region. The move was clearly initiated by Tashkent, and warmly supported by Moscow and Beijing.

Thus when the Uzbek foreign ministry announced on July 29 that the US government would have to remove all its planes and soldiers from Khanabad within 180 days, it came as no surprise. The question now is what will be the impact of such a dramatic change for Uzbekistan and for the region at large.

For Uzbekistan, this will clearly lead to international isolation, and lessens the possibility of much needed social and economic reforms being implemented.

Various western organisations, ranging from the EBRD to the OSCE, have over the years pushed for economic reforms to tackle the issues of growing poverty and alarming social tension in a country of 26 million people - half of Central Asia’s population. Tashkent has repeatedly claimed it needs to take its own path towards reforms in its own time, yet events such as Andijan indicate that they can no longer be delayed.

Tashkent is now turning towards its old historical ally - Moscow - that is only to happy to renew strong ties. China, which is a new player in the region, is also strengthening relations with Uzbekistan, providing crucial new economic partnership.

Neither Moscow nor Beijing supports calls for an international investigation into Andijan, nor are they likely to demand reforms within Uzbekistan – a factor that will be welcomed by Tashkent.

As Uzbekistan turns its back on the US, others in the region appear to be deliberating about what there response should be.

Kyrgyzstan, despite initially wavering over American use of the Manas airbase, has assured Washington that its planes and soldiers can remain there for the time being. And Tajikistan, which hosts Russian military bases, is hesitating over whether to engage more with the West, or keep a more neutral position, given continuing violence in Afghanistan with which it shares an important border.

Filip Noubel is the IWPR’s Central Asia project manager.

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