On February 24th, Part Two of my series on Uzbekistan was published at SOFREP. In Part One, I examined the changing security dynamic of Central Asia generally, the changing United States policy towards Uzbekistan, and the recent military modernization efforts of the former Soviet republic.
In Part Two (below), I address issues related to the history of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, the possible line of succession to long time President Islam Karimov, geopolitical considerations for U.S. and Russian policy, and how all of the aforementioned issues conflate to affect the security landscape of Central Asia.
You can find the original at Sofrep here. Thank you for reading.
In part one of this article series on Uzbekistan, I explored the changing security dynamic of Central Asia and the impact that the adjustments have had on both United States policy towards Uzbekistan and military modernization in the former Soviet republic. Uzbekistan’s recent policy pivots, to include an agreement on acquiring military weapons systems from the U.S. and China, have altered the security landscape of Central Asia, potentially having great effect upon Russian capacity to project power throughout the post-Soviet space and influence national policy throughout the states of a region rich in natural resources and contested by several powerful state actors: Russia, China, the European Union, and the U.S.
Historically, Russian leaders have pursued dominance over Central Asia to ensure buffer space between a vulnerable Moscow and potential invasion forces. The mountainous regions along the limits of the former Soviet Union at the edges of the southwestern and southern borders acted as buffer zones against invasion and ensured lines of communication and supply to growing population centers where Soviet military personnel were garrisoned and equipment was housed.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, authoritarian rulers have dominated the governing power structures of the former Soviet republics, rendering democracy movements ineffective even as similar uprisings in Ukraine (the Orange Revolution, 2004-2005 and Euromaidan in 2014) and Georgia (Rose Revolution, 2003) achieved significant effects upon popularly supported campaigns to achieve democratic and representative governance.
In effect, the security landscape adaptations now beginning to reverberate throughout Central Asia foretell an impactful re-alignment of security interests and inter-state relationships, especially those between the former Soviet republics and Russia. The security threats now recognized by the government of longtime Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov have catalyzed a fundamental shift in national security priorities.
An effort to modernize the country’s military signals an intent to rely less on the security umbrella of Russia and a shift towards an autonomous capacity to defend its own borders against external attack by any aggressive foreign power. It also reflects the country’s prioritization of the capability to wage effective counterinsurgency operations to quell insurrection such as that which could arise out of the separatist movement growing in Karakalpakstan, security operations to combat internationally supported Islamist movement such as the one perpetuated by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), or to offset an escalation in recruitment of Uzbeks and other Central Asians by the Islamic State. In this piece, I will explore the catalysts for change in Uzbekistan: human rights abuses, government suppression of dissent, separatism, and the inevitable transfer of power from President Karimov to a successor.
A history of human rights abuses
Uzbekistan’s reputation as a state in which nearly the entire economy relies on forced labor is well-earned. Throughout the comparatively short history of Uzbekistan’s independence following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, Uzbekistan has been ruled by an authoritarian regime led by President Islam Karimov. Since winning the first election in the then-newly independent nation in December of 1991, Karimov has remained firmly entrenched in the country’s leadership role. Opposition to his rule has been met with iron-fisted crackdowns, and security force killings of dissenting citizens protesting his rule dot the landscape of his tenure as president. In particular, child labor has been an underpinning aspect of cost-limiting measures of the Tashkent regime:
Uzbekistan is notorious for human rights violations and state-orchestrated use of child labor, as well as forced labor of adults. According to Cotton Campaign, a coalition of NGOs and human rights activists dedicated to eradicating child labor in Uzbekistan, in 2013 at least 11 people died during cotton picking season. Victims’ age range from 6 to 63. (Dillorum Abdulloeva, Registan, June 8, 2014)
Uzbekistan is the world’s fifth largest producer of cotton. For years, Karimov’s government has systematically ensured the provisioning of cheap (if not entirely free) labor in harvesting the country’s most important export. Throughout the last decade, human rights groups have campaigned for institutional changes in Uzbekistan’s harvesting of the crop, citing evidence of significant human rights abuses (specifically in the use of children) in bringing the country’s cotton crop to markets in Europe, the United States, and China.
It is one of the world’s more bizarre systems of agricultural labor, possible, perhaps, only in one of the world’s most cloistered and repressive societies. Central Asia’s most populous country, at 30 million, Uzbekistan since 1989 has been ruled by President Islam Karimov, first as a Soviet apparatchik and later as head of state. Human Rights Watch estimates that the country holds more political prisoners than the rest of the former Soviet Union combined…
“The government doesn’t invest in mechanization at all because they have cheap labor, and cotton gathered by hand is more valuable,” said Sergei V. Naumov, an Uzbekistan-based reporter for Ferghana.news, a website for Central Asian news, who has covered the harvest for a decade.
In simplest terms, it is a system of forced labor, rights groups and international labor monitors say, an old scourge of the cotton industry that has returned to life. With its monopoly on the industry, the government pays far below world prices for the cotton, reaping extortionate profits that help balance the budget. In return, it provides farmers with free labor. (Mansur Mirovalev and Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times, December 17, 2013)
The largest importers of Uzbek cotton are, in order: China, Bangladesh, Russia, and the European Union. Cotton Campaign outlined the charges against the Tashkent government more generally, including some of the most egregious violations of basic human rights:
- In Uzbekistan, open criticism of the government in the press faces prosecution, fines and prison terms.
- The use of torture and inhuman treatment is a common practice by the Uzbek police and prison administration.
- The President of Uzbekistan has suppressed civic freedoms and all political opposition since 1992, when Uzbekistan became independent from the Soviet Union.
- After the Uzbek government handled a 2005 peaceful protest by opening fire on its citizens killing several hundred people in the province of Andijon, the government shut down the majority of foreign funded non-governmental organizations in Uzbekistan.—(Cotton Campaign)
Karakalpakstan has been witness to an intensified push for independence in the past 12 months. While some observers have mistakenly drawn parallels between the nascent separatist movement in Karakalpakstan and the rebellion raging in open conflict with the Kiev government in Eastern Ukraine, Karakalpakstan’s potential as a destabilizing influence on the territorial integrity of the country is actually high.
As questions surrounding the health of President Karimov continue to mount and the line of succession behind the longtime authoritarian leader remains unclear, separatists in Karakalpakstan could seek to exploit a weak moment in the legitimacy of the Tashkent government. Karakalpaks involved in the separatist movement could seek to use the transition period in Tashkent to its distinct advantage and accelerate its pursuit of secession. Much of what drives the separatist movement is based on perceived inequality and rights, as well as pervasive human rights abuses by the Uzbekistan government. I detailed some of the abuses in a previous article on separatism in Uzbekistan titled Uzbekistan and the Dilemma of Karakalpakstan:
Much of the drive for independence in Karakalpakstan revolves around the uneven distribution of public funding garnered from natural resource extraction and the abysmal record of human rights abuses by the national government, particularly in Karakalpakstan. The Karimov regime has increasingly relied on the the harvesting of cotton for export in order to ensure revenue. Human rights campaigners have condemned the government headed by Karimov specifically on the issue of cotton production. These activists cite first person accounts and raw data as evidence that the Karimov regime exploits young children as ostensible slave labor in cultivating cotton for export. Additionally, human rights groups have also claimed that Karimov’s forced labor campaign further compels citizens to harvest the cotton at little to no financial benefit for the individual. The economics and human rights issues in Karakalpakstan in particular conflate to make the situation a tense one as talk of independence emerged in Warsaw last week. (Uzbekistan and the Dilemma of Karakalpakstan, October 9, 2014)
As Kucera alluded to in his article at EurasiaNet, Uzbekistan’s record on human rights abuses is among the worst in the world. In October, Carey L. Biron reported that use of children in harvesting the crop has hardly abated:
For years, children as young as seven years old were forced to work in the cotton fields during the annual sowing, weeding and harvest cycles, in order to fulfill government-set harvest quotas enforced on farmers and local administrators. Last year, coinciding with an observation mission from the United Nations, the number of children in the fields was drastically reduced. That progress now appears to have extended to this fall. (Carey L. Biron, Mint Press News, October 20, 2014)
Compounding the damage that the cotton industry has done to human rights and the national economy is the effect that the industry has had on the environment. Specifically, the destruction of the Aral Sea. Considered to be among the more disastrous remnants of Soviet Union industrial policy, the damage done to the Aral Sea is partly attributable to the overuse of the sea’s water to irrigate cotton crops. The legacy of destructive Soviet environmental policy lives on in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry:
In Uzbekistan, a major cotton producer and water consumer, 41 percent of cultivated land was devoted to cotton, 32 percent to grains, 11 percent to fruits, 4 percent to vegetables, and 12 percent to other crops… A backdrop to this swiftly deteriorating ecosystem is the struggle to retain the once ample supply of vegetation being grown in the region. The thirstiest of the crops are predictably cotton and rice. The first of which, cotton, still puts Uzbekistan as second cotton exporter in the world. With government quotas for cotton growth unabated, the toll to the environment continues to grow and ravage the region. One third of the foreign currency earned by the country is dependent on the cotton grown in the arid land of the Aral Sea region. (The Aral Sea Crisis)
The recent agreement on provisioning of military hardware to the Karimov regime highlights the prioritization of hard interests over ideologically based concerns over human rights in U.S. strategic policy. While previous administrations (including that of current U.S. President Barack Obama) have emphasized the need for states partnering with the U.S. on any number of trade issues to meet basic international standards for institutionalized legal protection of citizens’ human rights, the U.S. has seemingly diverged on that requirement and prioritized security policy. The recent agreement with the Karimov regime represents one such example.
Earlier this month, the World Bank formally refused to investigate whether foreign investment (specifically, agricultural loans) contribute to the perpetuation of an institutionalized form of indentured servitude or slavery in Uzbekistan’s infamous cotton industry:
The World Bank has declined to investigate whether agriculture-sector loans to Uzbekistan could perpetuate child and forced labor in the Central Asian country’s cotton industry.
The Washington-based lender says the January 23 decision was made, in part, due to “considerable progress” Tashkent has made “in addressing the systemic issues necessary for the eradication of child and forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.”
The decision has drawn harsh criticism from rights activists who have been demanding an investigation.
Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, on February 2 called the decision “shocking.”
She said: “To millions of victims of forced labor in Uzbekistan, the bank has said that despite recognizing the relationship between their plight and its loans, it is not worth investigating.”
Rights advocates have long criticized Uzbek authorities who require state employees, teachers and even children, to work in the cotton fields. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 2)
The World Bank’s sudden about-face on the issue of Uzbekistan’s history of human rights abuses reflects an adjustment by Western governments and institutions toward opportunity and investment in Uzbekistan’s economy. More to the point, perhaps we have arrived at a moment where geopolitics sufficiently override ideological arguments for continued isolation of the Karimov regime. Interestingly (or coincidentally), the World Bank announced that it had approved and was granting a $195 loan to Uzbekistan for them to improve infrastructure in the country. The loan, granted through the International Bank for Reconstruction of Development (IBRD), is intended to assist in financing the $1.63bn Pap-Angren railway project aimed at connecting the Ferghana Valley and the rest of Uzbekistan:
World Bank Uzbekistan country manager Junghun Cho said: “It will help reduce the income disparity between the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley and the rest of Uzbekistan.“It will help reduce the income disparity between the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley and the rest of Uzbekistan.”
“The project will raise employment and business opportunities by increasing the rate of economic growth in the Ferghana Valley. It will also facilitate diversification of the economy by improving infrastructure to increase economic productivity and competitiveness.”
The Pap-Angren project will see the construction of a single, 124km-long track rail link between Angren and Pap, including a 19.2km rail tunnel through the Kamchik Pass.
Work under the project includes rail infrastructure, electrification, signalling, track maintenance, video surveillance system and power distribution on the line. (February 17, Railway-Technology.com)
While investment by China remains low by comparison to Russia, Beijing’s interest in Uzbekistan appears to be intensifying. Recent reports of investments by China in infrastructural improvement projects reflect growing interest in the Central Asian state. An interesting note on recent participation of Chinese firms and banks on development projects in Uzebekistan is highlighted by the participation of the Chinese bank Exim:
For this project, UTY will provide $1.08bn from its own funds, the state budget and the Fund for Reconstruction and Development of Uzbekistan. In addition to the IBRD loan, China Exim Bank will also deliver $350m in funding. (February 17, Railway-Technology.com)
The continued investment in Central Asian infrastructural improvement projects by Chinese banks reflects Beijing’s effort to reestablish the historical Silk Road and connect the energy-rich states of Central Asia with China. The fast-rising demand of China for natural gas and oil has catalyzed national policy that has linked Beijing not only with Uzbekistan, but also Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Much of Chinese investment has been targeted at establishing and extending rail lines for transport of the resources back to China.
In 2012, the administration of President Barack Obama revisited the idea of establishing a base in Uzbekistan. Through visits by high-ranking diplomatic officials and apparent overtures of a detente of sorts with the reclusive autocratic regime, the idea of a cooperative relationship between Washington and Tashkent was floated publicly. The prospective rapprochement resulted in veiled threats from Russian officials and earnest protests by the Karimov regime that they were not being co-opted by the American government:
Moscow has been expressing concern over Uzbekistan’s rapprochement with the US, and Russian media have been publishing reports about the “New Great Game,” a struggle for the influence in Central Asia.
“Uzbekistan should analyze all repercussions of widening military cooperation with the US,” reported Russia’s popular daily newspaper Kommersant. Regional media reported that the reason for US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake’s visit to Tashkent earlier this month was aimed at securing an agreement on a US base there. (Abduljalil Abdurasulov, Christian Science Monitor, August 30, 2012)
The visit of Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake raised concerns in Russia that the U.S. was seeking to establish a permanent presence at a base in Uzbekistan. The Kremlin’s sentiment was reflected in the daily Russian media. For Russian strategists, improved relations between the U.S. and Uzbekistan effectively presented a latent security threat to the Russian state itself:
Moscow has been expressing concern over Uzbekistan’s rapprochement with the US, and Russian media have been publishing reports about the “New Great Game,” a struggle for the influence in Central Asia.
“Uzbekistan should analyze all repercussions of widening military cooperation with the US,” reported Russia’s popular daily newspaperKommersant. Regional media reported that the reason for US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake’s visit to Tashkent earlier this month was aimed at securing an agreement on a US base there. (Abduljalil Abdurasulov, Christian Science Monitor, August 30, 2012)
The main sticking points in the U.S. effort to facilitate greater cooperation with Uzbekistan are the country’s history of human rights abuses and Russian government fears over a potential permanent U.S. military base on its southern flank. Throughout the duration of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Russian leaders have remained wary of a U.S. presence in Central Asia, concerned that the regimes of states such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan could be induced into codifying longterm cooperation with the U.S. that would be detrimental to Russian capacity to influence the national policies of the former Soviet republics. Russian strategists fear that if the U.S. were able to ensure the cooperation of states such as Uzbekistan on bases, American defense officials could take significant advantage of those agreements in planning deployment of missile-defense shield technology and the basing of U.S. military personnel.
Tight state control of the internet in Uzbekistan is an important aspect of the Karimov regime’s continued grip on power. Restrictive even by standards of the authoritarian governments of the post-Soviet space, access to the internet in Uzbekistan remains limited and the availability of sites largely the purview of the state government. Uzbekistan has improved the infrastructure of its internet service in the past decade as the cost has decreased, improving access for ordinary citizens in Central Asia. However, even as Uzbekistan has greatly improved its internet infrastructure in recent years, it remains the most tightly controlled internet in Central Asia. Freedom House, an independent watchdog firm that has studied Uzbekistan’s restrictions on internet access, rates the country the worst for internet freedom in Central Asia as late as 2012:
Uzbekistan has significantly improved its telecommunications infrastructure over the last two decades. President Islam Karimov, who has been in power for over 20 years, has publicly acknowledged the importance of the internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs) to the lives of Uzbek citizens. At the same time, however, Karimov’s regime employs a range of legal, administrative, and technical measures to undermine the internet’s role as an avenue for open and pluralistic communication, rendering the country’s internet regulation the most restrictive in Central Asia. These measures have increased since May 2005 following the violent suppression of public protests in the city of Andijan during which ICTs were used to circulate uncensored information amidst a news blackout in the traditional media. (Freedom on the Net, Freedom House, 2012)
In 2011, Reporters Without Borders, an organization dedicated to freedom of information, explored the effects of an increase in internet availability in Central Asia, reduced cost of running networks, and Uzbekistan’s continued restrictions on access by citizens:
Internet access costs are gradually decreasing, thereby providing more opportunities for the population to surf the Web. Consequently the number of Internet users is rising by 2 to 3% every three months. There is still a long way to go before the Internet will be accessible to everyone, but at least access costs are no longer an insurmountable barrier…
Sensitive subjects include criticisms of the government, information on the actual state of the economy, human rights and the social situation. It is not advisable to discuss the private business of the Karimov family or their daughters’ personal lives, the forced labour of children in cotton fields, or emergency situations. It is much too risky to mention petrol supply problems, inflation, the population’s impoverishment, and social unrest. Any reference to the Andijan massacre is simply removed. The population has long since stopped bringing up the subject in public – and even sometimes in private. Self-censorship is widespread. (Reporters Without Borders, For Freedom of Information: Uzbekistan, March 11, 2011)
Interestingly but unsurprisingly, the Karimov regime recently announced plans for a state-run social media network. Uzbekistan’s government has reflected a latent fear of uprisings similar to the Color Revolutions that cascaded throughout the post-Soviet space over a decade ago (and were renewed in Ukraine in 2013-2014) as well as the role of social media in galvanizing support for multiple Arab Spring uprisings from 2010 to 2012. This fear has resulted in the state exercising a tight grip on social media access in the country. The announcement of the new state-run social media network seeks to alleviate some popular pressure on the Tashkent regime to allow for greater access to information while simultaneously maintaining tight control over the information available to the public:
State Committee for Communication and Information has announced that the domestic social network would create a “national” content that meets the requirements of the younger generation.
“We will embed the “Electronic Academy” concept in our network to enhance the knowledge of our users,” said the press statement. (Doniyor Asilbekov, Silk Road Reporters, February 22)
Social media networks are recognized by the government in Tashkent as especially dangerous to prospective dissent. The Silk Project analyzed internet access in Uzbekistan and, while noting the aforementioned improvement in infrastructure, underlined the regime’s control of access to specific websites while also highlighting the highly restricted nature of access to social media:
Although since the mid-nineties Uzbekistan has made progress in transitioning to a market-based economy, heavy restrictions and strict controls by the government are still in place. These factors deter foreign investment that could potentially help develop the Internet infrastructure in the country. The media and communications are also under government control, although it is worth mentioning that one of the few independent media outlets is an online news agency, Uznews.net. However, there is a number of websites that are fully or partially blocked by governmental agencies, mainly foreign news sites. Social networks are occasionally blocked too. (The Condition of the Internet In Uzbekistan, The Silk Road Project)
As Tashkent has tightened its control of the population’s access to to communications (especially the internet), the government has reflected a latent fear of growing popular dissent and opposition to the rule of the regime. The ability to communicate, to form cohesive opposition to a ruling regime, is now in large part derived from the ability of dissenting groups to access the internet and organize via social media. As the cost of internet access has been reduced, infrastructure has undergone modernization, and migrant workers regularly visiting Russia where access to the internet is comparatively easier to obtain, organizing opposition to an authoritarian government such as Karimov’s is exponentially improved.
Karimov and succession
Karimov assumed office in 1990 while Uzbekistan was still a part of the Soviet Union. Karimov’s career traces a trajectory that includes his role as an officer in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (appointed in 1989), first secretary of the Communist Party for Uzbekistan (1989), and president of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (1990). Karimov’s role as president of the former Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic led to his being able to declare independence for Uzbekistan in August 1991.
The line of succession, once believed to lead to his 42-year-old daughter, Gulnara Karimova, is now unclear. A noted socialite, Karimova has been effectively removed from the unofficial list of contenders following a series of incidents over the course of the past year. Much of the curiosity surrounding her seeming fall from grace among the power brokers in Tashkent originates from a falling out of sorts with her aging and dictatorial father. In recordings sent by USB and reported by BBC News, Karimova describes an isolated and confined existence, surrounded by cameras, and in need of medical attention for both herself and her 16-year-old daughter, Iman. Karimova’s daughter suffers from a heart ailment and requires regular medical attention.
Despite the protestations of Karimova, the difficulty for foreign analysts rests on lack of sources to corroborate Karimova’s claims. Karimova’s history is rife with wealth and extravagance, accompanied by erratic behavior and a compulsion for the limelight. In an incident believed to be partly responsible for her present condition, Karimova Tweeted out accusations of corruption about her family, specifically her mother, in February 2014. BBC reported the difficulty in assessing the veracity of Karimova’s claims. Karimova is heard (speaking in English) on one of the recordings describing her confinement. In March 2014, BBC reporter Natalia Antelava received a handwritten letter from Karimova updating her condition and that of her daughter:
…she said she and her daughter had been placed under house arrest. The letter was her last public communication until this month, when the short audio recordings were smuggled out of Uzbekistan. In them, Karimova says that their situation has deteriorated greatly.
“The territory of the house is basically surrounded now by hundreds of cameras and special equipment which is blocking any means of communication. So it’s tremendous pressure and stress on me and my daughter. We need medical help urgently,” Karimova says in one of the recordings. (Natalia Antelava, BBC News August 21, 2014)
Last month, reports questioning both the location and the condition of Karimova began to surface once again. Her 21-year-old son, a student in England, spoke of his mother’s condition and reinforced assessments that she was under house arrest in Uzbekistan. Leaked documents have previously provided outsiders a glimpse into Karimova’s image in Uzbekistan, one that has her roundly despised by the mostly impoverished Uzbek population. Other high-ranking members of Karimov’s regime have been similarly marginalized in the past year, further muddying the view of analysts anxious to assess the likely successor to the longtime iron-fisted ruler.
Karimov’s health has been the subject of rumors in the cloistered confines of the country’s non-state media. Much of what amounts to non-state media in Uzbekistan is run by elements of the Uzbek diaspora in both the U.S. and Europe. While opposition groups have consistently portrayed the long-serving president as declining in health, the most recent report emerged while Karimov has been absent from the public eye for at least two weeks. On February 13th, EurasiaNet reported that Karimov was once again the subject of rumors that assert he is in failing health:
He may well do again – but it now transpires that Karimov has not been seen in public for over two weeks, as the Fergana News website reports – despite the fact that a presidential election campaign in which he is the only realistic candidate is supposedly in full swing.
Karimov reportedly presented his election manifesto to his party on February 6, the UzDaily news site said. But there is no documentary evidence of that meeting. Sources in Tashkent say it was not broadcast on TV, which is highly irregular, and the presidential website carries no record of his speech, which is also unusual.
Concerns over the health of Karimov are especially important to the strategists in Moscow. While Karimov has been less engaging with the Kremlin than many in Moscow would prefer in recent years, Russia is no less concerned about the regime’s growing relationship with the U.S. The question of who would succeed Karimov should he suddenly abdicate his position as leader of the country has perplexed observers and analysts of Uzbek politics and government for years. Observers have recently taken note of the extended absence of Karimov from the public eye. Speaking specifically about likely successors, some observers turned to Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (SNB) and its leader, Rustam Inoyatov:
Umarov said he did not believe Inoyatov would succeed Karimov, pointing out that in the wake of the Andijon massacre in May 2005, Inoyatov was one of the Uzbek officials hit by the European Union with a travel ban. President Karimov was not put on that list. So Inoyatov’s odious reputation for violating rights complicates his chances for assuming Uzbekistan’s top post.
But it was noted that the SNB will have a large say in who is chosen to be Uzbekistan’s second president. (Qishloq Ovozi, February 16, RFE/RL)
The national economy remains in shambles. While migrant workers consistently travel to Russia and remittances remain a big part of sustainable income for many families in Uzbekistan, it is foreign investment which holds the golden key to progress and an improved economy in Uzbekistan. Among the most important partners in the creation of lasting infrastructure and sustainable sources of capital flow to Uzbekistan are Russia and China. While Russia remains Uzbekistan’s largest and most important trading partner, Chinese investment in Uzbekistan’s energy sector is a potential boon to the national economy. Beijing is currently funding the construction of several gas pipelines in the former Soviet states in Central Asia:
Sidikov said the economy would be a major challenge for Karimov during his next term as work becomes harder to find in Russia, remittances dry up, and hundreds of thousands of Uzbek citizens return home. Finding jobs for them will be difficult and if they remain unemployed there could be social unrest.
Uzbekistan can still count on Chinese investment but Russia is currently not in a position to sink money into Uzbekistan, a fact underscored by Moscow’s recent decision to greatly reduce imports of Central Asian gas. Until very recently, most of Uzbekistan’s exported gas went to Russia. China is building four gas pipelines to Central Asia but it is still several years until all those pipelines are finished. (Qishloq Ovozi, RFE/RL, February 16)
Geopolitical consequences for changes in policy
Russian fears of increased U.S. presence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are both compounded and underlined by the war raging in Ukraine and the latent conflict in Georgia. Strategists in Moscow, wary of an encirclement campaign and preoccupied with preventing a potential ground invasion of the Russian state, have begun pursuing a reinvigorated effort to reassert influence over the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
As I have written in other pieces on the separatist territorial issues in Georgia, Russian officials have dedicated significant diplomatic, military, and financial resources to reestablishing influence and dominance over the governments in the post-Soviet space. In Central Asia, this intensified Russian effort, while very low profile, is potentially as significant for U.S. strategic policy as is Moscow’s investment in “freezing” the conflicts in Donbass, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Recent visits by high-ranking Russian officials to the capitals in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan reflect an increasingly concerned Kremlin, worried about the perceived encroachment of the U.S. and China throughout more than two decades of post-Soviet Central Asia.
This earnest attempt to offset growing American and Chinese influence in the energy-rich but economically weak states of Central Asia is rooted in a historical paranoia over encirclement of Moscow and the center of Russian government. Geographically, Moscow is highly susceptible to invasion; the flatland of the European Plains to west lends itself to easy travel by invasion forces targeting the Russian capital. To the south, the steppes of Central Asia have been valuable to Russian security strategists for over a century.
Russian security strategists, concerned by the possibility of Western dominance of the world economy, have witnessed a severe degradation of Russian international power in the last 12 months. Through the reduction of oil prices (vital to the Russian economy) and the resulting devaluation of the Russian currency, policymakers in Moscow have assessed a growing threat to the previously re-assertive power of Russia. To many of these Russian officials, the efforts of both China and the U.S. to compete for influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia represent a growing threat to the existence of Russia as a state.
In planning a long-term strategic counterbalance to the rise of China specifically, engagement of the Chinese government on the supplying of natural gas was assessed to be a way in which the Russian government could both buy valuable time while it regained its status as a great power and link the rise of China (and its exponentially growing demand for natural gas) to Russian sources of energy. Unfortunately for China, tying itself to the Russian state for badly needed energy supplies is an insufficient guarantee of that supply in the long term.
Appropriately, China has expanded its effort to ensure that long-term energy supply by investing heavily in Central Asia. Infrastructural investments in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan represent just two policy adjustments in anticipation of potential conflict with Russia. However, this adjustment potentially exacerbates tension between Russia and China. Historically, the two states have been serious geopolitical rivals, and the energy deposits of Central Asia provide fertile ground for conflict in coming decades.
As Russia continues to battle Western dominance in Eastern Europe, growing Western influence in the South Caucasus, and the emerging value of Central Asia to both Western and Chinese interests, the metamorphosis of relations between the U.S. and former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan will be problematic for strategists in Moscow. The sale of military hardware and the calcifying of cooperation between Uzbekistan and its patrons in Beijing and Washington is a reflection of the renewal of the Great Game highlighted in Mackinder’s Heartland Theory.
How Russia assesses the policies and interests of the U.S. and China could very well define the conflict as either a diplomatic chess match or one of violent warfare fought along ethnic, religious, and ideological fault lines that were buried by decades of domination by the regime of the former Soviet Union. Based on issues of military hardware acquisition, military modernization, an effort to gain a modicum of autonomy from Moscow, simmering separatist movements, an unclear line of succession for an aging authoritarian ruler, and the growing security concerns surrounding Islamist terrorism’s spread into Central Asia, Uzbekistan could erupt into civil war.
Alternatively, the country could slide further into isolation under a similarly oppressive regime dominated by the security apparatus. Absent any real traction by an unforeseen democracy movement from inside the country, any number of outcomes are likely, none of which appear to be positive for the near-term future of Uzbekistan or the region.
(Featured photo courtesy of Gusjer and Wikimedia Commons)
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