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Peculiarities of Uzbekistan's Policy towards Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Saturday, October 31, 2015 - 12:20

People always try to see the motives behind your actions, to use your predictability against you. Make an absolutely inexplicable move, and they will have to take a defensive position. When they cannot understand you, they start to get nervous. And when the enemies are nervous, you can easily intimidate them.


R. Green. 48 Laws of Power and Seduction


Uzbekistan occupies a special place among the republics of Central Asia due to its rather unpredictable foreign policy. Graphically, Tashkent's strategy is a sine curve, in which the smooth transition from one to another indicator (deepening of cooperation with the US or Russia) is ensured by two factors: stable foreign economic relations with China and permanently strained relations with the closest neighbors.


Noteworthy, the basis of Uzbekistan's behavior is the principle of “zero sum game,” which suggests the existence of two constants: the possibility of violation of international agreements and the principle of intransigence in resolving strategic issues. This is most obvious in the situation around the two key problems of the Uzbek-Tajik relations:


  • - the construction of the Rogun HPP, which is consistently torpedoed by Tashkent on the basis of allegations that the hydro-power facility will violate the irrigation system of cross-border territories and is a risky project from the viewpoint of seismic safety;
  • - the activities of the export-forming enterprise of Tajikistan (which provides 75 percent of the country's foreign currency earnings) – Tajik Aluminum Company (TALCO), which the Uzbek side demands to close because of its negative impact on the environment.


Tashkent uses Tajikistan's dependence on Uzbek gas supplies and transit of Turkmen electricity through Uzbekistan as leverage, periodically ceasing them (winters of 2008-2009 and 2011-2012). In addition, the government of Uzbekistan insists on an independent international examination of the expediency of the Rogun HPP, for which the construction of hydro-power facility needs to be suspended, with attraction of investors blocked.


Uzbekistan did not recognize the positive evaluation of the HPP by the World Bank expert groups. Also, since 2004, the republic has been refusing to sign the annual protocols with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan on mutual deliveries of water and energy resources. As a result, a legal vacuum was formed in the field of water and energy usage in Central Asia, allowing Tashkent to act solely on the basis of their interests.


A similar legal situation exists in the field of border conflicts. In particular, Tashkent refuses to carry out joint activities to investigate incidents on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, and closes border entry points without notifying the neighboring states, thus violating the intergovernmental agreement on the border crossing points. In addition, Uzbekistan seeds with mines certain parts of the border with Tajikistan, neglecting the fact that delimitation and demarcation activities have not been finished. This contradicts to the Ottawa Convention of 18 September, 1997, which prohibits the manufacture, transfer and use of antipersonnel mines.


Thus, the tactics of double standards can be observed in Uzbekistan's policy towards Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan: the opponents must comply with international agreements, while Uzbekistan considers it possible to impose its jurisdiction standards and to defend its interests uncompromisingly. It appears that the basis of this type of behavior is the national idea of Uzbekistan, which implies restoring the authority and power of the Uzbek people to the level of the times of Amir Timur, who was proclaimed the nation's ideological symbol.


This ideological underlying motive of Uzbekistan's ambitions and foreign policy towards the region is supported by a number of objective factors:


  • 1. Demographically, the republic ranks first in the region in terms of population (30.742 million people as of 2014, according to the World Bank);
  • 2. Uzbekistan has the largest army in Central Asia (55,000 strong);
  • 3. The republic has great reserves of hydrocarbon resources, which ensures higher GDP per capita ($5,290) than in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan ($3,080 and $2,500 respectively).


These factors allow the President of Uzbekistan to make statements about the possible threat of military conflicts in Central Asia caused by the format of water resources usage, namely the energy resources that are of strategic importance for Bishkek and Dushanbe, or the irrigation water that is profitable for Tashkent.


Nevertheless, Uzbekistan is unlikely to initiate a regional armed conflict for two reasons:


  • 1. This will be a fact of involving terrorist and religious extremist groups into the conflict. The threat of these groups is recognized by all Central Asian states and international organizations to which they belong (in particular, the SCO and the CSTO);
  • 2. This can undermine Uzbekistan's political stability, with the opposing Liberal Democratic forces and radical Islamist groups stirring up amid military actions.


In addition, Tajikistan's and Kyrgyzstan's membership in the CSTO guarantees the organization's support for these countries in the event of an armed conflict. In turn, taking into account the current “defrosting” in the US-Uzbek relations, and the fact that Tashkent provides the platform for the NATO regional center, the likelihood of the regional conflict transforming into the detonator of an armed geopolitical confrontation of world powers increases. In this coordinate system, Uzbekistan's claims for the regional leadership can move into the utopia category. Therefore, Uzbekistan's statements about the possibility of a regional “water war” should be considered as an information and psychological pressure on the neighboring countries and creation of an atmosphere of uncertainty in inter-state cooperation.


However, the unpredictability of Tashkent is manifested not only bilaterally, but also multilaterally – towards the American project “New Silk Road” and the EEU. In the first case, it appears that Uzbekistan does not consider the “New Silk Road” perspective, based on existing experience of cooperation with the US and in spite of taking an active part in the construction of railways in Afghanistan. This can be seen in the situation around a cornerstone element of the project – CASA-1000 – which requires the generating capacity of the Rogun HPP to be implemented. In this aspect, not so much the risk of flooding the agricultural land after the station's launch is important for Tashkent, but the expected increase of competition in the Afghan energy market, where Uzbekistan has been present since 2007, planning to supply 1.5 billion kW/h of electricity in 2015.


In addition, despite the friendly external relations, the US State Department gives a negative evaluation of the protection of human rights in Uzbekistan in its reports.


In particular, the 2014 report defines Uzbekistan as an authoritarian state in which the executive branch under the leadership of President Islam Karimov is hypertrophied, controlling all aspects of socio-political and economic life. It emphasizes the non-competitive nature of the presidential and parliamentary elections, and the inconsistency of their procedures with international standards. Moreover, according to the report, the following violations are ubiquitous in the country: torture of prisoners, violations of the investigative and judicial processes, violations of religious freedom expressed in harassment against members of religious minorities and the duration of their detention incommunicado, restricted freedom of speech, press, assembly and movement, as well as forced labor.


Tashkent finds the EEU integration unacceptable for exogenous and endogenous reasons. On the one hand, participation in the Eurasian integration involves:


  • 1. Development in accordance with the ideological way offered by Uzbekistan's regional rival – Kazakhstan;
  • 2. Adoption of the conditions and regulations that have already been developed and will not be transformed to comply with the requirements of a new member;
  • 3. Interaction with integration bloc partners on the principles of mutual concessions and compromise, which is contrary to the established image of Tashkent.


It appears that these factors are the basis of Karimov's statements of non-entry of Uzbekistan in associations reminiscent of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, peculiarities of Uzbekistan's foreign policy are also determined by external factors:


  • - The established difficult socio-economic situation in the country leads to a high level of shadow economy;
  • - As a result of the rigid political system, the country's leadership needs to search for an external enemy constantly in order to prove their own legitimacy.


At the same time, border closures and bans on agricultural exports often practiced by the Uzbek side are the main cause of growth of the shadow trade with the neighboring republics. In this case, border settlements become the channels of merchandise transportation between the two countries, while the benefits go to:


  • - The Uzbek leaders, who emphasize the dependence of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the infrastructure, natural resources and economic potential of the neighbor;
  • - The Border Service, as its representatives take certain bribes for illegal trading;
  • - Traders, who avoid customs control procedures.


The EEU integration would mean abandoning these “preferences.”


Meanwhile, a remarkable thing is the declarative softening of Uzbekistan's rhetoric towards Tajikistan that was observed at the beginning of negotiations on the resumption of flight connection between the two countries (which is currently suspended). Probably, realizing the long-term futility of building trade relations with unstable Afghanistan (even on the rights of a leader) under the condition of Turkmenistan's restraint and Iran's uncertain status, Tashkent decided to create a “safety cushion” by normalizing relations with Tajikistan, the latter demonstrating no special interest in the Eurasian integration.


In turn, Kyrgyzstan's accession to the EEU is likely to have caused the drastic cooling of relations between Tashkent and Bishkek, which is especially apparent in tensions at the level of leaders of the two countries. In this aspect, revealing is the meeting of heads of the CIS countries held on May 8, 2015.


Tashkent is trying to emphasize their superiority and desire to resolve disputes directly with Moscow as an equal party to the negotiations. This was demonstrated during the settlement of the gas issue between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The latter restored gas supplies to the south of the neighboring republic only after the official visit of Vladimir Putin to Uzbekistan in December 2014.


Summarizing the analysis of the nature of Uzbekistan's foreign policy towards Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, we should emphasize the following points:


  • - The heart of Uzbekistan's “capricious” foreign policy is the ideological maxim that the Uzbek people is the heir to the empire of Amir Timur, which gives the republic a leading role in Central Asia;
  • - In view of this, no parity in relations with the neighboring countries with lower levels of socio-economic development is acceptable;
  • - However, membership in integration associations with a high degree of institutionalization, requiring changes in the functioning of the economic and political systems, is fraught with turbulent moments in the social and political life of the country, considering the need for redistribution of the influence zones between elite groups engaged in reducing the shadow economy;
  • - In addition, Uzbekistan's claims to be the regional leader are incompatible with the Eurasian integration, as the ideological milestones of the process have been established by Uzbekistan's regional competitor – Kazakhstan;
  • - However, cooperation with the US on the project “New Silk Road” is beneficial for Uzbekistan only in the initial stage and only in regard to the construction of railways. In future, their operation will be either terminated under the continuing instability in Afghanistan, or used to channelize the flow of drugs in Uzbekistan;
  • - These circumstances, in spite of the controversy over the construction of the Rogun HPP, are forcing Tashkent to demonstrate a certain loyalty to Dushanbe. The latter, being indifferent to the Eurasian integration project but maintaining smooth relations with Moscow, can become Uzbekistan's “safety cushion” in the event of another round of tensions with the US or the lack of benefits from Afghanistan.


Thus, it appears that Uzbekistan is considering two integration options: either a strictly institutionalized organization where the republic plays the engine role, or a deliberative form of interaction that Karimov proposed for the Central Asian Economic Community in 2001. However, advisory organizations, whose popularity reached the peak in the “radical” sovereignty period of the early 1990s, have outlived their usefulness, and the new geopolitical realities require effective integration initiatives involving reciprocal concessions for the sake of more important preferences and benefits. 

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