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7 September 2016

Viewing Tashkent from Moscow

As Uzbekistan confronts an unprecedented change, the Kremlin looks on with keen interest 

On August 29, local media reported that President Islam Karimov had died of a stroke which had been announced by the Cabinet of Ministers the previous day. On September 2, after much vacillation and obfuscation on the behalf of the ruling elite in Tashkent, came the announcement that Karimov was dead. Uzbekistan faces a future without the man who had steered it since before independence. Given Uzbekistan’s keystone role in Central Asia – it is the region’s most populous country by more than 31 million people and under Karimov has viewed itself as the dominant regional power – the unprecedented nature of the transition will undoubtedly attract Moscow’s interest. Karimov had refused to consider joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and single-handedly shaped its geopolitical orientation; Moscow will be keen to move to guarantee that a transition is in its interests. An analysis of Russia and Uzbekistan’s relations to date is necessary to shed light on how they will develop going forward amid such uncertainty.

In many ways, Uzbekistan’s relationship with Moscow is unique amongst the former Soviet states, although it is most comparable to that of Azerbaijan, as both states meander along the fringe of Russia’s influence without ever getting fully dragged into Moscow’s orbit. However, unlike Azerbaijan which has not joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and avoided publicizing cooperation with the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program, Uzbekistan has flirted with Western and Chinese-led intergovernmental organizations from the West and China addition to those backed by Moscow. Crucially, Karimov steadfastly rejected allowing these to develop into political associations. When Tashkent risked being drawn into a geopolitical corner, it quickly withdrew from such organisations – as with its membership in the US-backed GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development in 2005, its 2008 withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Community (the predecessor to the Eurasian Economic Union), or its 2012 withdrawal from the CSTO. Yet Karimov also avoided burning bridges, returning to cooperation with the West - on Afghanistan in particular - shortly after its withdrawal from GUAM, and continuing talks with Moscow on trade agreements and debt forgiveness, despite withdrawing from the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Community.

Uzbekistan is of particular interest to Moscow because its relationship with the Kremlin could have a significant impact on Moscow’s other regional goals as well as its economic interests. Uzbekistan has significant hydrocarbon resources, and although they are not as sizeable as those of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the largest sections of the China-Central Asia Gas pipeline run across Uzbekistan. The Kremlin has also leveraged its relations with neighbouring Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan, announcing that it would purchase gas from Tashkent rather than Ashgabat at the beginning of 2016. A diversification of Moscow’s energy ties in Central Asia is also a key part of its strategy for balancing its energy partnerships with Kazakhstan. Economic ties abound elsewhere as well, with as many as 3 million Uzbekistani nationals believed to be working in Russia – 10% of the population – and whose remittances historically contribute at least 10% of Uzbekistan’s GDP as well. Finally, it is frequently claimed the Eurasian Economic Union will only ever develop into a true economic bloc if Ukraine joins given the size of its population and economic potential, but Uzbekistan’s accession could also serve as a panacea to the organization’s woes, expanding the market by 30 million people,  with a strong youth dividend, and significant power over Eurasia’s natural gas markets.

As a result, Uzbekistan’s refusal to pursue deeper international relationships will face challenges from Moscow, particularly in the event of any transition. Calls for the US to take a larger role are emerging as well, but such decisions will likely be left until after the November presidential elections and engagement in Central Asia is unlikely to be a priority for either candidate. China, however, will remain actively interested in developments in Tashkent, given its still-growing heavy investment into the country in recent years and its desire to safeguard its new role as Central Asia’s largest trading partner. The unsustainable balance of Russian and Chinse interests in the region may well meet its greatest challenge in Uzbekistan, rather than Kazakhstan, the country most frequently described as being between the two powers. Little is known about how the relationships between Tashkent’s elite and powerful actors in China, however, what is known about the relationships of this same elite to Moscow indicates that a number of levers of influence exist.

It is worth examining the existing relationships between Moscow and the three most powerful men in Uzbekistan after Karimov – Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov and National Security Service (SNB) head Rustam Inoyatov – particularly as they are also seen as the leading candidates to succeed him. The most public connection to Moscow runs from Mirziyayev, who is related by marriage to ethnic Uzbek Russian tycoon Alisher Usmanov, a close ally of the Kremlin. Diora Usmanova is Mirziyayev's niece, and was married to Usmanov's niece, Babur Usmanov, until he died in a car crash in May 2013. Usmanov and Mirziyayev are also rumoured to have business ties. Mirziyayev is reportedly content with the Moscow-Tashkent status quo but it is likely that the Kremlin will lean on him to ensure its interests are guaranteed. If Mirziyayev is to lead a transition, it cannot be ruled out that Moscow will make demands to bring Uzbekistan closer to its orbit. Oxford-educated Finance Minister Azimov, on the other hand, is alleged to be a supporter of market liberalization, a claim that appears to be supported by a ‘Letter to the Editor’ he submitted to the Financial Times in 1994. The alleged contrast between Azimov and Mirziyayev allows itself to be all too hastily transformed into scenarios in which Azimov emerges as a pro-Western contender versus Mirziyayev as a pro-Moscow actor, although this is merely speculation. Even if Azimov is an economic reformer at heart, there is no solid evidence that he is either pro-Western or anti-Moscow. As a longstanding member of the Tashkent elite, it is more likely he is simply pro-continuity. Inoyatov, who rarely makes public appearances or statements, has only made one publicly available comment on Russia, available via Wikileaks, in which he called Russians ‘false friends’ to the US ambassador. However, the extensive operations of his SNB inside Russia would appear to indicate Inoyatov has a strong working relationship with Moscow.

Inoyatov may prove to be the crucial relationship for Moscow. Not only does the SNB dominate day-to-day life in Uzbekistan, but heightened concerns over activity by the Taliban and other Islamist groups in northern Afghanistan, and Uzbekistani nationals fighting alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, remain prominent concerns for the stability of Uzbekistan and therefore the wider region. Uzbekistan has not witnessed significant Islamist terrorist attacks in recent years and society remains fairly secular, but its destabilisation would have a major impact on the wider region and would strike a blow to Moscow’s interests.  These concerns of course predate Karimov’s recent health issues, but any uncertainty in the country will undoubtedly create fear of a resurgence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or other dissident groups. Even in the event a more secular opposition or social movement were to emerge, Uzbekistan’s government has frequently used the pretence of fighting Islamist extremism to crack down on its opponents. Moscow would likely support any such crackdown, as it did after the Andijon massacre in 2005. This support essentially was offered in exchange for Uzbekistan’s brief accession to the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Community. However, with the Kremlin emboldened by the meagre international response to its other foreign policy moves in recent years, Moscow will likely seek to extract more significant concessions.

While Karimov’s death may change much for Uzbekistan, the country will assuredly remain a focal point for competition over influence in the region - both amongst external powers and regional states. Islamist extremism, natural gas markets, the Eurasian Economic Union, the extent of economic liberalization and China’s One-Belt-One Road investment program will be pressing issues for Uzbekistan’s future regardless of who succeeds Karimov. Russia’s interests in these issues will remain as well. However, Moscow will likely seize upon the opportunity presented by Tashkent’s transition to ensure those interests are advanced. That said, while Moscow’s tactics will be determined by developments within Uzbekistan, and likely within the narrow Tashkent elite, the opportunity to build up the Eurasian Union and challenge China’s growing primacy in Central Asia may nevertheless be too tempting to pass up. 

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