UZBEKISTAN AND RUSSIA: ALLIANCE AGAINST A MYTHIC THREAT?
BACKGROUND: Uzbekistan’s falling into Russia’s embrace was preceded by a chain of events that, on the one hand, have led to Uzbekistan’s recent isolation from the West, and, on the other hand, reinforced the geopolitical competition of great powers over Central Asia. The main reason behind the Karimov-initiated Uzbek-Russian alliance was undoubtedly the freezing of Uzbekistan’s relationship with the West in general and America in particular in the aftermath of the May 2005 Andijan events. The Uzbek President met western demands on an international investigation of what was called “indiscriminate use of force against an unarmed population” in Andijan painfully and angrily. Having appealed to the principle of sovereignty, and insisting that this problem was an internal Uzbek affair, he overlooked Uzbekistan’s international obligations and rejected any possibility of an international investigation.
Karimov did not make a secret of the anti-Western character of the Alliance. In his traditional pre-travel interview at Tashkent’s airport before getting on the flight to Moscow, he emphasized that Uzbekistan had to rely on a strong power like Russia in the face of the western offensive on Uzbekistan. In fact, Karimov made it clear that the West threatens his country. But is this really the case, or is there a serious confusion of terms that describe the mode of cooperation?
A strategic partnership is normally defined as a special type of cooperation between states, a type characterized by the following features. First, the strategic partners have reached a very high level of mutual trust and confidence; second, cooperation between them is intended for a long-term perspective; third, intensive cooperation takes place not just in one but in many spheres with special emphasis on national security interests; fourth, the sides have common or very close interests in international politics and can correlate their positions on key international issues; fifth, such a partnership inevitably has long-term geopolitical implications on the regional and international levels. Prominent examples are the United States’ relations with Great Britain, Turkey, and Japan. In Russian, the term alliance is used in two senses. Alliance as an association (soyuznicheskiye otnosheniya) is a type of cooperation arising in reaction to a common enemy or a threat to vital interests. It is a loose association, or coalition-like relation between states, with examples including the anti-Hitler coalition or the anti-terrorist coalition.
An alliance as a block (voenno-politicheskiy blok) or union, on the other hand, is an institutionalized form of cooperation of states in the politico-military sphere and primarily an integrative relation, with examples including NATO, the former Warsaw Pact, the EU, or the CIS. It is more characteristic to the regional collective security systems.
Which one of these three do Uzbek-Russian relations fit in? From a strategic point of view, the purpose of the Alliance Treaty is dubious. There is no enemy and no threat to make such an alliance so urgent or expedient. It would have been more relevant, for example, at moments of severe threats from Afghanistan during the period from 1996 to 2001. But Afghanistan is no longer a threat, since, according to Tashkent’s official position, the anti-terrorist military campaign in that country is successful and there is no need to keep a U.S. military base in Uzbekistan. Even the challenge of the so-called color revolution like that in Georgia, Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan does not yet pose a threat to the vital interests of the country, although it could pose a potential threat to the existing political regime. The recent color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, even if one agrees that they were inspired by the US, did not constitute a threat to vital interests of the respective states, nor were they an aggression by an enemy on their territory. There was no reason for the leaders of these countries, for the purposes of national security, to devise an alliance with Russia. On the other hand, traditional Russian friends in Central Asia including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan did not go so far as to proclaim an alliance with Russia, although they appear to be de facto permanent Russian allies.
IMPLICATIONS: Who is the enemy? Allies have to consider the same enemies and the same threats. But it is obvious, for the time being, that what is an enemy for Uzbekistan is not an enemy for Russia. Whereas Russia tries to maintain strategic relations with the U.S., Uzbekistan no longer seems to do so. By and large, the Russian-Uzbek Alliance Treaty, as compared to the previous treaty on Strategic Partnership, in fact seems to have been written for the sake of one new article only. This new article stipulates that aggression by any state or a group of states against one of the sides will be considered an aggression against both. All other principle provisions already existed in the Strategic partnership Treaty including the following: first, if a situation emerges that could negatively affect mutual security interests or the security interests of one party, a mechanism of consultations could be launched for adjusting positions and coordinating practical measures to manage the situation; second, if the situation so dictates, the parties can provide military installations located on their own territory to each other. Given the absence of a real common enemy or common threats to vital interests of the two parties, and the fact that Uzbekistan has so far pursued a policy of declining to take part in military blocs, the Alliance Treaty fits in none of the abovementioned modes of alliance-like cooperation. Strategic partnership has been the most appropriate mode. It provided enough legal and political ground for long-term close cooperation in all spheres and already opened the way for everything that today - after the Alliance Treaty - became a matter of euphoria and glory in Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, the mass media in Uzbekistan immediately started a propaganda campaign expressing admiration for what was very recently the object of criticism and disappointment, that is Russia and its policy in Central Asia. On the official level and in the mass media of Uzbekistan, the United States - which is being referred to as “some foreign forces” - is blamed for a hegemonic attitude with respect to Uzbekistan and a reluctance to provide real economic assistance. Surprisingly, however, they consciously or unconsciously overlook the fact that for over seventy years “other foreign forces”, not the United States, had been the real hegemonic power in Central Asia. At independence, those “forces” left this region in a state of raw material suppliers to the Center.
It is also worth mention that while the Uzbek-American Declaration on Strategic Partnership signed in March 2002 mentions such terms as democratic values, institutions or democratization 11 times, the Uzbek-Russian Treaty says not one word on democracy as such.
CONCLUSIONS: From all the aforementioned, it can be assumed that Uzbekistan’s seeming defensive action against the alleged Western offensive is aimed not at the protection of the country but solely at the protection of the regime.
The positive changes in the overall relationships between Uzbekistan and Russia were too swift and too controversial to be real. In fact, there should be nothing new in this relationship except a demonstration or show-case effect. Better relations between Uzbekistan with Russia are needed and can be effective. But this should not be done at the expense of relations with the West and the obligations fixed in the Uzbekistan-U.S. Declaration on Strategic Partnership. In fact, the questions arises whether Karimov voided all, albeit modest, assets of fifteen years of independence for the sake of a Russian security umbrella against a mythic American threat.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Farkhod Tolipov, PhD in Political Science, independent researcher, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.