During the April 2008 NATO Summit, an interesting new turn took place in the context of NATO’s post-Soviet relations. It was agreed that a railroad line would be created to transport the cargo from Europe through the territory of some CIS countries, including Russia, toward Afghanistan. Soon after this event, in June, an informal CIS summit took place in St. Petersburg, in which Uzbek President Islam Karimov initiated the proposal to merge the CSTO and EurAsEc, perhaps, to promote the counterbalance to NATO. But did these gestures provide a solution to Uzbekistan’s foreign policy woes?
BACKGROUND: After the May 2005 Andijan tragedy, three foreign policy trends have been discerned among three states – Uzbekistan, the United States, and the Russian Federation, with respect to their mutual relationships. These trends are: Uzbek reversionism, Russia’s revanchism, and U.S. revisionism. The first political trend implies that Uzbekistan reversed its orientations back in favor of Russia at the expense of its strategic relations with the U.S.. The second trend meant that Russia took advantage of this situation and undertakes a neo-imperial agenda in Central Asia. The third trend signified that the United States reconsidered its attitude towards Uzbekistan, which was previously seen as a key country for the U.S. Central Asian policy. Today, it can be said that the first trend failed, the second one has been suspended, and the third one canceled.
Two controversial Uzbek foreign policy gestures appeared to signal its balance-of-power strategy. After some years of rupture in mutual relations, Uzbekistan at last this year decided to reverse its foreign policy in favor of cooperation with NATO. Cargoes will pass the town of Termez in Uzbekistan and the Khayraton bridge connecting Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. The Uzbek President pointed out the necessity of constructive interaction between his country and NATO, which might include security measures, cooperation in the environmental and humanitarian spheres, as well as in democratization and modernization. He emphasized several priorities with regard to Afghanistan: a solution to the social and economic problems including counter-narcotics measures; respect for religious, national and cultural values of the people of Afghanistan; respect for the interests of national minorities; successiveness and a step-by-step approach to state-building and formation of civil society institutions; elimination of border problems with Pakistan; restoration of the diplomatic process on peace and stability in Afghanistan in the framework of the UN-supported “6+2” contact group format, which existed in 1997-2001, and was made up of the neighbors of Afghanistan plus the U.S. and the Russian Federation). Uzbekistan initiated a new, “6+3” format with NATO as a party.
This motion almost coincided with the other steps in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy, specifically President Karimov’s initiative on the merger of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The Uzbek President based this idea on his perception that these two organizations duplicated each other. Moreover, it was argued that such a unification of two organizations would bring more strength to them and serve as a counterweight to NATO. However, it is obvious that there is no duplication between these two very different organizations – which differ both in mission and composition.
IMPLICATIONS: At first glance, in the Western direction, Uzbek policies look like a double success: on the one hand, Uzbekistan seems to improve its relations with the U.S. without worsening relations with Russia; and on the other, Uzbekistan managed to manifest itself as a key country in Central Asia and in the Afghan peace process. But within the CIS format, its policies could rather be termed a double failure. First, Uzbekistan’s initiative was not timely and raised in the proper place, which is why it was not immediately supported by other EurAsEc and CSTO member states; and secondly, Uzbekistan manifested itself as a proponent of the old-fashioned balance-of-power geopolitics whereas it might have prioritized win-win policies of great powers in the Central Asian region.
Such a success in the Western direction comes alongside the general “positive” tendency in the West towards reformulating the Central Asian strategy of the EU, U.S., and NATO. In the framework of this tendency, it seems that one priority, which is energy security interests, supersedes the previous one, which were democracy and human rights issues. And failure in the CIS direction comes side-by-side with the “negative” tendency in the Central Asian region towards further de-integration of the five regional countries. Therefore, any integrationist attempt within the CIS/EurAsEc/CSTO will contradict de-integrationist behavior within Central Asia.
One can assume from the above contemplations that Uzbekistan’s foreign policy remains uncertain because its national interests are uncertain. Meanwhile, from the point of view of the national interests of Uzbekistan, any foreign policy initiatives or improvements in relationships with other countries should stem from the “Central Asia First” strategic formula. That’s why any “success” in the CIS/EurAsEc/CSTO direction will inevitably further discredit any solely Central Asian regional format and uncover the unreadiness, reluctance or even inability of all five countries concerned (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) to undertake a regional cooperation model without and outside a structure dominated by a great power – in practice Russia.
The “6+3” process can be launched, cargo can be transported from Europe to Afghanistan through the territory of Uzbekistan, EurAsEc can merge with the CSTO, and anything else can be decided outside Central Asia, regarding Central Asia. But until and unless the five countries of the region concerned restore and revitalize their own integration structure and start to conduct a coordinated foreign and security policy, these countries will face frustration and remain vulnerable to great power rivalries over the region, for which they themselves will to a considerable extent be responsible.
CONCLUSIONS: Despite the apparent double success in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy in the Western direction, it can hardly be regarded as a product of a long-term strategic design. It is rather good fortune and timing. At the same time, the decision on cooperation with NATO and its successive “CSTO plus EurAsEc” proposal, albeit a seeming signal of an “attractive” balance of power policy, is not yet a token of a solution of the conceptual problems in its foreign policy formulation. This problem remains unresolved, and Uzbekistan’s foreign policy trends remain unstable and reactive rather than being steady and proactive. One of several reasons for this seems to be underestimation and obstruction of Central Asian regional cooperation and coordination.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science, and is Associate Professor at the National University of Uzbekistan.