(Photo: Al Jazeera)
By Joe Mawer – Contributor
In the Ancient Greek myth Atlas was a God who balanced the world on his shoulders. Like Atlas, Uzbekistan is looking to balance its foreign to stop one country’s influence becoming too heavy. This essay argues that Shakvat Mirziyoyev’s adoption of a more free trade position whilst still adhering to the multi-vectoral foreign policy strategy that was introduced by the previous Uzbek president Islam Karimov has been majorly beneficial to Uzbek people and has given Uzbekistan a greater standing, not only regionally but also globally. This essay will look at how Uzbekistan has dealt with the major powers in Uzbekistan: Russia, China and the US.
Russia has had a massive influence over the region, although this has diminished over the years since independence. Even before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia, Uzbekistan and the Central Asian region were under the control of the Russian Empire. This started with the Russian expansion into Central Asia, culminating in the conquest of the Bukharan and Khivan khanates in 1865, the land of which makes up much of modern Uzbekistan and also incorporating much of modern day Uzbekistan. This colonial occupation by Russia ended many negative traditions practised in the region, such as the Baza Bachi and the slave trade. When the Soviet Union was declared in 1924 the region was split into tribal areas, but also in way that if any of the Central Asian republics were designed, that if they became independent When the Central Asians broke away from the Soviet Union, Russia made sure that there were some security organisations by setting up the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which involves all of the Central Asian nations. In the 1990’s, Uzbekistan was mainly still under the influence of Russia, as Karimov looked to the former overlords for economic and political stability. The influence of Russia waned towards the end of the decade as the rise of the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan (IMU), coupled with the 1998 financial crisis, as it meant that Russia became more isolationist just as Uzbekistan had a major security problem. This meant that Uzbekistan became far closer to the west as they were looking for security partners for the fight against Islamist Extremists. Russia in the early 2000’s struggled to influence Uzbekistan as trade plummeted and Russia’s influence was challenged by other geopolitically traditional smaller actors like South Korea and Turkey. As the Government in Kabul collapsed, Russia engaged in security exercises on the border with Afghanistan. With Uzbekistan this happened just before the collapse and although it was not officially directed at the Taliban is did take place near the Uzbek border with Afghanistan. With the US withdrawing completely from the region, Russia is increasing its role in the security capacity in the region. It has also made Russia seem like a far more reliable partner and it may mean that Uzbekistan integrates more areas than just security.
China and Central Asia have had close relations since antiquity, especially in regions such as Xinjiang. In the 1990’s the main use of the Chinese for Uzbekistan was to balance out the relations with Russia who were the hegemon at the time. This shows that even from independence, Uzbekistan has kept the basis of the multi-vectoral policy. This is seen through the creation of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), which is the Chinese multinational organisation focussed on security. Although it started with much of the same countries of the CSTO, it has a number of countries observing and acceding to member, such as Mongolia, Armenia and Cambodia. For China, this organisation was designed to get closer economic relations, stop transnational terrorism in the Central Asian region and to prevent the ‘East Turkestan’ independence movement in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. To prevent the secessionist movements in Xinjiang, China promised to not politically interfere in Central Asia, if the Central Asian countries reciprocated. China has not just settled at this to protect its sovereign integrity, as Uighur protesters in Kazakhstan have been arrested and Central Asian newspapers who report negatively on China have been shut down, with pressure from China. Whilst much of this has not happened in Uzbekistan, it still affects the country, as there are thousands of Uighurs in Uzbekistan and the Uzbek people have been traditionally very close to the Uighurs. Like the One Belt One Road (OBOR) in 1997 there were proposed plans to improve transport in the entire region by building a railway that goes from China, through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. This never occurred due to the instability that struck Kyrgyzstan but China still invested $900 million in the region in this period. Although China was involved in Uzbekistan in the first part of the 21st Century and its trade outgrew Russia’s. When the OBOR was launched in 2013, it did not impact Uzbekistan very much. Since the death of Karimov and the rise of Mirziyoyev, Chinese investment in Uzbekistan has exploded. Even in 2017, in Mirziyoyev’s visit to China, the countries signed bilateral agreements that consisted of 11 intergovernmental agreements, 1 intermunicipal agreement, and economic contracts that totalled $22.8 billion. After the collapse of the Afghan government, China eyes huge opportunities, both in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Tajikistan have already had anti-terror drills with China and the SCO will be a crucial forum for Uzbekistan to help protect its southern border even if President Xi will not be attending the next SCO leaders meeting in Dushanbe. The collapse of the American presence in Afghanistan harms the multi-vectoral nature of Uzbek foreign policy as it has reinvigorated the need for Uzbekistan to focus on its security and with America’s ailing security influence in the region, this only leads to even closer ties with China.
Uzbek foreign policy with the US has primarily been based around security, and this is not changing. Even before 9/11, the Americans were busy in the region building security organisations that would challenge the Russian influence in the region. This involved the setting up of the Central Asian Battalion, which included Uzbek troops. Although this occurred, Uzbekistan was very much on the periphery of American foreign policy. Then 9/11 occurred and Uzbekistan moved far closer to the core of American foreign policy, not only because its proximity to Afghanistan but Uzbekistan had some issues with groups with links to the Taliban, most notably the IMU who the government blamed for the 1999 Tashkent bombing in which Islam Karimov was targeted and 16 people died. In December of 2001 the Americans became far more involved in Uzbekistan, leasing the Karshi-Khanabad air base and using it as a base to launch attacks into Afghanistan. This was also backed up with a suite of economic packages, which exceeded the Uzbek expectations initially but when the Iraq War started and American funding became more stringent, the Uzbeks got increasingly frustrated. After 2005, when the Andijan massacre was criticised by the US and Uzbekistan signed an SCO agreement which implicitly stated that no American troops should be based in SCO countries, the Americans were expelled by Uzbekistan in the airbase. There was still an American military presence in Central Asia until 2014 when America’s final base in Kyrgyzstan was closed down. After 2005, America has not regained its foothold that it once had and time after time it has been ignored by American policy makers. The Obama administration continued the policy of promoting democracy in the Central Asian region. Uzbekistan’s democracy has improved since Mirziyoyev has come to power and the use of terror on the population has diminished, this has not been because of US policy but almost solely down to the change in leadership. Under Trump, America was investing more in Central Asia, with $180 million, which is far less than even some of its close allies like Germany, who have invested over $1 billion into the Uzbek economy alone. Unlike his predecessor, Trump did not aim to spread democracy in the region but the reversal of that policy did not make much of an impact on Uzbekistan as the democratisation of the economy and the state has taken place without the Western impetus. There was far more pressure placed on Karimov to make changes after the Andijan massacre than under Obama’s reign and freedoms where reversed. Even in the short time after President Trump’s departure, there has been a massive change in American policy around Central Asia and Uzbekistan. This is because now Central Asia is now facing the consequences of Biden’s decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan. Refugees camped out on Friendship Bridge at Termez and the Uzbek government have deported some soldiers who crossed the border illegally to escape from the Taliban. America in one simple move has destroyed one of its major historical foreign policy strengths, and even though the US is increasing investment in other areas, it is still not enough.
Overall, the multi-vectoral foreign policy has been beneficial to Uzbekistan and prevented from being under the thumb of a single country. It has allowed it to retain large degrees of autonomy that its neighbours have not achieved. Tajikistan, for example had to hand over some of its land to pay off debts in 2011. This does not mean that Uzbek foreign policy with China has been perfect and Uzbekistan has a far too great a reliance on Chinese investment. This will ease over time as connectivity to South Asia and the sea. Until then Uzbekistan has to be careful and can build on its current relations with Russia and America to try become less reliant on the regional hegemon.