Death of Uzbek President Signals Strategic Opportunity for Russia

Photo Credit: Daily Sabah

By: Emily Kangas, Columnist

On September 2, 2016, just one day after the 25th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence, President Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov passed away from a stroke.[i] Confronted with its first leadership change since 1989, when Karimov became president of what was then the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, Uzbekistan now faces an uncertain future—particularly as Russia looks to reassert its influence in the region.[ii] While Karimov’s death and the lack of an apparent successor present considerable challenges for Uzbek and Russian security, it also provides Russia with an opportunity to insert itself into Uzbekistan’s leadership transition, revitalize a previously tense relationship with the former Soviet republic, and ultimately reinforce its influence in Central Asia.

In the past quarter century, Uzbekistan’s relationship with Russia can best be described as tumultuous. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin did not prioritize partnerships in Central Asia, and therefore Russo-Uzbek relations diverged throughout much of the 1990s. Only in 2001, when Putin “approved” of the United States’ use of Central Asian (read “former-Soviet”) bases following the September 11th attacks, did Russia express a commitment to revitalizing its relations in the region.[iii] Russia’s attempts to rebuild relations with Uzbekistan, however, predate Karimov’s death. In 2005, following a fall out between Uzbekistan and the West over the violent Andijan killings, Putin tried to further cement relations with Uzbekistan by signing the Treaty of Allied Relations with Karimov, which allowed Russia to use an Uzbek military base.[iv] Following the treaty, Uzbekistan joined the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).[v] Putin has also attempted to reconnect with the region more broadly via economic cooperation, backing political leaders—many of whom are former Soviet officials who generally have non-democratic leadership styles—and exercising other forms of soft power in efforts to prevent many Central Asian countries from committing fully to the West.

Even with these efforts, Karimov proved to be a difficult diplomatic partner who, instead of committing fully to a partnership with Russia, pursued strategic partnerships with Russia, China, and the United States.[vi] In 2008, for example, Karimov withdrew from the EEC and in 2012 he ended, for the second time, Uzbekistan’s participation in the CSTO.[vii] And though a member, along with Russia and China, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Uzbekistan refrains from participating in military exercises. At the same time, Karimov pursued closer relations with other countries. When President Xi Jinxing of China visited Uzbekistan in September 2013, for example, the two countries signed oil, gas, and gold agreements worth an estimated $15 billion. Karimov then visited China in 2014 and signed a strategic development agreement intended to last through 2018—thereby further distancing Uzbekistan from Russia.[viii]

Despite these forays, Uzbekistan continues to represent a critical partner for Russian security and influence. Geographically, the country is at the “heart of Eurasia” and shares a rather porous border with Afghanistan—which raises concerns about the flow of terrorist fighters into and out of the country. The proximity to threats posed by the Taliban as well as homegrown terrorist threats in the east, particularly the Fergana Valley, from groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan underscores the high priority that Russia places on securing its borders in order to protect against terrorism threats emanating from the region. While Karimov’s regime was harsh and authoritarian, it provided enough stability to mitigate the threat of Islamist extremism within its borders and thus provided a buffer for Russia. Uzbekistan also holds the largest population in the region, with roughly 37 million inhabitants—more than all other Central Asian states combined. [ix] An additional 2.5 million Uzbeks live in Russia as migrant workers. Russia considers radicalized foreign fighters and radicalization at home a constant threat, and has therefore sought to maintain good relations with Uzbekistan in order to mitigate this threat. Aside from the strategic importance of the relationship in terms of border security, healthy diplomacy and cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan would help Russia reestablish its sphere of influence in former Soviet territories, which Putin views as a vital strategic move for long-term interests in the face of increasing Western-Russian tensions.[x]

Russia clearly understands the opportunity presented by a change in Uzbekistan’s leadership and has already taken steps towards strengthening its influence. On September 6, Putin visited Karimov’s hometown of Samarkand to lay flowers on his grave and to counsel Prime Minister and now interim president Shavkat Mirziyaev, Russia’s apparent selection for Karimov’s successor.[xi] To highlight the importance of this visit, compare the fact that Putin made the journey while the United States sent a mid-level diplomat to fulfill the same obligations. Putin’s rhetoric throughout the visit repeatedly emphasized Russia’s commitment to guiding Uzbekistan’s presidential transition in order to preserve stability, stating that Uzbekistan could “fully count on [Russia] as your most reliable friend.”[xii] Thus, Russia’s reaction to Karimov’s passing illustrates the priority Russia places on securing stability and influence in the strategically vital region. [xiii]

Putin’s meddling appears to have paid off. Mirziyaev was appointed acting president only two days after Putin’s visit.[xiv] The country’s parliament passed a joint resolution designating presidential responsibilities to the Prime Minister, signaling, in effect, that Mirziyaev will become the new president following elections in December. According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, however, Senate leader Nigmatailla Yuldashev should have become Uzbekistan’s acting president after Karimov’s death—though Yuldashev supposedly declined the position.[xv] Mirziyaev’s appointment, despite constitutional protocol, and his subsequent statements following Putin’s visit indicate that he considers Russia to be a strategic partner, and that he will likely pursue strengthened relations in the future.[xvi] As Uzbekistan represents a key strategic partner for Russia, Moscow will likely continue to exert its influence in Uzbekistan’s upcoming presidential election to ensure the next president does not follow in Karimov’s unpredictable footsteps and that Putin’s favored successor takes office.

[i] Holly Yan, “Longtime Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov dies after stroke,” CNN, September 2, 2016.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] James Nixey, “The Long Goodbye: Waning Russian Influence in the South Caucasus and Central Asia,” Chatham House, June 2012.

[iv] Ibid., 8.

[v] Ibid., 10.

[vi] Bobo Lo, “A Postmodern Empire,” Russia and the New World Disorder, Brookings Institution Press, 2015.

[vii] Ibid., 122.

[viii] Ibid., 122.

[ix] Ibid., 121.

[x] Marie Mendras, “Russia and the quest for lost power”, in Jacques Rupnik, ed., 1989 as a World Political Event, Routledge, 2013.

[xi] Alexander Mercouris, “Russia and Uzbekistan edge closer,” The Duran, September 7, 2016.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Alexander Mercouris, “Mirziyoyev is Uzbekistan’s new leader; relations with Russia set to grow closer,” The Duran, September 8, 2016.

[xiv] “Uzbek PM Mirziyoyev appointed acting president,” TASS, September 8, 2016.

[xv] Yan, “Longtime Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov dies after stroke.”

[xvi] Mercouris, “Miziyoyev is Uzbekistan’s new leader; relations with Russia set to grow closer.”

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