Photo Credit: Kremlin Official Website
By: Patrick Savage, Columnist
On December 4th, 2016, Uzbekistan will go to the polls to choose its second president in its 25 years as an independent state. The results of that election will likely have no impact on the political status quo within Uzbekistan. Considering ongoing global instability, a continuation of that status quo may be in the best interests of international peace and security and US regional interests for the near future—however unpalatable that status quo may be in terms of human rights.
When Islam Karimov died in September of this year, he was the only president that Uzbekistan had ever known in its existence. Karimov’s rule actually predated Uzbekistan’s independence: he rose to power as the nation’s Communist Party boss in 1989, when Uzbekistan was still a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. His time in office was characterized by a lack of open democratic processes and free speech, severe political repression, and human rights violations that included arbitrary detention and torture.[i]
After presidential elections on December 4, the new president will almost certainly be current Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been Uzbekistan’s interim president since Karimov’s death. During this period Mirziyoyev has taken measures to raise public confidence in his leadership and soften tense relations with Uzbekistan’s neighbors, including easing financial and business regulations and calling for regional dialogue. But the fundamentally autocratic nature of Uzbekistan’s government is not expected to change under Mirziyoyev, who has pledged to continue his predecessor’s policies.[ii] This continuity may be in the best interests of Uzbekistan, the region at large, and the United States.
Given US interests in Central Asia, as well as the interests of its partners and rivals, it is in the United States’ best interests for a strong, centralized government with the means to ensure security to maintain control over Uzbekistan in the near term. Uzbekistan’s security and stability matter to the United States due to its location in the heart of Central Asia and Eurasia, its generous supplies of natural resources, and its potential to maintain a balance of power the region. Uzbekistan has been an important partner for the United States in its War on Terrorism since 9/11, serving as a transit point for supplies and equipment heading into Afghanistan. The United States has also counted on Uzbekistan to counter Russian influence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has striven to strike a path independent of Moscow, a situation that Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager to reverse following Karimov’s death.[iii] China also has a strong interest in Uzbekistan, viewing it as a vital component of its New Silk Road initiative of investment and infrastructure development. China has already been increasing cooperation with Uzbekistan to ensure the security of energy pipelines in the region, and it serves as Uzbekistan’s second-largest export partner and its largest import partner.[iv]
It is with this strategic importance in mind we must view Uzbekistan’s security threats, terrorism being the most serious. Uzbekistan shares a border with Afghanistan, where the Taliban—and now the Islamic State—continue to fight the Afghan national government. The threat that spillover from that ongoing conflict poses to Uzbekistan, a Muslim majority nation, cannot be discounted, especially when significant numbers of Uzbek citizens have gone abroad to fight for terrorist groups. IS forces based in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been actively recruiting Uzbek militants over the past five years, using them to carry out attacks throughout the region, such as an October 26 attack in Pakistan that left more than 60 people dead.[v]
The foreign fighter problem is not limited to Central and Southwest Asia. Currently, Uzbek nationals are believed to be among the 1,000 foreign fighters in the ranks of IS defenders in Mosul, Iraq, part of a large force of such fighters active in the Middle East.[vi] According to a 2015 study performed by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, in 2014 there were an estimated 500 Uzbek nationals fighting in Iraq and Syria. This is roughly equal to the number of British or German nationals fighting in the region during the same period, representing approximately 9.5 and 7.5 foreign fighters per capita in those countries respectively.[vii] Considering Britain and Germany have populations more than twice that of Uzbekistan, the proportion of Uzbeks traveling overseas to fight for radical groups is worrying.
If these fighters return home, the threat posed to Uzbekistan and Central Asia could be high, and the weaknesses inherent in a government transitioning to a less autocratic system could severely amplify Uzbekistan’s existing vulnerability to terrorism and violent uprising. The potential consequences of a failed state steeped in anarchy in the heart of Eurasia are numerous and severe. A duplicate of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria in the center of Eurasia could create a volatile new frontline in the War on Terror. The turmoil could give Russia an opportunity to extend its influence over a holdout to its regional hegemony. And greater instability could uproot China’s New Silk Road, with the spillover having repercussions for its trade policies towards the US. Neighbor Afghanistan—and to a lesser extent, nearby Pakistan—have already illustrated the likelihood, consequences, and persistence of this outcome in the region. The possibility of a similar situation in Uzbekistan is not unfounded.
A short-term continuation of Karimov’s policies, even given their denial of human rights and free and open government, is admittedly a tough sell. Some have rightly argued that Karimov inflated the risk of terrorism in his country to justify his oppressive policies.[viii] That may have been true in the past, but considering the number of Uzbeks now fighting overseas, the threat posed by their return is far more tangible. The United States should have a free, democratic Uzbekistan as its ultimate goal. But with the security situation that Uzbekistan currently faces and the vulnerability a chaotic transition could create, continuity of the Karimov status quo is the best way forward for US interests.
[iii] Ryan Browne, “US loses partner in terror war with death of Uzbekistan’s leader”, CNN, last modified September 3, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/02/politics/islam-karimov-death-us-uzbekistan-relations/.
[iv] “China’s Xi lauds new Silk Road, says $15 billion invested last year”, Reuters, last modified June 23, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-uzbekistan-china-idUSKCN0Z90C9; “Uzbekistan,” CIA: The World Factbook, last modified November 3, 2016, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/uz.html.
[v] Associated Press, “Islamic State Group Flourishes and Recruits in Pakistan,” New York Times, November 13, 2016, accessed November 13, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/11/13/world/asia/ap-as-pakistan-islamic-state.html?_r=0.
[vi] “Mosul battle: Iraqi special forces ‘break front line’”, BBC, last modified November 2, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37843431.
[vii] Peter R. Neumann, “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s”, ICSR, last modified January 26, 2015, http://icsr.info/2015/01/foreign-fighter-total-syriairaq-now-exceeds-20000-surpasses-afghanistan-conflict-1980s/.
[viii] Ryan Browne, “US loses partner in terror war with death of Uzbekistan’s leader”, CNN, last modified September 3, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/02/politics/islam-karimov-death-us-uzbekistan-relations/.