Uzbekistan Emerges as Russias New Strategic Bridgehead in Central Asia
Uzbekistan has rapidly developed into what some analysts describe as Russia's "largest strategic bridgehead" in Central Asia. A mutual security pact concluded in November opens the way for the establishment of a Russian military base on Uzbek territory. Moscow is also looking to rapidly expand its economic influence in the Central Asian nation.
Uzbek leader Islam Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the security pact in Moscow on November 14. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The signing ceremony occurred a week before the last US military aircraft departed from an Uzbek air base at Karshi-Khanabad, culminating a process that started with the Karimov administration's eviction order in late July. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russian political analysts have described the recent turn of geopolitical events in Uzbekistan as a great "victory for Russian diplomacy." Alexei Malashenko, a Central Asia expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, asserted in an interview published by the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper that the restoration of Russia's position in Uzbekistan had been one of the Kremlin's top geopolitical priorities. Russian leaders, however, show no signs of contentment with recent diplomatic successes. Some analysts believe that Moscow will continue to expand its influence across Central Asia, including in Kyrgyzstan, which is home to the sole remaining US military base in the region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Uzbek-Russian pact creates the possibility of the establishment of a permanent Russian base in Uzbekistan. But Russian officials say there is no hurry to place Russian troops in the country. The Gazeta newspaper quoted Akhmed Bilalov, the deputy head of the Russian Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, as saying that Uzbek troops "are capable of preserving peace and stability on the border with Afghanistan on their own." Eventually, Russia may try to set up a forward operating base in Uzbekistan with a relatively small number of troops, Sergei Karaganov, the chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, suggested in an interview with Echo Moskvy radio. Such a facility could be rapidly expanded, if circumstances warranted such action. "The prospect of rendering mutual assistance in the event of conflict is [in itself] a deterrent," Karaganov said.
As Uzbekistan becomes strategically dependent on Moscow, other analysts say, the Kremlin will look to expand economic ties, aiming to secure a prominent role for the Russian energy giants Gazprom and Lukoil in several lucrative oil and gas projects in Uzbekistan. Some experts also suggest that Russia will press Karimov on a debt-for-assets swap, in which Russia would forgive Uzbekistan's roughly $500 million debt in exchange for control over two strategic aircraft factories.
The process of Uzbekistan's economic integration into Russian-dominated structures is already underway. Tashkent has applied for membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), according to Grigoriy Rapota, the secretary-general of the organization. "The application is under consideration at present," the Kyrgyz news agency Kabar reported Rapota as saying in a report distributed December 8.
There are a few Russian analysts who are wary of Moscow's deepening involvement with the Karimov administration. The dissenting voices warn that the short-term strategic gains achieved by the signing of the mutual defense pact could be wiped out over the longer term. They add that Karimov's hold on power may be tenuous, given the large and perhaps growing domestic opposition to his rule. They are also alarmed that the Karimov administration has done little to address the economic complaints that serve as the foundation of popular discontent. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. This leaves open the possibility that Russia could get sucked into what would be essentially an Uzbek civil war pitting the Karimov administration against its opponents.
Strong Russian support for Karimov also stands to be a source of friction in Russia's relations with the United States and the European Union, a few analysts in Moscow suggest. Both the United States and European Union demanded an independent investigation into the Andijan events, in which Uzbek troops killed hundreds of civilians. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Uzbekistan's refusal to comply has prompted the United States and the EU to take retaliatory action. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Meanwhile, Karimov continues to vilify the United States and the EU. In a December 7 speech, the Uzbek leader suggested that the US democratization strategy was ill-conceived. "There is no and cannot be a single model of universal democracy," Karimov said. "I think it is short-sighted for a country that views itself as the most powerful country to say that its own model of democracy is applicable everywhere."
"Think for yourselves dear friends, exporting democracy and introducing it forcibly from abroad is in itself against the nature of the concept of democracy," Karimov added.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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