Uzbekistan's recent decision to suspend participation in the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) came as both a surprise and a shock.
The EAEC members -- Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and, after it joined in January 2006, Uzbekistan -- had committed to adopting common policies on trade, migration, currency exchange, and infrastructure development.
Russia, the leading party promoting the EAEC, was putting increasing emphasis on close economic cooperation, given the volatility of world markets and the East-West divide that emerged following the Russian-Georgian conflict in August. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Uzbekistan's decision was communicated by a diplomatic note from the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the EAEC Secretariat in mid October, but the decision was only made public on November 12. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Uzbek withdrawal came as a surprise because the EAEC has appeared in recent years to be an organization on the rise. With the resurgent influence of Russia, fueled by rising revenues from energy sales and a recovering national economy, the EAEC was viewed by some officials as a means to help the Kremlin achieve its long-held goal of creating and maintaining a "single economic space" in the former Soviet space. Tashkent's move takes some wind out of the EAEC's sails.
The timing of the Uzbek announcement also raises questions, given the emphasis the Russian leaders have put on linking security and economic cooperation. Uzbekistan's move will fuel speculation by those who attribute Uzbekistan's dissatisfaction with the EAEC to "Great Game" political machinations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some observers claimed in the past that Uzbekistan was pried away from its traditional diplomatic moorings in the post-Soviet space and lured by political alignments to the West in response to the threats of extremist insurrection movements such as that of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
But Uzbekistan found relations with the West to be demanding. Western criticism of Uzbekistan's human rights record, insistence on liberal economic policies and political reform, and acceptance of non-governmental organizations led to a parting of ways. Uzbekistan's leaders became increasingly concerned about a groundswell of popular dissatisfaction reminiscent of Georgia's "Rose Revolution" and Ukraine's "Orange Revolution." When political disorder broke out in eastern Uzbekistan in the city of Andijan in June 2005, Uzbek officials responded with force.
After the Uzbek government expelled US military forces from the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in the southern part of Uzbekistan, Russian leaders saw an opportunity for reviving commercial and diplomatic relations. Uzbekistan's 180-degree reversal was punctuated by its decision to join the EAEC in 2006.
Observers may now see the Uzbek decision to withdraw from the EAEC as an equally abrupt change in political alignment. They cite the recent lifting of EU sanctions against travel for Uzbek officials as an illustration of a thaw in western attitudes toward Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But it is overly simplistic to interpret Uzbekistan's decisions in this context. To claim, as some analysts have, that as a general rule what "strengthens the influence of the United States weakens the influence of Russia" is a zero-sum interpretation of international affairs more fitting for the 19th century than the 21st in the era of globalization.
Analysts do Central Asia a great disservice by interpreting all events in such a way that the countries of the region are objects in Great Power competition, rather than subjects in their own right. Uzbekistan is facing serious challenges via the growth of Taliban extremists in Afghanistan, shifting geo-strategic influence of nuclear-powered Iran and volatile energy and labor markets in China, India, and Pakistan. To interpret Uzbekistan's suspension of the EAEC only as a factor in the US-Russian geopolitical competition ignores these important challenges.
Gregory Gleason is a professor at the University of New Mexico and the George C. Marshall European Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed in this article solely represent those of the author and not the US Government.