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Apr 13, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

The Limits of Uzbekistan's Drift Toward Russia

The Limits of Uzbekistan's Drift Toward Russia
(PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia and Uzbekistan have begun to work more closely with each other on economic and security issues, a trend that will likely accelerate in the wake of the deadly subway bombing in St. Petersburg on April 3. But despite their greater cooperation, the government in Tashkent will not abandon its broader strategy of neutrality. Instead, it will continue to maintain strategic ties with China, the United States and other foreign powers.

Uzbekistan has long resisted being pulled into Moscow's orbit. Since its independence from the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to enlist Uzbekistan as a partner because of its strategic location bordering each of the other former Soviet states in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) as well as Afghanistan. The country's sizable population and abundant oil and natural gas reserves have only further piqued Moscow's interest.

Uzbekistan, however, has historically maintained an isolationist foreign policy — a hallmark of its longtime president, Islam Karimov. During his 26-year reign, Uzbekistan opted not to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and dropped out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization after only four years of membership. Karimov was notoriously suspicious of any foreign involvement in his country, whether by Russia or the West.

 

But Karimov's death in 2016 and the transition of power to his long-serving prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, opened a window of opportunity for Moscow, and Russia was quick to take it. During a trip to Samarkand shortly after Karimov's funeral in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Mirziyoyev, well before he won the presidential election in December. Mirziyoyev later characterized the meeting as a "historic breakthrough" in Uzbek-Russian relations, saying it laid a "good foundation for good results" between the two countries.

Concrete actions have followed the positive rhetoric. On April 3, Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry reported that Uzbek and Russian companies had signed 16 bilateral trade agreements worth more than $3.5 billion. Two days later, during Mirziyoyev's first official state visit to Russia, he and Putin announced an additional $12 billion worth of joint investment projects, including deals for geological exploration, raw material deposits development and advanced natural gas processing. The men also agreed to a new five-year natural gas contract between Uzbekistan and Russian energy giant Gazprom, as well as a new labor migration deal for the large population of Uzbek migrants in Russia.

The meeting between Mirziyoyev and Putin came just two days after the St. Petersburg suicide bombing, which Russian authorities said was carried out by a young ethnic Uzbek from the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh who had been living in Russia for several years. Mirziyoyev pledged to "cooperate closely with Russia on security issues" in response to the attack, including in the fight against terrorism, transnational organized crime, illegal immigration and narcotics and arms trafficking.

This was a notable promise on Uzbekistan's part, given that Tashkent has for years kept Moscow at arm's length when it came to security cooperation — particularly compared with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which host Russian military bases. But even before the attack, Mirziyoyev had expressed interest in tightening security ties with Russia; in November, just weeks after he took over as acting president, the Uzbek and Russian defense ministers signed a military-technical cooperation agreement. A more uncertain security environment in Russia and portions of Central Asia, which have also experienced militant attacks in recent months, could drive even greater cooperation between Moscow and Tashkent in the months ahead.

Nevertheless, these developments should not be taken as a sign that Uzbekistan will completely align with Russia. Mirziyoyev vowed during his campaign to maintain his predecessor's policy of neutrality and to avoid joining any foreign military or political alliances as president. Even if Mirziyoyev wanted to substantially shift his position, he is still constrained by powerful and more conservative members of his government — most notably security chief Rustam Inoyatov — who favor a continuation of Karimov's legacy. After all, Uzbekistan has kept working with other regional powers, such as China and the United States. (China remains a key economic and trade partner for Uzbekistan, while the United States provides security and counterterrorism training.)

There is no denying, however, that the relationship between Uzbekistan and Russia has strengthened under Mirziyoyev. And the two could grow even closer, particularly if the regional instability persists. Though Uzbekistan is unlikely to formally join Russia's alliance system or host Russian troops on its soil, there is plenty of room for the countries to deepen their security ties in other areas. If they do, Moscow will have a chance to strengthen its hand in the country and the wider region.

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