Uzbekistan’s departure from a Russia-dominated regional security alliance and its overtures to the U.S. could aggravate tensions in Central Asia
Uzbekistan’s decision to suspend its membership from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) has dealt a painful blow to the Russia-dominated defence bloc of former Soviet states and created new security risks in the region.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry notified the CSTO secretariat of Tashkent’s move on June 20, but it was made public only 10 days later. The Russian business daily, Kommersant, quoted Uzbek Foreign Ministry sources as saying that Tashkent disagreed with the CSTO policy on Afghanistan and favoured instead cooperation with that country on bilateral basis. Uzbekistan also said it was against closer defence ties among the CSTO member-states.
The five members
Uzbekistan’s departure leaves five members in the CSTO — Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan — which was established on the basis of a 1992 treaty.
President Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist for the past 22 years, has always been guided in its foreign policy by highly pragmatic, if not cynical, calculations of gain and loss. He started cosying up to the United States back in the late 1990s, when Uzbekistan pulled out of the CSTO for the first time and joined the U.S.-pushed short-lived GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova), figuring that Washington could give him more than Moscow. However, when the West blacklisted Mr. Karimov for his ruthless suppression of an Islamist revolt in Andizhan in 2005, the Uzbek strongman returned to the Russian fold. He shut down a U.S. airbase in Khanabad and rejoined the CSTO and Russia-led economic groups.
Mr. Karimov nevertheless continued to signal his readiness to patch up with Washington. He has never completely reintegrated Uzbekistan into the CSTO, failing to ratify dozens of agreements signed by the member-states.
His overtures were heeded when the U.S. looked for a more reliable transit route to Afghanistan than Pakistan and hatched plans to gain a stronger foothold in Central Asia after the forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In 2009 the U.S. signed a military agreement with Uzbekistan and in January this year Washington waived a ban on military assistance to Uzbekistan imposed in the wake of the Andizhan massacre. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year said she saw “some signs of [progress]” on human rights in Uzbekistan and went on to pay a visit to Tashkent.
Experts said Mr. Karimov, 74, hopes his alliance with the U.S. would help him achieve his overriding ambition to assert Uzbekistan’s supremacy over its neighbours, which Russia refused to countenance. With a population of 28 million, Uzbekistan is by far the most populous state and the dominant military power in the region. However, it has been losing the race for regional leadership to Kazakhstan, the most dynamically growing economy in the former Soviet Union and Russia’s main economic partner.
Border and water disputes
Uzbekistan is also locked in bitter disputes with neighbours over borders and water sharing. Upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan control more than 90 per cent of the water resources of the region’s two main rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, while downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are the main water consumers. Uzbekistan fears that new dams and electric stations being built in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will leave it dry during the peak farm season. Moscow has taken a neutral stand in the dispute, but let its companies get involved in hydroelectric projects in Kyrgyzstan.
A top Russian military commander has warned of risks of military conflict in the region.
Uzbekistan hopes to gain extra muscle by becoming America’s strategic ally in Central Asia and the main beneficiary of the U.S. plan to keep some weapons and troops after the exit from Afghanistan in the region. Washington has already agreed to hand over non-lethal but sophisticated communication and other equipment to Uzbekistan, and Mr. Karimov hopes to secure lethal weapons as well. Russian experts do not rule out that Uzbekistan may again host a Pentagon base. Some reports claimed that the Pentagon is already using Uzbek facilities along with Germany, which has a base in Termez.
Mr. Karimov’s decision to leave the CSTO had long been expected in Moscow. Uzbekistan had refused to join the rapid reaction force the defence bloc set up a few years ago and failed to sign last year’s agreement banning CSTO members from hosting foreign bases without the consent of the other member-states.
“Uzbekistan has long stopped taking part in the activities of the CSTO. Today it just seeks to bring its legal status in line with realities on the ground,” Russian Chief of Staff General Nikolai Makarov said even as he expressed regret over Tashkent’s decision.
Uzbekistan’s decision is a big gain for the U.S. as it creates a gaping hole in security arrangements Russia has been assiduously building in Central Asia.
“It will be very difficult to promote regional security without Uzbekistan, which is a pivotal state in Central Asia,” said Dosym Satpaev, a leading political analyst in Kazakhstan.
Experts put some of the blame for Uzbekistan’s withdrawal on the weak and amorphous state of the post-Soviet security bloc, which is essentially a sum total of bilateral arrangements between Russia and other member-states, rather than a full-fledged defence pact.
“CSTO today is merely a platform for political declarations; its cohesion and clout must be drastically enhanced, so that membership in the alliance would be a prized privilege,” said Prof. Alexander Knyazev, a top authority on Central Asia.
Ironically, Uzbekistan’s pullout may help Russia consolidate the CSTO.
“It’s a case of ‘less is more’,” a ranking Russian defence official said. “Now the CSTO can close its ranks and increase cooperation.”
Many experts believe that after the U.S-led forces leave Afghanistan, instability will spread northwards putting Uzbekistan in the line of fire. The importance of the CSTO as a source of security for the region will then rise incrementally.
“Karimov would do well to remember Andizhan,” the unnamed Russian defence official pointedly remarked. “Russia was the only country that stood by him when he was ostracised in the West.”
Mr. Karimov’s decision to “suspend” rather than terminate Uzbekistan’s membership in the CSTO would seem to suggest that he is aware of the risks involved and wants to keep the door open for returning to the defence bloc.