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Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program

August 2012

Summary: When Uzbekistan announced its withdrawal from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, no one was surprised. The country was dissatisfied with the organization due to conflicting values and principles, and it also wanted to free itself from historical Russian domination. The withdrawal opens the question of how heavy a blow the Uzbek withdrawal is to Moscows strategic leadership in Central Asia. The answer is mixed.

Factoring the Regional Impact of Uzbekistans Withdrawal from the CSTO


by Marlne Laruelle

Uzbekistan is probably one of the key states that define the strategic contours of the Central Asian region, as well as the one that has most consistently changed its geopolitical stance. Despite the apparent zigzags in its foreign policy, one can only note the continuity of the principles underlying Uzbekistans vision, and Tashkents attempts to promote an alternative strategic future for the region. As part of this alternative future, for the second time in its history, Uzbekistan announced its withdrawal from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Tashkent left the previous CIS Treaty on Collective Security in 1999, in protest against the inefficiency of post-Soviet security structures; this inefficiency was confirmed by incursions of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into the southern part of the Ferghana Valley during the summer of 1999, and again in 2000. Tashkent was officially reinstated in 2006, but in practice it never implemented any of the organizations mandates and participated as little as possible in joint activities. Therefore, this latest departure did not come as a surprise to anyone. Several factors explain Uzbekistans dissatisfaction with the CSTO. Some is due to conflicting values and principles. Since independence, the

primary goal of Uzbek foreign policy has been to be as autonomous from outside pressures and obtain as much recognition as possible. The Uzbek government shares with its Central Asian counterparts a pragmatic and sometimes cynical view of international relations, where power has more relevance than legal obligations. It therefore signs many documents but never considers them to be binding. Uzbekistan applied this practice to its membership in the CSTO and in the Eurasian Economic Community. Uzbekistans second goal is to free itself from historical Russian domination, which official discourse always denounces as colonization. However, this freedom from Russia does not equate with the absence of ties with Moscow. Tashkent considers Russia an illegitimate actor in terms of its regional hegemony, but their neighboring giant remains an important bilateral partner, especially in the hydrocarbons sector and sales of military materiel. On other issues, such as the question of regional unity in Central Asia, Uzbekistans position is more ambiguous. During the first half of the 1990s, President Islam Karimov referred to the need for regional unity by reviving the historical name Turkestan and promoted an identity based

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on Turkic and Muslim values, which he dubbed Turanism. He competed with Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev who, in contrast, put forward the concept of Eurasia, which situates Central Asia at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. A Eurasian identity would be distinctly less Turkic and Muslim, more open to Russian heritage and more oriented toward the Asia-Pacific region. But both of these narratives served as ideological frameworks for foreign policy strategies Uzbekistan sought to maximally distance itself from Russian influence, whereas Kazakhstan preferred to become one of the pillars of the post-Soviet regional integration mechanism. The narratives also factored into the personal agendas of the two presidents. Unable to gain recognition as the regions leader, Uzbekistan implemented a policy of accentuated control over its borders, reluctant relations with its neighbors, especially with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and isolationist strategies in terms of regional economic exchanges. The Uzbek position on the question of regional unity is therefore paradoxical. Tashkent affirms its desire to play a larger coordinating role between the Central Asian states on key issues like security and water management, but often ends up playing an empty chair policy because its positions are at odds with most of its neighbors. Uzbek discontent toward the CSTO is also well-timed. First, Tashkent had no interest in accepting the Russian proposal that any new third country military deployments in the region require the unanimous support of all member-states. This proposal would reduce Moscows room for maneuver in opening an Russian Federal Security Service-led center in the Osh region to monitor both drug trafficking and Islamist movements, an option that Tashkent has roundly criticized. But it would also harm Uzbekistans interests and possible negotiations with the United States in the coming years. Second, Moscow was pressing to finalize the establishment of a Collective Rapid Reaction Force, which Tashkent has always been reluctant to endorse, and was not at all in interested deploying to the region, especially in South Kyrgyzstan. The departure has allowed the Uzbek authorities to put an end to both issues. This opens the question of how heavy a blow the Uzbek withdrawal is to Moscows strategic leadership in Central Asia. The answer is mixed. It is heavy because Tashkents official departure confirms that since the collapse of the

The Uzbek position on the question of regional unity is paradoxical.


Soviet Union, two countries, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, out of five continue to reject the idea of Russia as a legitimate regional actor in Central Asia. Any Russian hope that the West would recognize the CSTO as an essential security structure to bypass bilateral relations has disappeared; however, this was unlikely even before Uzbekistans withdrawal. Neither NATO, nor the major individual Western powers, nor the Central Asian governments wanted the CSTO to be considered the exclusive provider of security in the region. On the other hand, it is not a heavy blow because one can see an increasingly clear tendency in the Kremlin to define a Russia-first strategy, under which engagement in Central Asia would be limited to issues considered crucial to Russian security (block any Islamist spillover, reduce drugtrafficking, and regulate migration), and would only apply to certain countries. A declining number of senior decisionmaking officials and experts in Russia believe in any Central Asian unity, and Russian policy is increasingly country by country. The economic and strategic alliance with Kazakhstan is given priority but according to Russian-Soviet tradition, Kazakhstan is defined more as a Eurasian power than as a Central Asian power. Relations with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are strengthening; security engagement through pressures on local governments has increased, as well as marketization of Russian economic investments and migration policy. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are left outside the Russian regional framework, and bilateral relations with each of them are shaped on a case by case basis: gas export agreements, specific engagement in some economic niches, and the maintenance of bilateral security relationships (arms sales, etc.). Thus the symbolic loss of Uzbekistan only confirms that Moscow cannot exert uniform levels of influence over the five countries, and that it needs instead to promote la carte cooperation and have no hope for any overall regional influence. This position is monitored and encouraged by Kazakhstan, which just took the presidency of the CSTO. Astana does

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not hide its desire to reinforce the coherence and powers of the CSTO through enhancing collective air defense, Collective Rapid Reaction Forces, and cyber-security. In some ways, the Uzbek defection promotes Kazakhstans role in the organization and its willingness to build a more cohesive organization with fewer members. The Uzbek withdrawal is also defined in terms of assessing short-, medium-, and long-term changes in the regional landscape. Tashkent is preparing for the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan at all levels. For the short term, the Uzbek authorities are essentially trying to convince the United States to leave them the lethal equipment that was used there in order to strengthen their military capability. The subject is sensitive and it is not clear that Tashkent will succeed. Uzbekistans narrative that the country is a bulwark against regional Islamic insurgency is now being undermined by Arab Spring syndrome, and no Western country wants to end up accused of having supplied weapons to the Uzbek regime that could then repress its own civilians during popular protests. For the medium term, the Uzbek authorities are preparing for the return to power of the Taliban, who may require them to negotiate a kind of nonaggression pact. This possible agreement would undermine Tajikistans traditional position and would also put Tashkent at odds with Kazakhstan. However, it would be in the interests of the Uzbek minority in Afghanistan, which could then dissociate from the Tajik-led renewed Northern Alliance, and would guarantee that Tashkent maintain its economic involvement in Afghanistan (electricity exports, railway investments, etc.) regardless of who rules in Kabul. For the long term, the Uzbek authorities are betting on their vision of Uzbekistan as a key power of Greater Central Asia bolstered by its demographic power, cultural influence, multi-vectored strategic orientation, support from the United States, distance from Russian influence, and proximity to China and Pakistan. Although this vision is based on legitimate arguments, it leaves aside numerous domestic challenges that the Uzbek society will face in the years to come. Uzbekistan is a power with clay feet: the efficient governance that garnered praise in the 1990s has disappeared. There are growing tensions between regional elites, especially among the marginalized Ferghani elites, which may portend political tensions during succession periods. Civilians have lost control over the immense economic empire of the law enforcement agen-

cies. Macro-economic indicators are positive, but standards of everyday life have declined drastically. And massive labor migration signals both brain drain and brain washof the workforce. Uzbek authorities must first and foremost concern themselves with domestic and governance-related issues before the nation can legitimately obtain regional power and recognition, and influence the architecture of regional security in the coming years.

About the Author


Marlne Laruelle is a Director of the Central Asia Program, and a Research Professor of International Affairs, The Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), The Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. She is also a member of Europe-Central Asia Monitoring (EUCAM).

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

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