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    Central Asia
     Sep 18, 2012


Uzbekistan and the road to war
By Dmitry Shlapentokh

The policies of Islam Karimov, the strongman of Uzbekistan, are not easy to decipher, at least in regard to foreign policy. He recently noted in conversation with Nursultan Nazarbaev, the president of Kazakhstan, that if Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were to proceed with building hydropower stations that would prevent water flowing into desert-covered Uzbekistan, it could well result in war.

At the same time, Karimov dropped Uzbekistan's membership in Russia-sponsored security arrangements and has increasingly befriended the US. Washington appreciated this and immediately forgot about its criticism of Tashkent's harsh dictatorial rule and routine violation of human rights. After US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Tashkent, the Karimov regime was completely rehabilitated. A huge amount of US weaponry was

 

promised, most of it from Afghanistan, which the United States has promised to depart from in 2014.

Many Russian observers proclaimed that Karimov had decided to replace Russian sponsorship (krysha, "roof", as Russian observers would put it) with that of the United States, and Washington would soon install bases in Uzbekistan. In their view, the US was the only state that would guarantee the Karimov regime's stability and the survivability of him and his family.

This vision of Karimov's regime is wrong, or to be precise, naive. To start with, these folks still believe that the US is, indeed, a mighty empire that is able and willing to protect its allies. In addition, they assume that Karimov is deluded and blinded by anti-Russianism.

This is hardly the case. It is not only that he has watched the US departure from Iraq and knows of America's pending departure from Afghanistan regardless of the consequences, but he also observes the events in Libya and Egypt, where Washington not only demonstrated its naivety in removing strong leaders, unleashing radical Islamist elements - a mortal threat of the US - but dumped its faithful ally Hosni Mubarak.

Thus Karimov's flirting with the US is not due to his desire to find an American krysha but to absolutely different reasons: He needed not US protection but US weapons to deal with his competitors in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has a lot of problems with its neighbors Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; in fact, there are continuous border conflicts with these countries.

Kyrgyzstan is one of the easier targets. Its part of the Fergana Valley, which spreads across eastern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as well, has a considerable ethnic-Uzbek population. They were slaughtered in the hundreds in 1990 and again in 2010 by Kyrgyz. Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan could well play the role of the Sudeten Germans in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia, who welcomed invading Nazi troops as liberators. In the case of a similar strike, Karimov, or another ruler who would replace him, would be hailed as a liberator by the Uzbek minority.

This part of Kyrgyzstan would not necessarily be annexed by Uzbekistan but could emerge as Tashkent's proxy/puppet state similar to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia's proxies. It also could boost Karimov's popularity and justify his brutish rule. As I was told by an Uzbek acquaintance, many Uzbeks, especially members of the middle class, find, retrospectively, justification for Karimov's brutish suppression of the Andijan uprising in 2005.

Thus Kyrgyzstan could well suffer from an invasion by Uzbekistan. (One might add that some members of Kyrgyzstan's parliament take the Tashkent threat seriously enough.) Tashkent could also deploy forces in dealing with Dushanbe. And there is a precedent. In 2000, Tajikistan took a small but strategically important piece of land that belonged to Uzbekistan.

One, of course, should note here that both countries belong to the Russia-sponsored military alliance and that Russian President Vladimir Putin recently proclaimed a plan to create a customs union, supposedly the nucleus of the Eurasian Union, a tight geopolitical alliance of friendly nations. One could assume that these countries, where Russia has military bases and which are part of a broad military alliance, would protect Dushanbe and Bishkek. Still, Tashkent doubts that all of the countries would engage in military action in the case of a blitzkrieg. Russia did not help Kyrgyzstan in 2010 during the bloody ethnic conflict there, even when Bishkek directly requested help, and many Kyrgyz and Uzbeks alike would welcome Russian peacemakers.

Russia made no moves to help Tajikistan during the recent upheaval in Gorno-Badakhshan province. Moreover, some Tajik observers believe that Moscow actually encouraged the upheaval as a way to compel Dushanbe to keep the Russian military base free of charge.

Belarus, another potential Eurasian Union member, provides a refuge for Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the Kyrgyz president overthrown in 2010. Bishkek regarded him as a criminal and demanded his surrender to Kyrgyz authorities, but Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko refused, which led to serious tension between Bishkek and Minsk.

Finally, Nazarbaev, whose country is another would-be member of the Eurasian Union, didn't disapprove of Karimov's bellicose statement during their recent conversation.

All of these could indeed tempt Karimov to use force. Thus Karimov's desire to move closer to the US is not indicative of a desire to find a patron but simply the desire for weapons that Karimov - who alluded that he is the new embodiment of Tamerlane - could use. And he made an implicit threat in a world where both America's and Russia's influence and resolve are waning.

Therefore these threats should be taken seriously. This, indeed, could be seen in future retrospectives as a sign of possible war.

Dmitry Shlapentokh PhD is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.

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