Long consigned to the background of the international arena, Central Asia has been a testing ground for such sensational concepts as “a clash of civilizations,” a “Big Game,” etc. I believe such ideas have become morally and historically obsolete.
The world is developing differently today, although its evolution is still driven by the immediate and long-term economic interests of its various countries. However, inert thinking and overconfidence by the great powers, fueled by vast resources, has created a situation where it is harder to understand (not to mention acknowledge) that some countries previously regarded as objects in “the Big Game” in Central Asia are now emerging as independent actors. In this particular case I am referring to Uzbekistan.
My belief rests on Uzbekistan’s recent decision to suspend its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). This move did not fuel open debate, official rejection, or a negative reaction on the part of the other member-states, yet it has become a subject of active backstage talk, speculation, and fantasy, involving countries that will never join the CSTO.
The question is with whom Uzbekistan will side today and who its allies will be in the near future. One opinion is that Uzbekistan will turn towards the United States again and distance itself from Russia and the former Soviet republics. This conviction hearkens back to the deep-rooted and stubborn mindset of bloc allegiance that “if you are not with us, you are against us.” Secondly, it is a repeat of the above-mentioned inert thinking, which brings into doubt Uzbekistan’s ability to act independently in the international arena.
In reality, discussions among political journalists, analysts, and politicians concerning Uzbek foreign policy have been ongoing ever since Uzbekistan declared its independence. More often than not, a primitive mechanistic approach is used, in which conclusions about the country’s foreign policy priorities are made based on a simple analysis of meetings by the Uzbek president and other top officials with a foreign partner. Regular official contacts are indicative of the dynamics of international relations, but nothing more.
Uzbek foreign policy is based solely on national interests and its priorities are defined accordingly. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is widely known as an independent player. Allegations that Tashkent withdrew from the CSTO under U.S. pressure to spite Russia show that some political analysts do not know much about modern Uzbekistan and Central Asia. For example, several Russian television channels (including the highly-regarded “Mir”) have released absurd reports that Washington promised Uzbekistan that it would resolve, in Uzbekistan’s favor, water supply problems with Tajikistan in exchange for Uzbek withdrawal from the CSTO. Unlike other countries in the region, such as Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, Uzbekistan is self-sufficient both economically and politically, which enables it to make independent decisions regardless of what others may think. Tashkent’s position on the CSTO is neither pro-American nor anti-Russian. Uzbekistan made its decision without pressure from the U.S. or coordination with Russia.
Firstly, although relations between Uzbekistan and the CSTO, Tashkent and Moscow, and Uzbekistan and the U.S. may intersect, they present different issues, each with its own record and logic. Attempts to find interconnections between these issues generate myths and speculations.
Secondly, regarding Uzbekistan’s position solely within the context of Russia-U.S. relations is a prejudiced approach, which also stems from bloc-allegiance thinking and is a vestige of the “Big Game” concept. Uzbekistan has pursued a policy of diversification in its foreign relations since the country became independent. In its partnership policies, Uzbekistan prioritizes those countries with which cooperation is most beneficial for meeting national current and long-term interests in various fields. For example, Uzbekistan has strong partnership relations with China, South Korea, and Japan in Asia.
Thirdly, the CSTO and Uzbekistan’s position are different issues that should be considered separately.
The CSTO emerged from the Collective Security Treaty (CST) in Tashkent in 1992. At the time, creating such an organization was justified for Uzbekistan because tensions in neighboring Afghanistan were escalating rapidly. National armed forces and law enforcement agencies were just being established in Central Asia and their defense capability was very low. The situation was exacerbated by the civil war in Tajikistan. Close ties between various law enforcement agencies in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union were a consolidating factor, but the mechanism of implementing the Collective Security Treaty was not clear in case of outside threats, specifically from Afghanistan. The treaty merely played a preventive role, with no member-state to throw its weight behind it.
The transformation of the CST into the CSTO politicized the organization, with subsequent attempts to make it into a military-political alliance. Those who handled these issues at the time remember how many illusions there were about post-Soviet integration. Moreover, the CSTO was presented as another way for integration. This implied plans to establish supranational agencies that would consequently infringe upon the sovereignty of young independent states. It contradicted national legislation from the beginning, according to which Uzbekistan could not participate in any military-political alliances. As a result, Tashkent quit the CSTO.
An analysis of the CSTO’s subsequent activities leads to a number of important conclusions:
Firstly, the organization has not shown any signs of activity during its two decades of existence. The mechanism to realize its potential remains unclear; i.e., it is unlikely that a Belarus or an Armenian soldier will guard the Tajik-Afghan border, or that a Tajik or a Kyrgyz will intervene between Armenia and Azerbaijan in case of an armed clash.
Secondly, the conceptions and legal framework that determine the objectives, tasks, functions, and the authority of the CSTO are as vague as before. Such a powerful and well-established organization as NATO has members that often take a special position of their own. In the CSTO, this has happened already at the stage of its establishment and conceptual elaboration, which has certainly hampered the organization from gaining a firm foothold.
Thirdly, even though the CSTO has stepped up its military exercises, such maneuvers are meant to train for joint actions against potential terrorist groups. However, practice shows that all of the member-states have already encountered attacks by terrorist groups, including international ones, but they have subdued them on their own, without resorting to the military potential of the CSTO.
Lastly, a new upsurge in speculation about the organization’s conceptual crisis was triggered by the bloody conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. The events highlighted the urgency to expand and specify the CSTO’s zone of responsibility. However, the CSTO’s involvement in the settlement of internal conflicts may result in an international expansion rather than keeping them confined locally.
The conceptual vagueness of the CSTO is aggravated by the growing differences in the member-countries’ government, political systems, legislation, resource base, economic and military potential, level of national self-interest, decision-making mechanisms, and responsibility for implementing decisions at the national level. Furthermore, occasionally the CSTO member-states have to face emerging contradictions among themselves.
The above-mentioned circumstances largely explain the present decision to suspend Uzbekistan’s CSTO membership. However, this does not mean that Tashkent has walked out of the CSTO. Much will depend on how the organization evolves and how pragmatic its decision-making is.
Critics of Uzbekistan’s position on the CSTO often make gloomy forecasts about a mounting external threat following the withdrawal of U.S. and Western troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Obviously the situation there will not improve immediately or even become stable. The risks that stem from this neighboring country persist and will always be taken into account.
Uzbekistan’s decision on the CSTO does not threaten its bilateral relations with Russia and Uzbekistan’s allied relations with Russia will remain unaffected. Moreover, bilateral military and political interaction between Uzbekistan and CSTO member-states can be settled faster and more effectively in the present situation, without coordination with the CSTO, since some countries are too far from Central Asia. Consequently, regional problems in Central Asia, including Afghanistan, are not central to their policies. Hopefully Moscow understands this.
Uzbekistan is aware that its foreign policy moves may provoke an unfavorable reaction from some countries, including neighboring ones. Yet its ability to implement national strategy and ensure national interests, without fear of a possible negative reaction or attempts by influential foreign states to assert pressure, is the most convincing sign that Uzbekistan’s independence is real. Undoubtedly, all the Central Asian countries are striving for real independence, although they are progressing at a various pace. Practically all the Central Asian countries, even such politically challenged systems as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have argued in favor of a diversified and multi-vector foreign policy. Yet in order to move from slogans and statements to real and tangible results, there has to be guarantees of political and economic self-sufficiency, which is essentially the core of genuine sovereignty and independence.
At present, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the only two countries in Central Asia that have the capacity to actually diversify their foreign policies and foreign economic activities, while at the same time maintain well-balanced relations with leading international actors in securing their own national interests. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have made more progress than other Central Asian countries towards self-sufficiency, thereby creating conditions in which these two countries’ opinions are not only heard, but also listened to. This approach is helpful in getting rid of new unjustified illusions and myths.