The Strategic Dilemma of Central Asia
№4 2006 October/ December

Central Asia’s proximity to
regions that pose a challenge to international security, especially
in the form of terrorist threats, has introduced a market of
security, or antiterrorist, services, which involve the operation
of various actors and alliances. In light of this situation,
Tashkent is now facing a difficult geopolitical dilemma: which
force should it rely on? Uzbekistan’s strategic partnerships with
the United States and Russia are acquiring special importance under
these conditions.


In general, the geopolitical entry
of the U.S. into Central Asia, and more importantly the
American-Uzbek rapprochement, were largely due to the increased
geopolitical importance of the region. It was also motivated by the
global terrorist threat, together with the military operation in
Afghanistan, started in October 2001.

As follows from numerous official
statements, the United States is pursuing three goals in Central

– ensuring the development of
stable, democratic states, including the settlement of regional

– promoting the consolidation of
friendly relations between the states of the region, on the one
hand, and the U.S. and its allies, on the other;

– promoting the development of the
market economy in the region, while preventing the unfair
exploitation of their natural resources.

Washington worked out its Central
Asian strategy in a consistent and systemic manner: in 1992, the
U.S. Senate passed the Freedom Support Act, which emphasizes the
importance of rendering assistance to newly independent states.
Then came the Silk Road Strategy Act, passed in 1999. These
documents laid the foundation for U.S. involvement in the region’s
affairs. Military cooperation between the U.S. and Central Asia got
off to a quick start, due in large part to the involvement of the
U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program, the International Military
Education and Training (IMET) program, NATO’s Partnership for Peace
program, the George C. Marshall European Center for Security
Studies, and the formation of the Central Asian Peacekeeping
Battalion (CENTRASBAT). One U.S. analyst commented that, although
all of the above and other programs pursued specific goals, the
cumulative effect was the formation of relations and procedures
with these countries, as well as the creation of local military
personnel that had a record of working with U.S. servicemen. Those
efforts largely made for the deployment of a U.S. military force in
Central Asia when it became necessary for combating terrorism [the
author is referring to U.S. military bases at Karshi-Khanabad in
Uzbekistan and the Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan, deployed to support
the military operation in Afghanistan. – Ed.].

In March 2002, the U.S. and
Uzbekistan signed the Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and
Cooperation Framework. This document confirmed Zbigniew
Brzezinski’s prediction that there would be the establishment of
geopolitical pluralism in the “heartland” of Eurasia, with
post-Soviet Uzbekistan playing a key role in Washington’s Central
Asian policy. In the Declaration, Tashkent reaffirmed its
commitment to implement democratic and market-economy reforms,
while Washington affirmed that it would assist with these efforts.
In Article 2.1, the United States affirmed that it “would regard
with grave concern any external threat to the security and
territorial integrity of the Republic of Uzbekistan.” Were this to
occur, the two countries would hold bilateral consultations “to
develop and implement an appropriate response in accordance with
U.S. Constitutional procedures.” In Article 3.5, the Parties
reaffirmed “their goal of expanding and intensifying regional
cooperation in Central Asia, and the desirability of providing
assistance in strengthening friendly and neighborly relations among
the countries of the region.”

Following the disorder that
erupted in the Uzbek city of Andizhan on May 13, 2005, the United
States reduced its presence in Uzbekistan. The U.S., together with
other Western states and international organizations, described the
measures taken by the Uzbek authorities to suppress the terrorist
riot as an “indiscriminate use of force,” which resulted in
numerous casualties among the civilian population. The West
demanded an international investigation of those events. Tashkent
rejected the idea, saying it was an internal affair of a sovereign
state. The West reacted by imposing sanctions on Uzbekistan,
leaving it in semi-isolation on the international scene, while its
relations with the U.S. deteriorated.

The official Uzbek position blamed
Washington for inspiring the Andizhan riot. Soon thereafter,
Tashkent demanded that the U.S. military force be withdrawn from
Uzbekistan by the end of 2005. Washington’s demand for an
international investigation has not changed. Meanwhile, all
American nongovernmental organizations have had to terminate their
activities in Uzbekistan.

To all appearances, U.S.-Uzbek
relations will remain frozen until Tashkent changes its policy. In
other words, the normalization of relations between the two
countries will largely depend on the subjective factors that
predetermined their deterioration, namely, the way the Uzbek
leaders perceive U.S. strategy in Central Asia, as well as the
essence and nature of the geopolitical transformation of the

At the same time, despite the
diminished status of Uzbek-U.S. relations, which have declined to a
level of simple cooperation, neither Party has denounced the
Strategic Partnership Declaration. This leaves room for hope that
objective processes will prevail over the more subjective


In June 2004, during a visit by
Russian President Vladimir Putin to Tashkent, Russia signed a
Strategic Partnership Treaty with Uzbekistan.

In the treaty (Article 3), the
Parties pledged to coordinate their efforts to build a strong and
effective regional security system in Central Asia, and to create
bilateral consulting mechanisms to this end (on a permanent basis
and if need be).

In a hypothetical situation that
is detrimental to their security interests, the Parties, by mutual
consent, would enact the corresponding mechanism of consultations
to coordinate their positions and moves (Article 4).

The treaty has set priorities for
the Parties’ military and military-technical cooperation. These
priorities include defense supplies from Russia; maintenance and
modernization of military equipment in Uzbekistan; the training of
Uzbek military officers at Russian military colleges and academies;
joint military exercises; and cooperation within the framework of
interstate space programs.

To combat threats to security,
peace and stability, the signatories to the treaty would allow each
other the use of military facilities on their respective
territories on the basis of separate agreements (Article

The Uzbek-Russian treaty differs
greatly from the one drafted between Tashkent and Washington in the
Declaration on the Strategic Partnership. The Declaration is a more
systemic, all-embracing document that has the nature of a treaty,
whereas the Russian-Uzbek Treaty on Strategic Partnership is more
declarative. Finally, the treaty does not quite recognize the
modern tendencies in political thought, which link security to
democracy.  Nor does it raise the
issue of democracy as an integral part of the strategic

The strategic partnership between
Uzbekistan and the United States resulted, in particular, in the
deployment of an American military force at the Khanabad air base,
whereas the Uzbek-Russian strategic partnership manifested itself,
for example, in Russia’s membership in the Central Asian
Cooperation Organization (CACO). In other words, both strategic
partnerships served as an expression and catalyst of the
geopolitical transformation of Central Asia.

The new global division must give
rise to an independent geopolitical specialization of Central Asia.
From this point of view, Russia’s CACO membership is undoubtedly an
extraordinary geopolitical development, which distorts both the
political composition and the geographical configuration of Central
Asia. Hypothetically, following this logic, CACO membership could
be granted to the United States as well. The awkwardness of
Russia’s CACO membership was removed following CACO’s merger with
the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) in 2005.

The establishment of CACO, which
initially was known as the Central Asian Commonwealth, was a
natural consequence of the Soviet Union’s breakup. It symbolized
the restoration of the historical integrity of the region, which
was artificially divided at the beginning of the 20th century. Yet,
the region still remains disunited due to interstate conflicts,
largely brought about by new geopolitical processes. Russia was
admitted to CACO by the initiative of Uzbekistan at the
organization’s Dushanbe summit in October 2004. The move served as
recognition of Russia’s vital interests in the region and the
commonality of interests between Russia and the Central Asian
countries. Moreover, the decision to include Russia meant that the
member countries had failed to solve numerous regional problems,
that tensions or mistrust were growing in their mutual relations,
and the Central Asian states needed a mediator.

There is a widespread belief that
Moscow will not tolerate a long-term and expansive U.S. military
presence in Central Asia and will make every effort to compensate
for it or counterbalance it. This opinion rests on a simplified and
erroneous view of the role of the Central Asian countries. The
invitation of the U.S. military into the region was not an act
against Russia, because, at the very least, any challenge to Moscow
from Central Asia would jeopardize the security of the local states
themselves: Russian countermeasures to any unfriendly moves by the
Central Asian states would be targeted at the latter, rather than
at the United States. All three parties understand this very well.
Unbalanced interpretations, based on stereotyped thinking, together
with Russia’s membership in CACO and its efforts to create military
bases, simply distort public opinion both in Central Asia and

The Uzbek-Russian strategic
partnership must not be viewed as an alternative to the strategic
partnership between Uzbekistan and the U.S. Indeed, Russia is
regaining its former strategic positions in Central Asia, whereas
the United States operates in the region while having to look over
its back at Moscow. But can this be perceived as the restoration of
Russia’s strategic domination in the region, or is it a responsible
effort to strengthen the security of the five Central Asian
countries? This remains an open question.


The many developments in Central
Asia, including Russia’s full membership in CACO, the opening of
Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the
establishment of allied relations between Uzbekistan and Russia,
and the merger of CACO and EurAsEC, are more the result of Central
Asia’s retreat than Russia’s offensive.

On November 14, 2005, Presidents
Vladimir Putin and Islam Karimov signed in Moscow the Treaty on
Allied Relations between the Russian Federation and the Republic of
Uzbekistan. The rapid transition from the Strategic Partnership
Treaty of June 2004 to the sealing of allied relations is less
symbolic of a new level of bilateral ties and more of a new
“defensive” measure taken by Uzbekistan amidst growing pressure
from the West.

When we consider the meanings of
particular concepts, such as “strategic partnership,” “allied
relations” and “alliance,” it becomes apparent that the
Uzbek-Russian relationship corresponds to the “strategic
partnership” concept. Actually, the Allied Treaty was drawn up
specifically for one new article, saying “an act of aggression
against either of the Parties by a third state or a group of states
would be considered as an act of aggression against both Parties.”
Thus, relations between the two countries have acquired a bloc
nature. But considering the non-bloc approach that Uzbekistan has
assumed in its foreign policy, and the absence of a common external
enemy, the establishment of allied relations between Tashkent and
Moscow looks as one more extraordinary occurrence.

Russia’s active participation in
Central Asian affairs was certainly desirable and expected, just as
was the Uzbek-Russian rapprochement. Yet, this does not give
grounds for distorting the geographical configuration and political
composition of CACO, which is intended to unite only those
countries from the immediate region. Unfortunately, the latter
failed to demonstrate their genuine independence and long-awaited
unity. On the contrary, they showed that they needed an
intermediary for solving conflictogenic regional problems, thus
belittling and ignoring the value of regional

Some analysts argue that the
disunity of the newly independent states in the ex-Soviet Union,
resulting from their sovereignty, only brought about the disruption
of economic ties between them, in addition to their loss of
international prestige and control over their borders. Generally
speaking, the disunity demonstrated how unprepared the regional
states were to adequately respond to new challenges and threats.
Now, these analysts argue, the Central Asian countries are coming
to understand the present realities and see the advantages of
strengthening their relations with Russia. In particular,
Uzbekistan has made a foreign policy turnaround toward the Russian
Federation at the expense of its relations with the U.S. In fact,
however, the existing problems stem not from the sovereignty of the
Central Asian countries; rather, the problems stem from the
distorted and hypertrophied interpretation of its essence.
Otherwise, sovereignty and independence would turn into values that
are bargained away or put up for sale.

In the opinion of many experts,
Tashkent was guided by the principle “bases in exchange for aid” in
its cooperation with the West. However, this approach quickly
turned to disillusionment in Uzbekistan, which received “too little
aid and too much criticism.” But this is a very simplified view.
Countering terror is a common task and common interest of the
participants in the antiterrorist coalition, i.e. a task and
interest of independent significance.

The desire to receive benefits
that go beyond the counterterrorism struggle will lead to the
commercialization of this sphere of international security. It
seems that Tashkent itself contributed to the commercialization of
participation in the counterterrorism campaign. Meanwhile, the
granting of its air space and military base to the international
antiterrorist coalition was a specific contribution by Uzbekistan
against Afghanistan, a front in the war against terror. The lease
of its territory and bases to the coalition was important and
advantageous for Uzbekistan. It helped strengthen the security of
the country and the whole of Central Asia. Unfortunately, this form
of Uzbekistan’s participation in the international antiterrorist
coalition has been terminated.

The above prompts the conclusion
that the issue of U.S. economic aid to Uzbekistan should be
separated from the issue of their joint struggle against terrorism.
Furthermore, Uzbekistan’s strategic partnership with the United
States should not be interpreted that Tashkent is opposed to a
strategic partnership with Russia. Each of these fields of
Tashkent’s foreign policy has significance and prospects of its
own, and it would be a strategic mistake to sacrifice either of
them for the sake of the other. Anyhow, Uzbekistan is now a
strategic partner of the two former (or still present?)
geopolitical rivals – the United States and the Russian

Meanwhile, a unique situation is
shaping up in the region. Washington and Moscow, traditional rivals
in the “big game,” now have a real opportunity for coordinating
their Central Asian policies on the basis of their common strategic
interests. These certainly include non-proliferation of nuclear
weapons in South Asia; the elimination of drug trafficking in the
macro region of Central and South Asia; the eradication of
religious extremism and international terrorism; the limitation of
the conventional arms race in the region; and the prevention of
global ecological disasters, for example, the drying up of the Aral
Sea. The goals and policies of the U.S. and Russia in these spheres
do not conflict with each other. Moreover, they can be mutually
complementary and may unite Central Asia, which was divided as a
result of the geopolitical struggle between UK/U.S. and
Russia/Soviet Union as they fought to expand their spheres of

One’s attitude to the unification
of the region is actually a litmus test of the true intentions of
the external geopolitical players. The Central Asian countries are
now objects of global politics. Their transition from being
“objects” to becoming “subjects” is possible only through
full-fledged regional integration. Noteworthy in this respect is
the Treaty on Eternal Friendship between the Republic of
Uzbekistan, the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic,
signed on January 10, 1997. This document actually means much more
to these countries than any of their separate treaties on strategic
partnership with outside powers.

In early 2005, Kazakh President
Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed establishing a Union of the Central
Asian States. He said that the Treaty on Eternal Friendship between
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan “can serve as a firm basis
for such a union.”

Clearly, strategic partnership
must be established, above all, between the states of the region
themselves. Perhaps, this is the best way to solve the strategic
dilemma in Central Asia.