Uzbekistan: A Regional Player in Eurasian Geopolitics?




European Security, vol. 9 no. 2, Summer 2000


Recently there has been a trend towards the development of two rival sets of alliances in Eurasia: in effect, one western-oriented alignment led by the United States and Turkey, including Israel, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. On the other hand, a group of states resisting American and Turkish influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia is developing, led by Russia and Iran, including Syria and Armenia. One of the most important questions for the development of these alignments is their expansion into Central Asia; in this context Uzbekistan’s role is crucial. Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian state to pursue a proactive and independent foreign policy, as exemplified in its relations with both its neighbors and great powers. Tashkent has developed close military and security relations with NATO and for a time seemed to hedge its bets on US support, but has lately shown signs of turning back toward increasing security cooperation with Russia and China. Given the strategic value of Uzbekistan and its role as a regional player in its own right, the future course of the country’s policies is of great importance to the security of Eurasia.



The Caucasus and Central Asian regions are witnessing an increased interest from the world’s political and business communities of the world. One main reason for this has been the development of Caspian oil and gas, which has attracted a horde of interested private as well as  state-owned companies from Norway to Japan.[1] The western interest in the production and export of oil from the Caspian has been one important factor in raising the importance of the Caucasus and Central Asia in the eyes of policy-makers in the West. However important oil has been, it is nevertheless far from the only factor affecting the geostrategic importance of the region. Ever since 1991, a struggle has been under way for economic and political influence in this southern rim of the former USSR, a struggle which has been termed a renewed ‘Great Game’. While Russia has been attempting to reassert its influence over former dominions, new actors such as Turkey and Iran [End p. 115] immediately entered a race in which they at first could not accurately gauge their place. More faraway actors entered the race later, for various reasons: the United States and the European Union, the latter only gradually and carefully, mostly in the economic sphere.

Central Asia and the Caucasus are regions that lie at the heart of Eurasia, in the borderland between Russia and the Islamic Crescent to its South. The essence of the competition between regional powers concerns political and economic influence over the states of the region; in this framework, oil and gas have played a major role but other considerations, mostly strategic in nature, have been equally if not more important. Before moving into the geopolitical relationships, the interests and policies of the major powers will be summarized. [2]


In the years immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, three main powers had observable and explicit interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia: Russia, the old hegemon, as well as Turkey and Iran. In Central Asia, Pakistan is a player not to be neglected. The United States stepped up its involvement in the region noticeably only with the late 1990s, but plays an increasingly important role today.


Immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian government was comparatively disinterested in the republics of the former Soviet Union, concerned as it was to emulate the West and to transform Russia into a liberal democracy of the western European type.[3] The main reason for this initial policy was the primacy of the Russian¾as opposed to Soviet¾foreign ministry in the formulation of foreign policy since before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Russian republican elite considered itself and not the Gorbachev ‘clique’ to be the motor of the democratic reforms in Russia, and as more Europe-oriented than the USSR institutions. Gennadiy Burbulis, foreign policy advisor to Yeltsin, noted in April 1991 that learning from the European experience was crucial for the resolution of Russia’s pressing domestic problems.[4]

The consequence that follows from this picture of the early Russian¾as opposed to Soviet¾foreign policy is a set of priorities which made it anti-Soviet, inward-looking, pro-Western, and giving the peripheral republics of the union little priority. Soon enough, however, conservative forces gathered strength to reassert Russian influence in the post-Soviet area. The conservative forces saw the key to Russia’s development in the preservation of its great power status and in the avoidance of the ‘unipolar world’ the [End p. 116] West, especially the United States, was seen to be promoting. The switch in Russian policy was most remarkable in the Caucasus, where Moscow actively undermined the position of the independent-minded republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, both states that wished to pursue and expand political and economic contacts with the west, and wished to escape Moscow’s influence. Central Asian states were¾compared to the Caucasian ones¾considerably more careful in their policies, partly due to the fact that the dissolution of the Soviet Union caught many regional leaders unprepared, but also due to their economic dependence on Moscow being comparatively more accentuated. Geographic conditions naturally played an important role; Central Asia is landlocked, bordering on states like China, Afghanistan, and Iran, whereas the Caucasus has access to the Black Sea and to western-oriented Turkey; the region hence lacked options for the development of its political and economic relations. Consequently, Central Asian states were initially considerably less vocal in their struggle to prevent renewed Russian influence¾with the single exception of Uzbekistan, as will be seen below. In any case, Moscow’s policy was in many ways a reaction to Turkish, and to a lesser degree, Iranian inroads into the ‘southern tier’ of the former Soviet Union. Russian policy soon focused on preventing the expansion of western (that is, Turkish and later American) influence in the region. In this endeavor, Russia developed its primarily military relationship with Armenia as a counterbalance to Turkish inroads, as well as to Georgian and Azerbaijani attempts to build links with NATO and the west. As will be discussed below, Russia recently seems to have adopted a similar policy in Central Asia, this time focusing its energy on Tajikistan as a counterbalance to Afghanistan and independent-minded Uzbekistan. As far as oil resources are concerned, Russia has actively promoted exclusive export pipelines through Russia; and, although it has given up the principle of joint exploitation of Caspian resources, it maintains a hostile attitude to the presence of foreign, especially American companies in the Caspian region.

Recent events have nevertheless proven that Russia does not maintain exclusive influence in the Caspian. Although Moscow has kept exerting heavy pressure on Georgia and Azerbaijan, these two countries have resolutely moved toward contacts with the west and NATO; Azerbaijan has consistently refused to allow exclusive pipelines through Russia for the export of its oil and instead actively supports the creation of a pipeline to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. Russia was also forced to renounce its preferred solution to the legal status of the Caspian sea, and was moreover unable to prevent the holding of military exercises under the Partnership For [End p. 117] Peace program in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan involving over 500 US troops in 1997. While desiring to sustain its position as the most influential power in the region, Russia can most appropriately be characterized as a retreating hegemonic power.


The dissolution of the Soviet Union caught Turkey by surprise. For almost seventy years, Turkey had resolutely turned its back on the Turkic populations of the Soviet Union and embarked on a process of integration with western Europe.[5] But the end of the Cold war had created worry in Turkey regarding the relevance of the it’s role as NATO’s eastern anchor, Turkey felt side-stepped by the European community, and the leadership instead embarked on an attempt to gain influence of the new Turkic republics of Central Asia. The campaign that followed was sometimes ill-planned and often showed signs of euphoria; Turkey nevertheless soon realized its economical weakness and its inability to effectively match Russian political and military influence in the region. Most illustrating was Russia’s threat of a third world war should Turkey intervene militarily in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; a threat that soon calmed any fervor on the part of Turkish decision-makers.[6] But in the late 1990s, Turkey embarked on a renewed diplomatic offensive in the Caucasus and Central Asia, especially after the fall in mid-1997 of the Islamist-led coalition that had neglected the Caspian region for closer contacts with the Muslim countries of the Middle East.[7] Turkey’s present bid for influence is arguably much more careful and well-constructed than its first inroads into the former Soviet Union in the first years of the 1990s. Most importantly, the present Turkish decision-makers are aware of the limitations to their country’s capabilities and have accordingly adjusted their ambitions in the region.

Turkey’s interests nevertheless remain manifold. As far as the Transcaucasus is concerned, Turkey’s main interest is the preservation of Azerbaijani independence, and of a friendly regime in Baku. Secondly, Turkey is worried of the increasingly massive Russian military presence in Armenia and will ultimately see no option but to counterbalance this, probably through tighter military relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia; in fact, the intensity of Turkey’s relations with Georgia have sky-rocketed in the past few years. Ankara has also accorded significant importance to achieving a main export pipeline (MEP) of Caspian oil through Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. It has received diplomatic backing from almost all regional states as well as the US in this endeavor.[8]

Moreover, Turkey’s economic presence in the region, including Armenia with which it has no diplomatic relations, is increasingly significant. In Central Asia, Turkey’s capabilities and ambitions are however lower than [End p. 118] in the Caucasus; Turkey’s geographical position and economic situation dictates a more limited role East of the Caspian Sea. Nevertheless, Turkey is promoting its economic, cultural, political and military relations with these states as well. Most notably, Turkey’s newly found self-confidence is illustrated by the discretion with which it conducts its relations in the region, as compared with the high profile of the early 1990s. Most recently, the six Turkic states signed an agreement in Baku on closer intelligence cooperation, particularly as regards protection of the Western-sponsored TRACECA (TRAnsport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia) programs regarding the revival of the Silk Road and the struggle against terrorism and religious extremism.

In the military field, Turkey plans to modernize its armed forces for a value of $150 billion in the next 30 years; already today, however, Turkey’s military strength is substantial, composed of battle-trained and disciplined forces that are increasingly well equipped.[9] In foreign policy matters generally, Turkey’s new assertive attitude has been noted by many observers.[10] In particular, Ankara’s showdown with Syria in October 1998 has had definite repercussions throughout the wider Middle East. For example, Russian officials fear that the Black Sea, in military matters, is turning into a ‘Turkish lake’. From Russia and Iran’s points of view, then, the increase in Turkey’s military capabilities is a reason for worry.

In mid-1999, Turkey also found itself in confrontation with Iran after it had accused Tehran of taking Damascus’ place as the Kurdish separatist PKK’s main patron. In the region, Turkey has developed very close military ties with Azerbaijan and can be expected to continue to do so as long as the Russian-Armenian alliance is perceived as a threat to the two countries.


Iran’s role in the region has been less pronounced but not necessarily less active in the cultural and economic fields; Iran has made use of its more advantageous geographic position, as compared with Turkey. Whereas most Central Asian countries as well as Azerbaijan have been wary of the spread of Iranian-inspired Islamic fundamentalism, Tehran’s policies have on the whole been very pragmatic, and in reality not very Islamic at all. Even in Tajikistan, with which Iran shares strong linguistic bonds, the Iranian role has been far from being as important as many observers had expected. Nevertheless, Iranian economic and cultural activities have been forthcoming, the bilateral Turkmen-Iranian relationship being most notably developed.

Unlike Turkey, Iran has seemingly come to a Modus Vivendi with Russia, whereby Tehran accepts Moscow’s primacy in security and military issues; the two countries’ cooperation in strategic fields such as nuclear energy, [End p. 119] missile technology and conventional arms transfers have increased in recent years. The main aim shared by the two states is the minimization of Turkish and American influence in the Caspian region. In the Caucasus, especially, Russian and Iranian interests have converged in seeking to prevent the establishment of a strong and pro-western Azerbaijani state. Iran, in particular, fears that a strong Azerbaijan could undermine Iran’s territorial and national integrity by encouraging a national revival among the perhaps twenty million-strong Azeri community in Northwestern Iran. For this reason as well as for Azerbaijan’s active courting of the United States, Iran has come to cooperate increasingly with Armenia and Russia as a counterbalance to Azerbaijan.[11]


The dissolution of the Soviet Union meant a possibility for Islamabad to diversify its international relations, especially given the problems in Pakistani-US relations largely related to Pakistan’s nuclear program. Pakistan’s main concern is by necessity Afghanistan: Ensuring a friendly regime in power in Kabul is high on the list of Pakistani foreign policy priorities. The situation in the early 1990s with chaos in southern Afghanistan threatening stability in Pakistan’s already agitated northwestern areas was hence highly detrimental to Pakistani security. Moreover, Pakistan’s hopes in the early 1990s of achieving a presence in Central Asia and develop political and economic relations with states there were hindered by the unrest in Afghanistan. The possibility of constructing a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan was only the most obvious example.

As a result, Pakistan by the mid-1990s had compelling internal as well as external reasons to support any force that could provide stability in Afghanistan while remaining friendly to Islamabad. The emergence of the Taliban movement presented Pakistan with a long-sought opportunity, and supporting it was logical given Pakistan’s internal and external policy imperatives.

This said, later developments in Afghanistan have caused worry in Islamabad as well. Far from being pliable, the Taliban regime has proven to be unruly and difficult to deal with. Islamabad undoubtedly remains the only power that exerts any influence over the Taliban, but the latter have retained an independent attitude. Furthermore, the Taliban’s excesses and ensuing international isolation could prove detrimental to Pakistan’s ability to establish influence in Central Asia. Pakistan faces the challenge of restoring the loss of confidence in Central Asian capitals suffered due to its support for the Taliban; moreover, it needs to exercise a moderating influence on the Taliban, for at least three reasons: first, in order to ease the [End p. 120] international ostracism of Afghanistan necessary to actively use that country as a conduit to Central Asia; second, in order to prevent the Taliban regime from losing its popular support and thereby risking a renewed plunge to instability in Afghanistan; and third, in order to prevent the Taliban brand of statehood from gaining salience in Pakistan itself. If Islamabad succeeds in this endeavor, its possibilities of becoming a major actor in Central Asia are significant.

The United States

In the early 1990s, the US established diplomatic relations with the countries in the Caspian region, and declared its support for their independence. However during the first Clinton administration, or chiefly until the end of the Chechen war, the US refrained from an active policy in the region. Washington officially backed Ankara’s bid for influence and promoted the ‘Turkish model’, but refrained from pursuing an active policy in the region. The US administration knew little about Central Asia and the Caucasus, did not perceive itself to have any substantial interests there, and instinctively (as a great power) respected Russian claims as to the region being its backyard. Indeed, Russian officials successfully compared Russia’s interests in the Caucasus with American interests in Central America.

By the late 1990s, all of the three factors guiding American policy had changed. Competence on the region had been built up in Washington; US government attention to the region had increased, partly due to Pentagon priorities and partly because of oil companies’ interests, and much of the respect for Russia was lost with Moscow’s military defeat in Chechnya. Since 1997, Washington has actively engaged the Caspian region and seems to be coordinating its policies with Ankara in this endeavor. In fact, this increased American involvement has been instrumental in altering the regional balance of power. Whereas Russia and Iran had the upper hand in their rivalry against Turkey, the strengthening of the Turkish-American efforts has restored some form of equality in the relations between the two sides, in fact probably even tipping the balance over to the advantage of the Turco-American side.[12]


The main venue of competition between these states has so far been the Caucasus. The existence of a Caucasian triangle of states, in which two states are in open conflict with each other and are therefore locked in a zero-sum relationship, has made it easier for outside powers to gain a foothold in the region by allying with one or the other of the two states. In [End p. 121] fact the Russian military presence in Armenia would likely not have been as pronounced as it is today had it not been for Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan. In fact, many Armenians are aware of the fact that Moscow is pursuing its own interests in the region, which do not necessarily coincide with Yerevan’s. Nevertheless Armenia’s geopolitical situation, squeezed between hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan, has left it no other option than to develop links with Moscow. The same is true for Armenian-Iranian relations, where Armenia has gone out of its way in order not to jeopardize its relations with Washington while cooperating ever more closely with Tehran.

In fact, it is not an exaggeration to speak of emerging regional alignments in Eurasia. This is clearest in the Caucasus, where these alignments are clearly defined in a west-east and a north-south axis. The last few years have seen a strengthening of the Russia-Armenia-Iran axis, which has been paralleled by the emergence of an alignment of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and the United States. These alignments also extend further into the Middle East; Syria in particular has developed its relations with Armenia and Russia besides its existing partnership with Iran; on the other hand Israel’s relationship with Turkey has also spread to increasingly close security relations with Georgia and chiefly Azerbaijan. For Israel, of course, the Caucasus is a crucial area with respect to the containment of Iran.[13]

These alignments are not totally monolithic structures and few actors share zero-sum relationships like Armenia and Azerbaijan do. Turkey and Russia have significant commercial and trade relations; Georgia and Armenia have a working relationship; Turkey and Iran should rather be termed rivals than enemies, for the time being. But in general the dichotomy of geopolitical interests is clear. There is one pro-western and pro-American group of countries, with a proactive foreign policy, that work for the opening up to the world of Central Asia and the Caucasus in both the political and economic sense; on the other side, there is a group of states resisting western influence and preventing the integration of the region into the world economy, hence pursuing reactive foreign policies.

The Commonwealth of Independent States

In the framework of the CIS, these alignments have appeared as on the one hand a relatively loose group of states advocating further reintegration of the former Soviet republics, composed of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. On the other hand, a more tightly organized group of states has emerged that see the CIS chiefly as a tool for Russian influence over the post-Soviet space. An alliance unofficially [End p. 122] termed GUAM (standing for the initials of its member states) emerged since roughly 1997 composed of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, all states that have perceived Russia’s hand behind secessionist movements on their soil.

In Central Asia, Uzbekistan shared most of the objectives and perceptions of the GUAM states but refrained from joining it until early 1999; This did not mean that Uzbekistan was avoiding to provoke Russia; in the words of one analyst, Uzbekistan ‘uses virtually every possible opportunity to oppose Russian ‘integrationist’ proposals, appearing to view them as a smokescreen for a Russian hegemonist agenda’.[14]

Central Asia

Whereas the emerging alignments have become actualized in the Caucasus and that region’s geopolitics have begun to weave together with the Middle East at a very rapid pace, the same can not be said of Central Asia. Although one of the factors that gives importance to the Caucasus is precisely the fact that it is the western conduit to Central Asia, the geopolitical relations in the latter region are not as developed and internationalized as is the case in the Caucasus. Naturally, this has partly to do with the relatively inaccessible geographical location of the region, but also to the fact that it has largely been spared the conflicts of the Caucasus, that enable foreign powers to utilize zero-sum relationships between regional states to gain a foothold.

As a matter of fact, from a bird’s view, it is striking that the western ‘coalition’ of states totally lacks any geographical connection to the region. Whereas Turkey has a border with all three states of the Caucasus, Central Asia is bordered by Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran, and lies only a few miles away from the Pakistani and Indian borders¾most being states susceptible to be less than favorably disposed to western and particularly American influence. This geographical condition is helpful in illustrating two facts:

First, the very importance of the Central Asian region for the Eurasian geopolitics of the 21st century. Positioned as it is between the major emerging power centers of Eurasia¾in the neighborhood of four nuclear weapon states¾Central Asia from a western perspective could in the future play a role of a crucial pro-western bastion of stability and perhaps¾democracy.

Second, the ambivalent American attitude to the Pakistan-supported Afghan Taliban can be conceived of as related to the geographical conditions mentioned earlier. Russia, China and Iran are ruled out as conduits from an American perspective. This makes Pakistan, a traditional ally of the US, and by extension its protégés the Taliban, the only remaining [End p. 123] possible inroad to Central Asia. This is probably a factor that has influenced the American administration in not condemning the Taliban regime to the extent that could have been expected. In addition, the Taliban are strongly anti-Iranian, something that does not lower their image in Washington.

Among the Central Asian states, a basic distinction can be made between states that are trying to break free from Moscow’s domination and those that have consistently stayed within Russia’s orbit. In the latter category, three states are easily identifiable: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The two first are states with substantial Russian-speaking populations; especially Kazakhstan’s continued existence in its present shape could be put into question should it decide to embark on a more nationalistic, anti-Russian path. Kyrgyzstan is a small country that shares this problem; moreover it is vulnerable to two of it larger neighbours, China and Uzbekistan. The perceived Chinese threat, in particular, has encouraged Bishkek to develop its security ties to Moscow. In the case of Tajikistan, the well-known civil war has been instrumental for Moscow to keep its control over that country. The Tajik government, vulnerable as it is to destabilization both from within and from Afghanistan, has had little choice but to seek Moscow’s protection. In addition, as will be seen shortly, Dushanbe has (much like Armenia with respect to Turkey and Azerbaijan) resorted to Russia as a counterbalance against perceived Uzbek regional ambitions. These three weak states (Kazakhstan may be large by surface and resource-rich but its population amounts to roughly 17 million of which only 8 million are Kazakh) can hence be presumed to deviate only marginally from Russian policy. Kazakhstan is the only one among them that has tried to pursue somewhat more independent policies, for example Kazakhstan has disagreed with Russia as regards oil transportation; moreover it also seeks to develop its relations with the West. In any case these states will likely side with Moscow, although perhaps sometimes reluctantly, in Eurasian geopolitical matters.

On the other hand, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have pursued clearly more independent policies. These two countries benefit from not having a border with Russia; Turkmenistan, with its small size and impoverished economy despite potential gas wealth, has nevertheless refrained from taking a stance against Moscow, to which it has remained dependent in especially economic matters. Turkmenistan eagerly pursues its policy of neutrality and can for that purpose not be imagined as an active player in either ‘coalition’; Ashkabad is clearly expecting that its huge reserves of natural gas (ranking third or fourth in the world) will enable it to become a ‘Kuwait’ in the region and stay out of regional intrigues. [End p. 124]


Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is equipped with a more advantageous position. It is the most populous country of Central Asia, and to that comparatively homogeneously populated; it does not border on Russia, and has no Russian troops on its soil. On the other hand, Uzbekistan’s security concerns are conditioned mainly upon the situation in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, both being some of the most unstable and volatile states in Eurasia.[15] In President Karimov’s own words, Uzbekistan is a ‘front-line state’.[16] Moreover, substantial numbers of Uzbeks compactly reside in certain regions of both states, whereas numerous Tajiks live in Uzbekistan. Ethnic Uzbeks in fact hold important positions in the economies of all Central Asian states and given the rise in ethnic awareness in the post-Soviet era, this factor should not be neglected as an advantage for Uzbekistan’s position in the region. As Frederick Starr notes, Uzbekistan holds a number of assets: beyond those mentioned, it lies at the geographic center of Central Asia, bordering on all regional states but not, significantly, on Russia. It also has a relatively developed economy and solid, although not enormous, natural resources of oil, gas, gold and other minerals.[17]

It is interesting to note that Karimov has been a chief advocate of international, especially UN, involvement in the conflicts in its neighborhood rather than to use CIS mechanisms.[18] The Uzbek President has in a variety of forums and occasions warned against renewed great-power chauvinism and denounced military cooperation within the CIS. The rhetoric emanating from Tashkent grew increasingly assertive in the second half of the 1990s, paralleling the development of Russian policy along increasingly nationalist lines.

Within the CIS, cooperation between Uzbekistan and like-minded states increased since independence, initially with Ukraine and Georgia but spreading to Azerbaijan and Moldova; Karimov strongly denounced moves that aimed to transform the CIS into a ‘subject of international law’ or further integration in general. In practice, Uzbekistan suspended its participation in the CIS Interparliamentary assembly in September 1997; refused participation in any CIS Customs Union; and most significantly, refused to renew the CIS collective security treaty in early 1999.[19] The latter move was a precursor that certainly emboldened Georgia and Azerbaijan to do the same despite their more vulnerable position vis-à-vis Russia.

Outside the CIS, Uzbekistan has concentrated its energy on forming relations with NATO, Germany, and especially the United States. In fact, analysts have noted that Uzbekistan was in the late 1990s, together with Israel, the sole country that consistently supported the US in virtually all of its policy moves in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, for example with reference to Iraq[20] and Kosovo.[21] Karimov explicitly stated that NATO expansion [End p. 125] poses no threat to Russia, and supported the Baltic states’ aims to join the alliance.

In particular, the close relations established between Uzbekistan and Israel[22] were appreciated in Washington, and some analysts suggest that the cooperation between the two countries have developed into the fields of intelligence and security, besides the economic relations that currently double in volume every year.[23] Indeed the two states share the fear of radical Islam and the urge to counterbalance Iran but also the Taliban of Afghanistan. Publicly, Tel Aviv and Tashkent have increased their cooperation regarding the struggle against terrorism.[24]

Although the United States’ attitude to Uzbekistan has been less public than with many of its other allies, Washington’s open support has been growing since Tashkent made an effort to at least pay lip service to Human Rights and democratization in 1994. It must be noted, however, that Washington was late in realizing Uzbekistan’s strategic value and has remained unwilling to commit significant resources to it. President Karimov was in fact one of the last Central Asian leaders to be received at the White house, in June 1996. Since then, however, the political, economic and military relations between the two countries developed rapidly, and Uzbekistan turned into a main American ally in the region despite continuous American criticism on the lack of democratization in the country. Significantly, at the NATO summit in Washington in April 1999, President Karimov was seated next to US president Bill Clinton, an event that can hardly be termed a coincidence.

Regional Power Projections

It is apparent that the ruling forces in Uzbekistan see for the country a role as a regional power. This role was already evident in the 1920s, as Mikhail Kalinin, chairman of the executive committee of the all-Russian Congress of Soviets, urged Uzbekistan’s leadership to ‘relate to your neighbors as Moscow relates to you’.[25] Indeed, when speaking of regional alignments, Uzbekistan is, unlike Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia or Tajikistan, not a minor player that seeks to conduct alliances for its own safety. Although hardly having the capacities of Moscow or Washington, or even of Ankara or Tehran, Tashkent is a regional player in its own right. Its ambitions go beyond those of the smaller states.

Smaller states think of attracting the influence of one or the other regional power to increase their own security vis-à-vis its regional rivals or hostile larger powers; although the leaders of these states sometimes advance the position of their own country with considerable skill (as Presidents Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Shevardnadze of Georgia), they nevertheless do not aspire to a regional role of their own, such as exerting influence over neighbouring states. [End p. 126]

Uzbekistan, on the other hand, aspires to precisely such a regional role. Indeed, Tashkent is not only interested in escaping Moscow’s influence but has been positioning itself as a rival to Moscow’s in southern Central Asia.[26] For this purpose, it follows a policy relatively similar to that of Turkey or Israel: to cultivate its security relationship with the United States without therefore giving up its own policy of asserting its influence in neighbouring countries. The Uzbek policy in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan testify to this general pattern. Uzbekistan’s relations with Kyrgyzstan have since independence been characterized by Bishkek’s dependence on Tashkent for energy purposes, and Tashkent’s sometimes blatant disregard for Kyrgyzstan’s integrity, such as the unauthorized capture by Uzbek secret police of an Uzbek national on Kyrgyz territory. It is clear that the Uzbek government is exerting pressure on Bishkek and does not fail to remind Kyrgyz authorities of the weakness of Kyrgyzstan. In particular, the Kyrgyz government fears Tashkent’s intervention on behalf of the compactly settled Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region. A short but bloody ethnic conflict took place in the region in Summer 1990, claiming over 200 lives.[27]  According to recent surveys, 73% of the inhabitants of the Osh district fear a renewed confrontation between the two ethnic groups.[28] There is little doubt among both local and international observers that the Uzbek military will intervene in the case of a renewed ethnic conflict, with unforeseeable consequences.[29] Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian state to have made significant progress in developing an army of its own, a fact which increases its comparative advantage over its neighbors.

With regard to Afghanistan, the Uzbek leadership has been actively supporting the anti-Taliban forces in that country, and then especially (however with limited success) the ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. With respect to Tajikistan, a gap has been growing recently between the Uzbek and Tajik governments, although earlier relations had been considerably more cordial; indeed, only a few years ago was a dichotomy arguably present in Uzbek foreign policy toward Russia: a policy of asserting independence in general, but also significant cooperation and common interests as regarded Tajikistan. Today, commonality of interest between Tashkent and Moscow is restricted to the situation in Afghanistan and the radical Islamic threat perceived as emanating therefrom.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan: A Splitting of Ways

Tashkent has recently started to become openly critical of the government in Dushanbe, led by President Imomali Rakhmonov . There are two main reasons for the worsening relations between the two governments. The first [End p. 127] is Dushanbe’s ever closer military links to Moscow. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and until the end of the Tajik civil war in June 1997, the presence of Russian troops on Tajikistan’s territory had been somewhat legitimized by their status as ‘CIS peace-keeping forces’. However, the conduct of the troops had made it relatively clear that the 201st Motor-Rifle Division was pursuing Russian national interests and nothing else; in particular the refusal to demobilize the troops after the end of the war was greeted with suspicion in neighbouring countries, especially Uzbekistan. Notwithstanding Uzbek criticism, Moscow nevertheless went on to conclude a treaty with the Tajik government giving Russian troops basing rights for 10 years, to be extended by mutual consent.[30] The treaty not only provides for the 201st division to stay but for new military bases and additional troop reinforcements.[31] The Uzbek reaction was predictably harsh, as President Karimov’s statement illustrates:

Why are Russian military bases needed in Tajikistan? The pacification process is in full swing in Tajikistan. The war in Afghanistan has ebbed, as the warring parties realize that a military solution has no future. Tajikistan’s neighbors may well ask: Against whom are those bases really aimed?... What countries are being targeted? The militarization of the region is being increased, instead of being decreased. New military bases could worsen the situation in Central Asia.[32]

The second reason for the problems between Tashkent and Dushanbe is the character of the peace process in Tajikistan. The main parties in the regionally based civil war were the government side, heavily dominated by representatives of the Kulyab region of the Southeast, and the more Islamic-minded opposition centered around the Southwest of the country. However, the most industrialized and densely populated area of Tajikistan, which also provided the leadership of the republic between 1929 and 1992, is the North of the country around the city of Hojent; this region is separated from the rest of Tajikistan by a mountain range North of the Capital. This area, which was considerably less affected by the civil war, is also the home of a significant number of Uzbeks, who amount to perhaps 35-40% of the population of the region. Traditionally, the ‘Hojent clan’ has long-standing relations with the leadership of Uzbekistan. Whereas the Hojent ‘clan’ had been in alliance with the Kulyab ‘clan’ in the early 1990s, the 1997 peace agreement between the Dushanbe government and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) marginalized the role of the Hojent ‘clan’ in the political life of the country, being in fact a power-sharing agreement between the two other factions.[33]

This circumstance altered the regional balance by worsening relations between Dushanbe and Tashkent, and pushing the Hojent ‘clan’ to seek the [End p. 128] support of Tashkent in its bid to participate in Tajikistan’s governance. In fact, evidence seems to suggest that the ‘northerners’ in Tajikistan received at least limited support from Uzbek authorities. There have been allegations of Uzbek support for a December 1998 rebellion led by warlord Mahmud Khudoiberdiev and, allegedly, former prime minister of Tajikistan Abdumalik Abdullajonov (both northerners and residing in Tashkent) against the Dushanbe authorities. Although the Karimov regime denied any involvement and in fact allowed Tajikistan troops to enter Uzbek territory to quell the rebellion, it is a fact that the rebellion entered Tajikistan from Uzbek territory. A Russian embassy official in Tashkent is quoted as follows:

It cannot be denied that during the uprising in Northern Tajikistan, Moscow and Tashkent backed different forces. We cannot provide convincing proof that Tashkent was helping Khudoiberdiev, because most of this data is operational information from our agents. However, you can judge for yourselves: Tashkent does not deny that some of Khudoiberdiev's guerrillas were in hiding in Uzbekistan; could hundreds of armed men really move unimpeded around a republic where there are checkpoints virtually every 300 meters? Can it be a coincidence that Khudoiberdiev's main ally¾the Tajik ex-Premier Abdumalik Abdullajonov¾did not only live openly in Tashkent … but also ran the local branch of Chevrolet?! … The Uzbek authorities’ argument that they allowed Tajik government troops through their territory to put down the uprising is not very convincing. According to the information at our disposal, the Uzbek authorities deliberately delayed granting permission for the Tajik troops to cross their territory, thus giving Khudoiberdiev the opportunity to consolidate his position in Tajikistan.[34]

The source may not be totally disinterested, but proves the point that Tashkent can not have been uninformed of the rebellion. Whatever the involvement of Uzbekistan has been, it is clear that Tashkent is unable to stay out of Tajikistan’s politics. The northern Hojent region is less than 100 kilometers from Tashkent, and ethnic Uzbeks will certainly be involved if disturbances spread to the region; Tashkent’s policy of interfering in its neighbours’ affairs can obviously have grave consequences for the latter. In sum, Uzbekistan plays a regional role like no other Central Asian republics, and has, for better or for worse, a proactive foreign policy.

A Regional Player?

In the geopolitics of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is both a crucial geopolitical pivot and a player not to be neglected. Uzbekistan is the only country that [End p. 129] in the long run has a distinct potential to establish itself as a regional power in Central Asia. By this circumstance, it is certain that western and especially American interests for the country will increase. It also relatively clear that the larger interests of Tashkent and Washington in Eurasian geopolitics will continue to substantially converge for the foreseeable future: to prevent Moscow’s ambitions of excluding other international actors from economic and political influence over Central Asia; instead, to increase western and other international presence in Central Asia in order to help the region transform into a ‘bastion of stability’ which would be centered around Tashkent. The key question remains the future of Afghanistan, a game in which a number of rounds remain to be played. US ambivalence regarding Afghanistan nevertheless poses the question to what degree Tashkent and Washington are currently coordinating their policies in this field. Signs of a colder US attitude towards the Taliban are nevertheless emerging, especially as the latter continue to shelter Osama Bin Laden, one of the most wanted men in Washington and the alleged mastermind behind the attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998. If this tendency continues, further intelligence cooperation between the US and Uzbekistan is likely.

Throughout 1998, there were speculations that Uzbekistan, which long shared many of GUAM’s interests, would join that alliance. The occasion that was finally chosen for Uzbekistan’s accession was, significantly, the celebrations of NATO’s 50th birthday in Washington in April 1999. Not only did Uzbekistan become a member of the alliance, but the five states also chose Washington as the arena to formalize and institutionalize the alliance.[35] Azerbaijan’s President Heydar Aliyev was elected chairman of the organization, which was renamed GUUAM through Uzbekistan’s accession. It was announced that a secretariat was going to be formed.[36] The institutionalization and expansion of GUAM was a significant event as it coincided with the renegotiation of the Collective Security Treaty of the CIS, which Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan refused to adhere to despite Russian pressure. In fact, the CIS has now for all practical purposes been divided into two camps, the Russian-led CST and the pro-Western GUUAM. This has practically abolished whatever political influence the CIS had had as an organization. The Washington events testify to Tashkent’s open challenge to Moscow’s hegemony in Central Asia.

This is not to say that Uzbekistan has turned into a client that Washington can constantly rely upon. Events in late 1999 and 2000 nevertheless point to the fact that Uzbekistan is constantly reassessing its geopolitical orientation. Increase in Islamic extremist terrorism and especially the upheaval in southern Kyrgyzstan in August 1999 seems to have served as a warning signal to the Uzbek leadership, prompting [End p. 130] Tashkent to reevaluate the costs of alienating Moscow, a possible support against radical Islamist organizations in the region.[37] Most significantly, Moscow showed its readiness to use military force against Islamic rebels, whereas the US remained unwilling to get involved in combating terrorism in Central Asia. In sum, US readiness to commit resources to Central Asia being doubtful, Tashkent seems to have realized its exaggerated dependence on Washington. In a move designed to broaden Uzbekistan’s possibilities, Karimov visited Beijing in November. The agreements signed were chiefly economic in nature, displaying Uzbekistan’s need for markets and investments.[38] However, there were clear security implications as well: China and Uzbekistan share the threat posed by radical Islamic movements. And soon after, the Karimov regime was able to benefit from its independent and Russia-challenging policies: In December, Karimov mended ties with Moscow somewhat by signing an agreement with prime minister Vladimir Putin on combating terrorism, in which Putin termed Uzbekistan a ‘strategic partner’.[39] Russian respect for Uzbekistan had clearly risen, and Karimov was, at least on paper, successful in his ambition to be treated by Moscow as a regional player in its own right and not as a former colony. The timing of the Beijing visit before the overture to Moscow was certainly no coincidence: Karimov drove home the fact that Uzbekistan has a wide array of options in its foreign policy, and a lack of western commitment would no necessarily force the country back into Russian arms. Moreover, Karimov sent a clear message to Washington: Uzbekistan should not be taken for granted. If the US wants a powerful, stable and reliable ally in Central Asia, it must be ready to pay the price.

While profiling itself as a regional player, Tashkent needs to maintain its calm. The Uzbek leadership’s task is after all daunting: to keep Moscow at bay and Washington in, and to increase its regional role while avoiding strife on its southern and eastern borders from spreading into the country. The prize should it succeed in this task is attractive: to turn Uzbekistan into a kind of Israel in Central Asia: a leading American-supported regional power in Central Asia in the early twenty-first century. However, potential obstacles are many.


Uzbekistan may be playing a regional role already, however the question is whether it can sustain this position in the longer term. The problems faced by the government includes on the one hand internal issues in the fields of ethnic relations, economic condition, and the slow democratization of the country. [End p. 131] Externally, this last problem especially is a problem in its crucially important relations with the United States and NATO.

The Economy

Uzbekistan is by population the largest country in Central Asia with over 24 million people; it also has one of the quickest growing populations of the ex-Soviet republics with an estimated yearly growth rate of close to 2%.[40] Its economic prospects range between the desolate condition of its Eastern neighbors Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (both basically devoid of natural resources and an industrial base) and its Northern and Western neighbours Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, who have large quantities of oil, gas, and other minerals. Uzbekistan is an oil-producing country, a fact that helped the country to self-sufficiency in energy¾Uzbekistan produces around 150,000 barrels of oil per day. The economy is largely geared on the production of cotton, and the country is the fifth largest producer of cotton in the world. Although this implies a certain economical base apart from the export of natural resources, the monoculture of cotton that was Uzbekistan’s main role in the Soviet command-economy has had grave consequences for the region. Irrigation of large territories deprived the Aral sea of its water inflow and, together with the overuse of pesticides, contributed to the disastrous environmental and health condition in and around the Aral sea. In particular, the Karakalpakistan Autonomous Republic in Western Uzbekistan suffered enormously from the disaster. Uzbekistan remains the world’s seventh largest producer of Gold and fourth largest of Uranium. Uzbekistan has a GDP per capita of less than US$500,[41] hence its economic base can hardly be expected to support regional power ambitions in the near future. This is made worse by the economic policies of the government; the regime has according to a leading analytical firm adopted a path to ‘keep a basically defunct economy going’.[42] The lack of economic reform, the difficulties faced by investors in repatriating profits, and foreign exchange restrictions are some of the factors that led the same analysts to predict that in the absence of reforms, the country ‘may face a balance of payments crisis or deep recession in the coming years’. Meanwhile, the long-term advantages of the country are highlighted, such as a large consumer base, a strong agricultural and resource base, scientific and intellectual resources, and good potential for tourism.[43]

Ethnic and Religious Relations

Much of Tashkent’s uneasiness regarding developments in its neighborhood is related to its own domestic situation. First and foremost, the large ethnic [End p. 132] Tajik population in the country is a distinct reason for worry. Although official statistics talk of a Tajik population of no more than 6% of the population, most observers put the real number at closer to 20%. In fact, the national delimitation of 1924-36 which established the present borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan left a considerable portion of Tajik-inhabited areas on Uzbek territory. Most importantly, the two ‘bastions’ of Tajik culture, the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, are in Uzbekistan, whereas Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe holds much less cultural value for the Tajiks. The discrepancy between the official and real demographic figures are related to several factors. First of all, despite Uzbek being a Turkic and Tajik a Persian language, the notions of ethnicity and nationality are much less than clear in the areas inhabited by Tajiks and Uzbeks. A tradition of Uzbek-Tajik bilingualism exists in the region, and local/regional identities have often superseded the ethnic dimension, notably in a situation where inter-marriage between the two groups has been common.

Another factor has been the official registration of many Tajiks as Uzbeks in the early Soviet era, in order to polish the imperfect national delimitation. This has been termed ‘passport Uzbekization’ and is resented by the Tajik cultural elite in Uzbekistan. The tense relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe and the uncertainty of further developments in the region does not exclude that the Tajik problem may mushroom in Uzbekistan, although at present this does not seem to be a primary cause of worry for the regime.[44]

Far more important so far has been the Islamic question. Perestroika meant the easing of anti-religious measures in the union in general and the Islamic republics in particular. Compared to the northern Muslim republics of Central Asia and the Volga region such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan or Tatarstan, Uzbekistan’s religious tradition is comparatively stronger and the people generally more observant to religion. The religious awakening in Uzbekistan was centered on the traditionally highly Islamic Fergana valley in the East of the country, where in 1989 demonstrations erupted in demand of the resignation of the Soviet-appointed head of the Muslim clergy in Central Asia, whose seat was in Tashkent.[45] Shortly afterwards, political movements with an Islamic orientation started appearing: The Islamic Renaissance Party (which was an all-Union formation initially) and Adolat (Justice) which included paramilitary forces. In response to this trend, the Uzbek regime in early 1991 prohibited all political parties based on ethnicity or religion; the Karimov regime soon cracked down on the two movements with considerable force.

With independence, all Central Asian leaders acknowledged the Islamic tradition and improved their Islamic credentials to various degrees, in spite of their earlier allegiance to Soviet atheism and the considerable energy with [End p. 133] which they had previously suppressed Islam. So also in Uzbekistan, where president Karimov swore his oath on the Qur’an and performed the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj).[46] Nevertheless Karimov continued his crackdown on Islamic Fundamentalism, and tried to ensure that the Islamic resurgence in the population remain tightly controlled by the state. Karimov has in this context successfully utilized the situation in Tajikistan and the public fear of a similar development in Uzbekistan. Constantly referring to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism spreading from Tajikistan and Afghanistan by statements like ‘Tajikistan will come to Uzbekistan tomorrow’, Karimov has ensured a certain public following for his harsh attitude to political Islam.[47] The repression of Islamist groups has intensified in recent years, in contrast to the cautious trend of lessening suppression of the secular opposition, as will be seen shortly.

In sum, Uzbekistan is facing significant difficulties internally, especially in the ‘volatile Fergana valley, where the Islamist groups are concentrated. As Donald Carlisle has observed, ‘Fergana is in fact a boiling cauldron of economic and ethnic tensions ready to overflow at almost any time with terrible consequences for Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and especially Kyrgyzstan’.[48]

Authoritarianism, Human Rights, and Relations with the US

Besides economic difficulties and potential ethnic or religious unrest in the country, Uzbekistan faces more direct problems in its regional ambitions. Without foreign support, it is difficult for Uzbekistan to be a counterweight to Russia in Central Asia, especially as it already has an antagonistic relationship with the governments of Tajikistan and Afghanistan and as its relationship with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is already wary. As described above, Tashkent consistently played with Washington for several years and did in fact achieve the position of being America’s main ally in the region. Nevertheless, the Washington-Tashkent tie is highly vulnerable due to the reputation the Karimov regime has earned as a notorious Human Rights Violator. After a short thaw in 1991, the arrival of independence coincided with a crackdown on all forms of true opposition in Uzbekistan.[49] Beatings, abductions, and even assassinations of political figures of various standing as well as Human Rights advocates became commonplace, and together with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan quickly became known for having one of the least liberal regimes in the former Soviet Union. Media censorship is continuously enforced in the country, and human rights organizations classify the country as not free. Especially until 1994, the situation was particularly grave; nevertheless the increasingly hostile attitude of western governments, including the [End p. 134] United States, towards Tashkent’s practices led to an attempt to improve the country’s tarnished image.[50] This quickly paid off, removing the most pressing obstacles for Washington to extend its support to what was, not without reason, perceived as a vital ally in Asia. Nevertheless, the question is whether the Uzbek leadership can expect Washington’s attitude to remain so lenient. In fact, there is reason to believe that future American administrations will demand something more than lip service to democratization and Human Rights; if this is to be the case, the Karimov regime will be presented with the dilemma either to lose some American support or to implement democratic reform. It is in this context that Karimov’s overtures to Moscow and Beijing should be seen.

It should in all fairness be recalled that the opinions on the Karimov regime vary. While many observers tend to see it as an authoritarian regime bent on preserving its own position, other observers disagree: for example, Nereo Laroni (director of the Marco Polo institute in Venice) considers that ‘Islam Karimov has no wish to keep his country under the iron heel of an authoritarian government, but wishes to guide it gradually with as few shocks as possible to a wholly democratic system’.[51] A closer study of the origins of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan-and the repercussions their singular and intolerant brand of Islam has had on Afghanistan and increasingly on Pakistan-helps to understand Karimov’s uncompromising attitude towards radical Islamic movements in Central Asia.[52]

In this context it is necessary to recall the dangers of democratization in the southern rim of the former Soviet Union. While the Karimov regime’s record is bad, democratization from above is not an immediate solution but may have a destabilizing effect as has been the case in Tajikistan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. As Stephen Blank has observed,

the American attempt to induce democratization from both above ¾ through reliable clients ¾ and outside by the United States’ own efforts may be one of the factors that generates the ethnic tensions and economic polarization that fuel such conflicts … forces associated with democratization have allowed or set conditions for the emergence  and intensification of the flood of ethno-nationalism that often is a precondition for violence.[53]

In sum, the constant risk of the US reassessing its commitment to Uzbekistan puts the Karimov regime in a precarious position. It is certain that Uzbekistan needs the US more than the US needs Uzbekistan. After all, Central Asia is very far from Washington and it is not certain that all future American administrations will be equally ready to commit resources to this faraway region. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, desperately needs its partnership with the US in order to play a leading regional role, given the [End p. 135] strong external as internal challenges the leadership is faced with. The situation is not improved by the fact that Tashkent’s relations with Ankara have been less than smooth, a fact that needs further elaboration.

Turkey-a logical ally?

Given Uzbekistan’s position and policies, Ankara should be one of the most logical allies for Tashkent. According to one observer, ‘the Uzbeks … would like to have an independent pro-West outlook and a Pan-Turkic axis with Turkey, a NATO ally’.[54] Pledges of brotherhood and cooperation have continuously been made by the leaderships of both countries; for example, in 1996 a treaty on ‘eternal friendship and cooperation’ was signed between presidents Demirel and Karimov.[55] However, the relations between the two states have often been rocky, in fact to a larger extent than between Turkey and any other Turkic state. One of the main problems in the relations between the two countries has been the granting of asylum by Turkey to Muhammed Solih,  the leader of the outlawed opposition movement Erk, subsequent to Solih’s exile from Uzbekistan. The Uzbek ambassador to Turkey was recalled in mid-1994, presumably for this reason. During Karimov’s visit to Ankara the same year, the Uzbek president urged both countries to ensure that ‘third parties’ would not spoil their bilateral ties,[56] in a clear hint at Solih’s presence in Turkey. The Uzbek leadership has also made it a habit to suddenly recall large numbers of Uzbek students at Turkish universities. It is believed that Karimov suspected Solih of recruiting the students into his movement; Solih in turn reportedly argued that such measures were taken as Tashkent was worried of the students’ exposure to a democratic regime.[57] The relations were relatively cold during the short Islamist-led Turkish government of Necmettin Erbakan between mid-1996 and mid-1997. Erbakan showed little interest towards the secularist Central Asian countries, focusing instead on improving relations with the Muslim and Arab world.

The relations between the two countries were strengthening again during 1998 and 1999, with Turkish governments again paying attention to Central Asia; however a ‘Turkish connection’ in the February 1999 assassination attempt against President Karimov led to a renewed diplomatic impasse. Two suspected Uzbek terrorists were arrested in Turkey and eventually handed over to Uzbek authorities despite objections from the European Court of Human Rights, but not as swiftly as the Karimov leadership had wished.[58] Moreover, 220 Uzbek students were recalled from Turkish universities less than a month before their final examinations, and over 20 Turkish schools in Uzbekistan were closed down by government decree.[59] The Uzbek government then made statements accusing Turkey of collusion [End p. 136] with the terrorists, which prompted an irritated reaction from Ankara. Prime minister Bülent Ecevit stated that ‘the suspicions and concerns of Uzbek President Islam Karimov are unfounded’[60] and Ankara recalled its ambassador from Tashkent.[61] The Turkish irritation was obvious in the formulations of the Turkish minister of state responsible for relations with Turkic states, Abdülhaluk Çay. When asked if Turkey had any problems with Uzbekistan, he responded that ‘Turkey has no problem with Uzbekistan, but Islam Karimov does’.[62] Shortly afterwards, evidence surfaced that Islamist circles close to Erbakan had been implicated in the terrorist attack in Tashkent; charges that the Turkish government should have been involved nevertheless appear absurd.

What is clear from the above discussion is that the Karimov regime is heavily suspicious of Ankara’s intentions with regard to Uzbekistan. Perhaps Tashkent feels that it is a regional player in its own right and does therefore not wish to see Ankara as a leader; in any case the Karimov regime does not give priority to its relations with Turkey, given that what amounted to loose rumors was enough to create a significant deterioration of relations. The question, again, is if Tashkent can afford to neglect Ankara. Isolated as the Uzbek leadership is in its region, it is difficult to see the logic in failing to capitalize on a regional power of Turkey’s stature that shares most of Tashkent’s interests: countering Russian and Iranian influence in Central Asia, increasing American involvement, minimizing the role of the Afghan Taliban and supporting the Afghan opposition, and working for the westward export of Caspian oil.


As the above discussion has highlighted, Uzbekistan has the conditions to become a regional power in Central Asia. Meanwhile, significant obstacles¾both internal and external¾stand in its way. Some of the obstacles are difficult to remedy, such as the threats emanating from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. However, it seems that the leadership itself could improve the country’s situation in certain spheres: internally, the reform of the economy of the country must be a priority, much more than it is today; equally importantly, the difficult issue of democratization is certain to haunt the country’s international standing unless dealt with in a long-term constructive fashion. In the realm of foreign policy, the Uzbek government in the late 1990s capitalized excessively on American involvement, a policy that carried distinct risks. The neglect of Turkey as an ally was the prime example of this policy. Azerbaijan’s president Heydar Aliyev, by contrast, has gone out of his way to attract as much and as diversified western involvement to his [End p. 137] country as possible, be it economic and political. Aliyev seems to reckon that capitalizing on only one foreign ally¾be it Turkey as was the case of the nationalist regime in Azerbaijan 1992-93 or the United States as is the case for Uzbekistan¾seriously limits the foreign policy options of the regime in question and increases its vulnerability. By early 2000, the regime seems to be realizing the need¾especially with Washington’s vacillating commitment¾to diversify its options. In this light, a rapprochement with Turkey could be a logical next step for Tashkent to take.

In spite of its weaknesses, Uzbekistan remains the only country that has the potential to play a leading regional role in Central Asia; but without reconsidering its policies in certain areas mentioned above, however, the Karimov regime is likely to see the obstacles to its regional position increase. Uzbekistan is also the only country in the region to pursue a decidedly pro-Western foreign policy. This very fact nevertheless attracts the attention of forces that seek to prevent the increase of western influence in the region, and Uzbekistan’s vulnerability in various fields increase the dangers of grave setbacks. Attention to Uzbekistan is hence a requirement for the United States and western Europe if the west is ever to exert any considerable influence on developments in Central Asia. Supporting Uzbekistan does lie in the interest of the West, and does not necessarily contradict the promotion of Human Rights and democracy. What the west needs to do is to show its commitment to the country and the region, while exercising the influence this commitment would entail to engage the Karimov regime constructively on these issues.


[1] For an overview of the politics of the Caspian Sea, see Süha Bölükbasi, ‘The Controversy over the Caspian Mineral resources: Conflicting Perceptions, Clashing Interests’, in Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 50, no. 3, 1998, pp. 397-414.

[2] On the importance of regional alignments in the international politics of the Caucasus, see Svante E. Cornell, ‘The Place of Caucasian States in Eurasian Strategic Alignments’, in Marco Polo Magazine (Venice), Supplement to Acque & Terre, no. 1, 1999, ( For an extended argument, see Svante E. Cornell, ‘Geopolitics and Strategic Alignments in the Caucasus and Central Asia’, in Perceptions¾Journal of International Affairs, vol. 4 no. 2, Summer 1999. (

[3] See eg. I. Tiouline, ‘Russian Diplomacy: the Problems of Transition’, in Mehdi Mozaffari, ed., Security Politics in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1997.

[4]  Ibid, quoting an interview with Burbulis in Rossiiskaia Gazeta of 20 April 1991.

[5] See eg. Erik Cornell, Turkey in the Twenty-First Century: Challenges, Opportunities, Threats, Richmond: Curzon Press, 2000; Hugh and Nicole Pope, Turkey Unveiled, London: John Murray, 1997.

[6] See Svante E. Cornell, ‘Turkey and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Delicate Balance’, in Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 34 no. 1, 1998; Süha Bölükbasi, “Ankara’s Baku-Centered Transcaucasia Policy: Has it Failed?’, in The Middle East Journal, vol. 50 no. 1, Winter 1997. [End p. 138]

[7] See chapter 7, ‘Turkey: Priority to Azerbaijan’, in Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, Richmond: Curzon Press, 1999.

[8] See Meliha Altunisik, ‘Turkey’s attitude towards the Eurasian Oil: From Euphoria to Pragmatism’, in Marco Polo Magazine, nos. 4-5, 1998, pp. 24-25; Süha Bölükbasi, ‘The Controversy over the Caspian Mineral resources: Conflicting Perceptions, Clashing Interests’, in Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 50, no. 3, 1998, pp. 397-414.

[9]  See Amikam Nachmani, ‘The Remarkable Turkish-Israeli Tie’, in Middle East Quarterly, vol. 5 no. 2, June 1998.

[10] See Alan Makovsky, “The New Activism in Turkish Foreign Policy“, in SAIS Review, vol. 19 no. 1, 1999, pp. 92-113.

[11] See Stephen Blank, ‘Instability in the Caucasus: New Trends, Old Traits’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, Part I, April 1998, pp. 14-17; Part II, May 1998, pp. 18-21.

[12] On US policy in the region, see Svante E. Cornell, Beyond Oil: U.S. Engagement in the Caspian Region, Uppsala: Department of East European Studies, Working Paper no. 52, January 2000. (

[13] On Israel’s strategy, see Bülent Aras, ‘Israel’s Strategy in Azerbaijan and Central Asia’, in Middle East Policy, vol. 5 no. 4, January 1998.

[14] See Annette Bohr, Uzbekistan: Politics and Foreign Policy, London: RIIA, 1998, p. 44.

[15] See eg. Irina Adinayeva, ‘Security Policy of the Republic of Uzbekistan’, in Marco Polo Magazine, (Venice, Acque & Terre), no. 6, 1998.

[16] Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century: Challenges to Stability and Progress, Richmond: Curzon Press, 1997, p. 12.

[17] See S. Frederick Starr, ‘Making Eurasia Stable’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 75 no. 1, 1996, pp. 83-94.

[18] See “Uzbek President: Pay Attention to Central Asia’, Jamestown Monitor, 24 October 1995.

[19] See “Uzbekistan Wary of Relations with Russia and the CIS’, Jamestown Monitor, 25 September 1997; “Karimov Spills Beans on Cancellation of Summit’, Jamestown Monitor, 13 January 1998; “Tashkent Quits ‘Tashkent’ Pact on Collective Security’, Jamestown Monitor, 9 February 1999.

[20] ‘Uzbek president ‘understands’ US actions against Iraq’, BBC Monitoring Service, 19 December 1998.

[21] ‘US envoy praises Uzbek stance on Afghanistan and Kosovo’, BBC Monitoring Service, 26 May 1999.

[22] See Aras, ‘Israel’s Strategy in Azerbaijan and Central Asia’.

[23] Reuters, 10 June 1999.

[24] ‘Hezbollah behind Tashkent bombs, President Karimov tells Israeli minister’, BBC Monitoring Service, 20 February 1999.

[25] Donald Carlisle, ‘Geopolitics and Ethnic Problems of Uzbekistan and its Neighbours’, in Yacoov Ro’i (ed.), Muslim Eurasia: Conflicting Legacies, London: FrankCass, 1995, p. 77.

[26] Igor Rotar, ‘Moscow and Tashkent Battle for Supremacy in Central Asia’, in Jamestown Foundation Prism, vol. 5 no. 4,  26 February 1999.

[27] On the Osh conflict, see Valery Tishkov, Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in and after the Soviet Union, London: Sage, 1997, pp. 135-154.

[28] Alexei Malashenko, presentation at the conference ‘Central Asia in a New Security Context’, Swedish Institute for International Affairs, Stockholm, 2-3 September 1999.

[29] Ibid.

[30] ‘Russian Troops Drop CIS Figleaf, Will Stay in Tajikistan’, Jamestown Foundation Monitor, 8 April 1999.

[31] ‘Russia Obtains Military Basing Rights in Tajikistan’, Jamestown Foundation Monitor, 21 April 1999.

[32] ‘Karimov Condemns Russian Military Presence In Tajikistan’, Jamestown Foundation Monitor, 12 April 1999.

[33] See eg. R. Gramt smith, ‘Tajikistan: the Rocky Road to Peace’, in Central Asian Survey, vol. 18 no. 2, June 1999.

[34] See Rotar, ‘Moscow and Tashkent Battle for Supremacy in Central Asia’.

[35] ‘’GUAM’ expands to ‘GUUAM’ through accession of Uzbekistan’, The Jamestown Monitor, 27 April 1999.

[36] Azadinform News Bulletin, 26 April 1999.

[37] See Uzbekistan Rethinks Its Ties to Moscow’, Stratfor Commentary, 3 September 1999. [End p. 139]

[38] See ‘Uzbekistan: Central Asia’s Pawn?’, Stratfor Commentary, 10 November 1999.

[39] See ‘Russian Premier Terms Uzbekistan 'Strategic Partner', RFE/RL Newsline, 13 December 1999.

[40] United Nations, Statistical Yearbooks, 1997-98.

[41] United Nations Demographic Yearbook, figures are for 1997. See

[42]  See Global Securities Inc., An Investor’s Guide to Central Asia and the Caucasus, Istanbul, 1998, p. 153.

[43]  Ibid., p. 148.

[44] See Richard Foltz, ‘The Tajiks of Uzbekistan’, in Central Asian Survey, no. 2, 1996, and by the same author ‘Uzbekistan’s Tajiks: A Case of Repressed Identity?’, in Central Asia Monitor, no. 6, 1996. See also Vladimir Mesemed, ‘Interethnic Relations in the Republic of Uzbekistan’, in Central Asia Monitor, no. 6, 1996.

[45] See eg. Bohr, Uzbekistan, p. 26.

[46] See eg. Martha Brill Olcott, ‘Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia’, in Yaacov Ro’i, ed., Muslim Eurasia: Conjflicting Legacies, Ilford: FrankCass, 1995, p. 22.

[47] See ‘Crackdown on ‘Radical’ Islam in Uzbekistan’, Jamestown Foundation Monitor, 5 May 1998.

[48] Carlisle, ‘Geopolitics and Ethnic Problems of Uzbekistan and its Neighbours’, p. 91.

[49] On the crackdown, see William Fierman, ‘Political Development in Uzbekistan: Democratization?’, in Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott, Conflict, Cleavage and Change in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 383-90.

[50] See Erika Dailey, ‘Uzbekistan: The human rights implications of an abuser government's improving relations with the international community’, in Helsinki Monitor, vol. 7, no. 2, 1996. (

[51] See Nereo Laroni, “Uzbekistan: A Difficult Transition“, in Marco Polo Magazine, (Venice, Acque & Terre) no. 6, 1998.

[52] See Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Islam, Oil, and the New Great Game in Central Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000 for an excellent and comprehensive analysis of the Taliban.

[53] See Stephen Blank, U.S. Military Engagement with Transcaucasia and Central Asia, Paper presented at the conference Central Asia in a New Security Context, Swedish Institute for International Affairs, 2-3 September 1999, p. 9.

[54] Najam Abbas, ‘Uzbekistan’s splitting of Ways with Moscow’, in Marco Polo Magazine, (Venice, Acque & Terre), no. 2, 1999.

[55] ‘Uzbek President Welcomes “Eternal Friendship“ Accord with Turkey’, BBC Monitoring Service, 10 May 1996.

[56] See Gareth Winrow, Turkey and Post-Soviet Central Asia, London: RIIA, 1995, p. 24.

[57] Ibid.

[58] The two suspects, Rustem Mametkulov and Zaynuttin Askarov were extradited in late April 1999 after Turkey received guarantees from Tashkent that the death penalty would not be demanded for them. Ankara had to demand the guarantee since the two suspects applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the court subsequently ordered Turkey to suspend the extradition procedures. The European Convention for Human Rights forbids any signatory to extradite foreign citizens to a country where they face capital punishment, as is the case in Uzbekistan. In a sense, Turkey broke its obligations to the ECHR by extraditing the suspects; nevertheless the Uzbek leadership seemed to have little understanding for such treaty obligations.

[59] Turkish Daily News, 5 July 1999.

[60] Turkish PM - Uzbek Mistrust of Turkey Baseless’, Xinhua News Bulletin, 21 June 1999.

[61] Serpil Cevikcan, ‘Özbek Krizi Dorukta’, Milliyet Daily (Istanbul), 19 June 1999.

[62] Interview with the author, 14 June 1999, Ankara. Dr. Çay is a member of the pan-Turkist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).