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Uzbekistan and Russia's Complex Relationship

4 MINS READApr 15, 2013 | 16:12 GMT
Uzbekistan and Russia's Complex Relationship
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Uzbek President Islam Karimov speak in Moscow on April 15
Summary

A meeting between Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, highlighted the complexities between the two countries from a bilateral and regional perspective. Karimov met with Putin in Moscow on April 15, at which time the leaders signed a program for economic cooperation for the 2013-2017 period. They also discussed tensions over security and political matters in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has become increasingly independent from Russian influence, but several regional issues and limits to the development of alternative relationships are driving Tashkent to maintain its relationship with Moscow.

Meetings occur frequently between Russian officials and the leadership of several former Soviet states, especially in the Central Asian region, which is home to some of Moscow's closest allies. Kazakhstan is a member of the Customs Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, both of which are led by Moscow, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan host Russian military bases with thousands of Russian troops. As a result, these countries hold frequent consultations with Moscow.

However, such meetings are less common between Russia and Uzbekistan, which is the most populous country in the region and one that is self sufficient in energy resources. This makes Uzbekistan the most independent country in Central Asia, and Tashkent has traditionally had a tense relationship with Moscow. Uzbekistan has resisted membership in economic blocs, such as the Customs Union, and in 2012, Tashkent left the Collective Security Treaty Organization, citing the desire of some members for more integration.

Uzbekistan and Russia's Complex Relationship

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan's formal departure from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (it had long been the least cooperative member of the bloc) spurred speculation that it would increase security cooperation with external powers active in the region, particularly with the West and China. Indeed, Tashkent has increased security-related talks with other countries over the past year. Concerned about the potential for militancy and instability to spill over from Afghanistan after NATO's 2014 withdrawal, Uzbekistan has been in negotiations with the United States to receive NATO equipment that is being withdrawn. Uzbekistan has also held military cooperation talks with China and has reached an agreement with the European Union that saw a weapons embargo lifted.

However, these talks with external players have not led to any significant agreements or weapons deals since Uzbekistan's departure from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, indicating that Tashkent is moving carefully. Discussions with Russia on military-technical cooperation were on the agenda for Karimov's visit, which can be seen as a sign that Uzbekistan may not make any major moves with other powers in this arena in the near future. Still, Uzbekistan is likely to keep its options open in case Russia becomes more assertive with Tashkent.

Another typically tense issue between Tashkent and Moscow is Russia's role in the wider Central Asian region. Uzbekistan has long-standing tensions with neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, particularly related to frequent border skirmishes, a product of the complex border structure and ethnic distribution in the region. Uzbekistan also feuds with its two neighbors over water supplies, since Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan serve as the upstream source of Uzbekistan's water supplies. Both countries have sought to construct hydroelectric plants to lessen their dependence on Uzbek oil and natural gas supplies. Tashkent has objected to these plans because they would come at the expense of its own water supplies. Russia has used its close relationship with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to pressure Uzbekistan, occasionally offering technical and financial support for the hydroelectric projects. However, Moscow has been careful not to push the issue too far and has so far stopped short of supporting any major projects, such as Tajikistan's Rogun dam.

Despite differences over security relationships and regional energy projects, the bilateral relationship between Russia and Uzbekistan has been counterbalanced by a number of significant aspects of cooperation. Russia is Uzbekistan's top trade partner, and remittances from Uzbek workers in Russia amount to nearly $6 billion, or roughly 16 percent of Uzbekistan's gross domestic product. For Moscow, it has been important not to pressure Uzbekistan too much in order to prevent a wider regional crisis, as can be seen in Russia's lack of military engagement during the ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in June 2010.

Russia has also been careful in its approach with Karimov, who, despite his independent streak, has been a familiar negotiating partner for Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union. Karimov's advanced age and a looming succession in Uzbekistan could put a lot of these issues in doubt, as could bold moves by Russia in areas that Uzbekistan deems sensitive. But for now, the latest meeting suggests that the two countries will continue their usual, if uneasy, relationship.

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