Blessed with a favorable geography and enjoying a long reputation for an independent streak, Uzbekistan is the only country in Central Asia with the chutzpah to stand up to Russia — something that has attracted U.S. interest. Tashkent will use the subsequent U.S.-Russian competition for influence in Uzbekistan for its own ends.
Uzbekistan rarely finds its way into the spotlight. The ongoing Russian-U.S. tug-of-war over Central Asia has thrust it there, however, highlighting the country's critical regional importance. With a population of nearly 28 million, Uzbekistan it is the most populous of the former Soviet Central Asian republics. It is also one of only two that is self-sufficient in energy and foodstuffs. Unlike its fellow Central Asian states, it has no appreciable minority populations within its borders, though all its neighbors have large Uzbek minorities that regularly look to Tashkent for leadership. Most significantly, despite its bizarrely shaped borders, Uzbekistan is actually the only country in the region with a geography that could result in a functional country.
A Favorable Geography
By contrast, much of Turkmenistan's population lives along a single artificial waterway — the increasingly leaky Karakum Canal — and a dotting of oases. The rest, a mixture of Turkmen and ethnic Uzbeks, lives along the Syr Darya along the border with Uzbekistan. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are ungovernable, mountainous mixes of ethnicities, with their portions abutting Uzbekistan also ethnically Uzbek-dominated. Kazakhstan is dramatically underpopulated and shares a 1,000-mile border with Russia (populated by ethnic Russians), making its continued independence a long shot under any circumstances. Click to enlarge Uzbekistan alone has the benefit of both of the region's major rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya; serves as the road and rail hub for the entire region; and controls the region's primary population center, the Fergana Valley. Controlling the Fergana Valley allows dominance of three of the five Central Asian states, as well as over much of the regional flow of militants, who frequent the valley. The Fergana is detached from Uzbekistan's core, linked only by a thin spit of mountainous land. Its highlands are in Kyrgyzstan, and its road, rail and river links to the main body of Uzbekistan traverse Tajikistan. Click to enlarge This cartographic insanity resulted from deliberate Soviet policy — and is not as bad for Uzbekistan as it initially appears. To protect Russia within the region and the world, former Soviet Leader Josef Stalin redrew the borders of the Central Asian republics to hobble them as much as possible should they regain independence. The former Soviet leader did an admirable job, and Uzbekistan's coherence has certainly suffered. But Uzbekistan's competitors in the region, the Kyrgyz and Tajiks, were destroyed. Kyrgyzstan has no access to arable land; its only resource is control of the headwaters of the Syr Darya, which give Bishkek hydroelectric potential. All other significant resources belong to Tashkent. Tajikistan is sealed off from the rest of the world. Stalin gave Uzbekistan so much geographic heft because at that time of his mapmaking, Iran's power was rising — prompting Russia to squash Iran's natural ally, Tajikistan. (The Tajiks are also ethnically Persian.) U.S. interest in Uzbekistan is not linked to Uzbekistan's relative regional strength. Instead, U.S. interest in the Central Asian country is wholly geographic: The United States wants to use Uzbekistan's rail lines to ship supplies into Afghanistan. (The only other Central Asian land crossing to Afghanistan goes through Turkmenistan.) Washington also wants to use Uzbekistan's air bases to provide air support, refueling and air supply needs for its forces in Afghanistan. (The only other realistic air base alternative is Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, and Bishkek is in the process of ejecting the United States from that base.) The United States would also like the political involvement in the Afghan campaign of a state that commands the respect of a sizable ethnic group in Afghanistan. (There are plenty of Tajiks in Afghanistan as well, but in contrast, they owe Tajikistan no loyalty.)
Standing up to the Russians
But most important to the United States is that, of all the Central Asian countries, only Uzbekistan has a strong government that will stand up to the Russians. This is in part because the brutal authoritarianism of Tashkent has made the country's population more docile, whereas the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan could be knocked over by a strong breeze. Not sharing a border with Russia also makes it easier for the Uzbeks to bite their thumb at Moscow. Uzbekistan's independent streak long predates current U.S. needs, or even Russian needs, though the streak was solidified during the Soviet era. Before the Russians became involved in Central Asia under Peter the Great, the region had a sprinkling of Turkic people who saw themselves as powerful, enlightened and more liberal than the Muslims of the Middle East or South Asia. This people spread east to Mongolia, south through India and even southwest to Persia, getting involved in hierarchies of established dominions, setting up their own empires and building some of the region's great shrines. This is a folklore that has become particularly embedded in the consciousness of the Uzbeks, who see themselves as deep thinkers with a deep history — whatever their fellow Central Asians have thought. Then came the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks gave Uzbekistan more power than any other Soviet republic for a mixture of reasons involving geographic centrality, economic strength and cultural respect. But once Stalin came in and sliced up Central Asia, he began to worry that the Bolsheviks had given the Uzbeks too much power. So he switched gears in a bid to crush any sense of independence the group might hold. The effort failed. It led to a massive backlash against Soviet authority throughout the region. The Uzbeks' independent streak was solidified, though their Muslim self-identification grew more conservative and even radicalized. (The predecessors to the modern Islamist militant movements Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb al-Tahrir emerged at this time.) These early radical Uzbeks were certainly not Wahhabi or even Islamist in flavor, but rather opponents of Soviet domination. Today, the descendants of these radical Uzbeks form the largest group of foreign fighters in the Pakistani tribal badlands, and have clashed with the Arabs of al Qaeda. Out of all the Central Asian states, Uzbekistan thus has been the only country to repeatedly spit in the face of the Soviets, just as it struggles now to remain free from the Kremlin's grasp. In recent times, Tashkent has sought to leave Russia's post-Soviet security and political alliances, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and has announced leaving its Eurasian Economic Community. In their place, Uzbekistan has sought to create its own regional political and economic organization in the Central Asian Cooperation Organization with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. But Russia quickly demanded to join the club, conflicting with Tashkent's objective of being independent from its former master. This is not to say that Uzbekistan refuses to work with the Russians altogether. In 2005, Tashkent pleased Russia by evicting the United States from its military air base in Karshi-Khanabad. (However, Uzbekistan constantly drags its feet on allowing the Russians to transit its territory to reach Russian bases in Tajikistan.) Click to enlarge Moscow does hold some heavy leverage over Uzbekistan. As with most former Soviet states, Russia has infiltrated Uzbekistan's security services, political circles and criminal world. And Uzbekistan has two main glitches in its plan of separation from Russia. First, more than half the country's natural gas exports run through the Soviet-era Russian pipeline system. Uzbekistan is among the top 15 natural gas producers in the world, with 2 trillion cubic meters of reserves. It consumes nearly 80 percent of what it produces. But of what Uzbekistan does export, half heads to its neighbors, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, while the remainder goes into the Russian system. Uzbekistan made just more than $1 billion in 2008 from its export revenues, a number that is expected to double because Tashkent is raising natural gas prices from $150 per thousand cubic meters to $300. As Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan might not be able to afford the price hike, Uzbekistan is considering increasing its supplies to Russia, which can afford the higher price. Click to enlarge Second, Russia still holds a controlling influence over all of Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors, and Moscow has not hesitated to threaten Uzbekistan with strengthening those neighbors. Russia has allowed Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to bully Uzbekistan over price negotiations for natural gas flowing north. And Moscow, which controls the drug and arms flow over the Tajik border into Uzbekistan, has flooded Tajikistan (and its drug lords) with cash and arms. Tajikistan may be a small, fractured and nearly bankrupt country, but Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have had a cultural rivalry for more than a century.
At present, Uzbekistan sees an opening for countering Russian threats given the United States' wooing of Tashkent. Both the Americans and the Russians understand that Uzbekistan is the winning Great Game chip the United States needs to strengthen its presence in Central Asia — something that explains the attention U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus has devoted to Uzbekistan, as well as the Kremlin's quick counters to each American move. Uzbekistan is loyal to neither, and it does not want to get stuck between the Cold War rivals (though it is enjoying being the focus of the two powers' attention). But Uzbekistan needs these tensions to persist as it maneuvers among all the players in the region on its way to independence. Tashkent will attempt to leverage U.S.-Russian competition to gain everything it needs. But unlike its poorer neighbors, such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan will not give its temporary loyalty to the highest bidder. Uzbekistan lacks a history with the Americans, so it is distrustful of what siding with Washington might bring. It also has been broken by the Russians before, and so will need to learn carefully how far it can tread within the balancing game — a game much bigger than just Central Asian affairs.