US-Russia Cooperation on Uzbekistan?

by Nathan Hamm on 5/26/2005 · 4 comments

Writing for EurasiaNet, Igor Torbakov notes that there is some discussion in Russian foreign policy circles of working with the United States to press for reform in Uzbekistan.

Now, some Russian political analysts contend that it is in Moscow’s best interests to stop the geopolitical maneuvering in Central Asia, and instead formulate a unified approach with the United States on defusing the Uzbek crisis. The potential consequences of mishandling Uzbekistan — including the possibility of Islamic militants coming to power, or the emergence of a power-vacuum enabling an explosion of narcotics trafficking – far outweigh any benefits that would come from maintaining current policy. “Competition for dominance in this region would be a manifestation of political insanity,” said Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the influential foreign policy journal Rossiya v Globalnoi Politike.

There seems to be general consensus in Moscow that the lesser evil in Uzbekistan is keeping Karimov in power, and compelling him to introduce reforms that would open a safety valve for social frustration. This stance would appear to provide room for cooperation with the United States.

As much as I hate to say it, because there is no one waiting in the wings to take over in Uzbekistan. Like it or not, our choices are to work with Karimov in some way or not have anything to do with Uzbekistan at all. One of those paths has had and will continue to have plenty of setbacks alongside any successes. The other, well, I think it’s nothing short of abandoning any possibility of doing any good. I don’t like the hand, but the whole damned deck is full of bad cards and the house doesn’t respond to complaints on this point.*

And if we can work alongside Russia and the EU, we stand a much better chance of making Chinese encouragement of bad behavior absolutely irrelevant.

There are some obstacles though…

Despite the apparent room for joint action, many Russian policy makers don’t see Russia and the United States as capable of cooperating on an Uzbek solution. And without international unity, efforts to pressure Karimov to reform are unlikely to succeed.

From the Russian viewpoint, the Bush administration’s infatuation with promoting democratic values is the primary threat to international cooperation on Uzbekistan. Indeed, the US president’s democratization dreams could cloud Washington’s judgment concerning future stabilization moves in Central Asia, many in Moscow worry.

In a May 17 interview published by the Izvestiya daily, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued that the United States was being overzealous in promoting regime-change in countries in the former Soviet Union, where Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have all experienced revolutions in the past 18 months. Lavrov went on to suggest that US officials were acting out of the mistaken belief that a universal democratic model existed, adding that for a democratic system to properly develop, the impetus for political change needed to arise from within a particular country. An outside attempt to impose democracy is both “impossible and dangerous,” Lavrov warned.

I think Lavrov is misunderstanding the US position and that Russian policy makers have little to nothing to worry about, but I also think that any misunderstanding they may have stems entirely from poor enunciation of our policy in favor of soaring speeches. The latter certainly have their place, but you look at a place like Kyrgyzstan where we seemed caught off guard and all-too-happy to tell protesters to simmer down and negotiate, and I don’t think we’re too terribly excited at the prospect of overnight changes or silver bullets. Insofar as we have a clear policy on Uzbekistan, it appears to me to be one of gradual reform.

All things considered, we probably will not be able to get on the same page here. I’m undoubtedly biased on this, but I think Russia is being overly paranoid. (I mean, come on, it’s not like we’re putting together an American version of Comintern. Though, if Russians are prone to think we are stealing lakes, I can see how they might think our democracy talk is about destroying them. We humans do tend to think that others think like we do though.) It’s quite a shame. We have plenty of shared interests in Eurasia–the stability of the heart of Central Asia being an important one. I certainly hope that Russia, the US, and the EU can forge a common approach encouraging gradual and consistent reform in Uzbekistan.

*(Incidentally, I had a similar conversation with Seprah last night. As much as I might sound like a heartless bastard saying any of this, it’s only because it’s important to not rush into anything. We must get this right.)

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Curzon May 27, 2005 at 1:07 am

Sorry to say this, but your analytical framework does sound a lot like Kaplan, albeit more apologetic (in other words, Kaplan circa 1986).

Nathan May 27, 2005 at 6:03 am

OK… I hadn’t noticed that he had one beyond “The world is falling apart.”

Curzon May 27, 2005 at 9:34 am

As a reader of more than a few of his books, surely you jest my dear fellow!

Nathan May 27, 2005 at 9:48 am

Kind of but not really. The last one I read, An Empire Wilderness really kind of soured me on him. He seemed so out there. I do like Warrior Politics.

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