Restoring Ties With Uzbekistan

by Nathan Hamm on 8/22/2006 · 4 comments

One is hard pressed to find much of value in Western states’ foreign policies towards Uzbekistan (insofar as they even exist at all). Western NGOs are being run out of the country at an alarming pace. Western business ventures are being shut down. The Uzbek government seems as strong as ever, and the West’s half-hearted attempts at isolation have done no good for the people of Uzbekistan. So, is it time to reach out to Uzbekistan to try to restore ties? NATO hopes that time will come.

Robert Simmons told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that the military crackdown in Andijon in May 2005 obviously put a chill on Uzbek-NATO ties, but he said he hoped relations could soon improve and that Uzbek President Islam Karimov would soften its criticism of the alliance.

“Our hope would be that after a period of time we can begin to improve relations and I think his own rhetoric towards NATO and the West in general has improved a little bit,” Simmons said.

Between this and Richard Boucher’s recent trip to Uzbekistan, it would seem that there is a decent amount of sentiment among Western policymakers to restore ties with Uzbekistan. One certainly would hope, given how poorly executed Western and especially US foreign policy towards Uzbekistan has been, that renewed ties are not rushed into.

I am still convinced that, in principle, policies of engagement are preferable to disengagement. And in Uzbekistan’s case, isolation has shown itself to be an impossible goal. The partners who have replaced the US and its Western allies are entirely comfortable with more repression in Uzbekistan and a government that limits its citizens’ access to the outside world.

That does not mean though, that Western governments and institutions should, in this case, do whatever they can to restore ties to Uzbekistan. Karimov’s government has given more than enough proof that it is an unreliable partner, and it is unsettling to see officials saying that they hope that ties can be restored while taking as a sign that that hope might be well-founded that the Uzbek government has not been quite so virulently anti-Western lately. (Boucher, thankfully, seemed a bit more cautious.) One certainly would hope that if the West is to restore ties with Uzbekistan, it will only be done after meaningful good faith gestures from Karimov and that it will be done in a carefully thought out way that stands a good chance of providing clear benefits to the West while improving the lot of Uzbekistan’s citizens.

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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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Laurence August 23, 2006 at 6:10 am

Nathan, I agree with you in principle and might add that from a Central Asian perspective America might look like an “unreliable ally”–in that the USA and EU are percieved as siding with Islamists in Andijan against a government that opened itself to military cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan, and even cooperated with the American “rendition” program… So, my guess is that a new administration would have an easier time mend ing relations, hopefully with a new and different Uzbek president, after the 2008 US elections…

Brian August 23, 2006 at 11:27 am

I agree that it’s a very delicate situation with no clear answer. However, as much as disengagement has directly or indirectly resulted in the closure of NGOs, the shutting of the military base and pressure on US businesses in the region let’s not forget that things weren’t that rosy during the period of engagement either.

In fact, I think Uzbekistan “deteriorated” post 9/11 with the implementation of some really punishing economic restrictions, increases in the isolationist import taxes and no real political reform. So what real good did American engagement post 9/11 do for Uzbekistan? Not much, IMHO.

I’m not saying that engagment can’t produce results, but with a government as intractable, corrupt and stubborn as Uzbekistans, it’s clear that engagment will always be on THEIR terms.

So if we’re dammed if we do and if we’re dammed if we don’t, then perhaps we should just tread lightly all around. I think it’s valuable to reach some sort of equilibrium in relations, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that cozying up to this murderous, corrupt, self-serving regime is going to benefit the Uzbek people (or us) more than having the Russians and Chinese do it.

Nathan August 23, 2006 at 1:44 pm

Oh, I certainly agree that the situation during the latter part of US engagement was far from ideal. And I certainly think that it is crucial to consider whether or not engagement can produce worthwhile results. If a reduction of harms can be achieved at a fairly low cost, I think it’s worth pursuing, but the reestablishment of military relations without a very compelling national security justification is not something we should be jumping at the bit for.

At the very least, I think it would be a very, very good thing were we able to negotiate some kind of reopening of cultural and educational exchange programs.

Brian II August 30, 2006 at 2:56 am

There are only practical problems with re-engagement: the US has no direct economic influence over UZ, the rumored ‘successor’ to the Karimov presidency is PNG in the USA, and Russia and China are doing fine filling in the gaps left behind by the US (recently completed Moscow University in Tashkent, $300 million EXIM China credit lines).

Uzbekistan might as well be Kerplakistan for people in the US that watch Fox News and shop at WalMart. And for the play that Dubya got in DC – it was worth the alienation to call Karimov to task on the heinous crimes of Andijon.

While Boucher was cautious, there is too much desk-jockey optimism on this by the people at State. The Uzbeks are not the Kazakhs, who have taken a much more long-term view of US partnership (even ex-oil: look at the banking sector, the real test of the trust of a population?). Frankly, it might be cute for Karimov to engage the west, so there will be at least a few more years of fake grins-and-grips before anything of substance changes.

Your speculation on US engaging third-party diplomacy (via Korea, Japan, maybe even Kazakhstan) to try and sway UZ are on-the-mark.

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