Following his 20-year long tradition of presenting a long speech on the occasion of Uzbekistan’s Constitution Day, President Islam Karimov, among different socioeconomic and political issues, discussed the country’s foreign policy and highlighted his position on intensely discussed (mostly through rumors in regional media) issue of a U.S. military base being established on Uzbek soil.
Most Russian and Central Asian reporters and analysts covering the region read Uzbekistan’s exit from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in June as President Karimov’s move towards Washington. Many politicians and observers in the former Soviet space speculated that as a result of high-level U.S. government delegations’ visits to Tashkent the Uzbek government negotiated an American military presence in Uzbekistan and establishment of an anti-Russian alliance. However, in the 7th December speech, the Uzbek autocratic leader reiterated his decision not to host new foreign military bases documented in “The Concept Paper on the Foreign Policy Activity” ratified by the Lower Chamber of the rubber-stamped Oliy Majlis (Uzbek parliament) on August 1.
Karimov’s reiteration of his position on foreign military bases was not aimed at domestic audience, which anyways has no influence on decision-making of Hojain (in Uzbek – master, as Karimov is referred among Uzbek political elite). Karimov’s repeated statement intended to calm down worries in Moscow and Beijing, and particularly of Russia’s President Putin whom Karimov politically fears and personally despises.
The December speech 7 revealed Tashkent’s real motivation to abandon the CSTO for the second time (first time Uzbekistan exited CSTO in 1999) –- to pursue a new strategy of engagement with key political players in Afghanistan, including Taliban. As departure of ISAF from Afghanistan approaches, Karimov fears Taliban’s victory in post-2014 Afghanistan and believes neither Washington nor Moscow will be genuinely supporting the Uzbek military if the country faces incursions of jihadists from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
In the speech, Karimov mentioned Tashkent’s proposal he made at the Bucharest conference on Afghanistan in 2008 to create a dialogue group for Afghanistan under the auspices of United Nations. Having realized that Taliban is and will remain a key player in his southern neighborhood, Uzbekistan proposed Russia, NATO, the U.S. and Afghanistan’s neighbors orchestrate negotiations between major political and ethnic factions.
The generous gesture of the Uzbekistan’s iron-fisted ruler, who has no words for “tolerance” or “sharing “in his vocabulary, was not driven by his sudden softening towards Taliban but by a political miscalculation that a coalition government will diminish the power of Taliban. However Tashkent’s pragmatic proposal has the second purpose – if it fails to materialize it could soften the policy of a possibly Taliban-dominated government should one emerge after ISAF’s withdrawal. Observers of regional politics prior to 9/11 recall Uzbekistan’s negotiations with Taliban when Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov met with Mulla Omar in Pakistan in early 2001 in an attempt to prevent Taliban’s support for attack of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) on the Uzbek state when nearly 90 percent of Afghan territory was under control of Taliban. Although reduced in number since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, the IMU militarily matured and gave birth to its splinter group Islamic Jihad Union, as well as gained reputation in the global jihadist world. Fear of Uzbek jihadist organizations and support by Taliban, Al Qaida and other militant groups that may find safe haven in Afghanistan in the years to come, drives Karimov to elevate Afghanistan to the highest priority in his foreign policy planning. According to his judgment, the largest threat to his political survival comes from instability in Afghanistan and therefore his internal and external policies will primarily driven by his vision of situation in Afghanistan.
President Karimov’s speech in commemoration of the Constitution Day disclosed his new foreign policy strategy and explained Uzbekistan’s exit from the CSTO, which Tashkent sees as incapable of defending it from external threats from the south. Karimov will obviously further publicly distance from great powers and regional security organizations with the exception of Shanghai Cooperation Organization because Uzbekistan’s failing economy needs China’s economic assistance and its counter-balance to Russia. But as he has proved to be unpredictable and often changing his behavior Karimov may anytime change his country’s foreign policy’s trajectory. The question is, however, not only aging Karimov’s next steps, but also of Russian President Putin, who seems to have big plans for Central Asia.