The Risk of an Interventionist Uzbekistan

by Nathan Hamm on 1/24/2013

One concern I have heard in various forms regarding post-Karimov succession in Uzbekistan is that an unresolved plan for transition to a new leader could cause the country to erupt in chaos. I count that as a fairly low risk. As I argued during my talk in Seattle last weekend and in recent interviews with VOA and BBC, even should Karimov suddenly die, regime change is unlikely. As in Kyrgyzstan, the leadership is likely to change, but the political culture will remain intact in the near term.

An under-appreciated x-factor that bears close attention, however, is the attitude of Karimov’s successor to military intervention in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to protect the interests of ethnic Uzbeks and to resolve border disputes in Tashkent’s favor. Uzbekistan enjoys a heavy military advantage over Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Karimov is clearly no pacifist; his willingness to unleash violence on his own people makes that quite clear. But he has been much more wary about risking the use of Uzbekistan’s military beyond the country’s borders.

Though Uzbekistan agreed to pay compensation to Kyrgyz who suffered material losses in the latest flare-up on the border of the Sokh enclave, negotiations stalled several days ago and both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan blocked access to enclaves.

As was the case following 2010’s outbreak of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, at least some members of Uzbekistan’s security forces would like to see these impasses broken by force. As EurasiaNet reports,

… a Ferghana Valley-based source close to Uzbekistan’s security services, the SNB, says the blockade is dividing senior security officials. Some high-ranking generals, mainly representing the Committee on Border Protection, have reportedly called for swift military action to break the blockade around Sokh, said the source.

The continue by noting that sources confirm that Karimov is strongly opposed to military action and fears that it could cause destabilization throughout the region. He has levers, primarily gas shutoffs and border closures, that put significant pressure on Kyrgyzstan without resorting to force.

Odds are probably favorable that Karimov’s most likely successor will share his concerns about the destabilizing effects of military intervention in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. But, at least for me, that is mostly a hunch. Very little is actually known about this, and a considerable amount of the time spent trying to figure out who (is it Gulnara!?!?!??) will be Uzbekistan’s next leader should be diverted to trying to figure out how likely it is that the next leader will diverge from Karimov on issues like water, energy, and defense that have a huge effect on all of Central Asia.

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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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