SPECIAL REPORT: The New Uzbekistan
Author: Caspian Policy Center
Apr 4, 2019
The Caspian Policy Center of Washington D.C. is pleased to release its most recent study - The New Uzbekistan- to call attention to the historic reforms taking place in this important Central Asian state. Uzbekistan was expected to emerge as the key country in the region when it gained independence following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. After all, this relatively large country, which is roughly the size of the state of California, had by far the largest population (about 30M) of any in the region. Uzbekistan had been favored by Moscow during the Soviet period to the extent that Tashkent was once considered the “third city” of the USSR. The Soviet Socialist Republic was relatively well-industrialized and possessed an extensive agricultural sector, though this proved to be too heavily centered on cotton with tragic results for the Aral Sea. As we now know, things did not go as anticipated for Uzbekistan.
CPC Board of Directors member Ambassador Richard Hoagland was among the first cohort of United States diplomats to serve in the newly independent Uzbekistan, 1993-1995, and he fell in love with the young country. It was incredibly beautiful with its snow-clad mountains; fertile valleys with rushing, glacier-fed, clean rivers; lush farmlands; stunning vineyards; and, especially, great historic sites of the ancient Silk Road in Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and elsewhere. As a press office in the new embassy, he met frequently with journalists and government officials and made a point to travel extensively throughout the country. But the new government assigned him an intelligence-organization ‘minder’ who made sure to know his whereabouts at all times, and who did his best to make sure he never met with journalists, other private citizens, or even regional officials unattended. This became the problem of the newly independent Uzbekistan: it remained very, very Soviet. Its first president, Islam Karimov, had been a Soviet apparatchik and never endeavored to bring his country toward the global standards necessary to compete effectively on the world stage. In fact, he increasingly isolated Uzbekistan from its neighbors and from the world community over the years.
The U.S. under the leadership of President George H.W. Bush, acting with typical American altruism, took immediate steps to support newly independent states such as Uzbekistan and assist them in joining the world community. The U.S. recognized the independence of Uzbekistan on Christmas Day 1991. However, in hindsight, Washington acted with a bit of “irrational exuberance.” The U.S. government expected a smooth and relatively rapid transition to new, Western-style political and economic systems. What it neglected to take into account was that we in Washington had no in-depth knowledge of these brand new states and their particular histories. All had been subject to 70 years of the Soviet Empire and hundreds of years of the Russian Empire in some cases. The Western way of organizing society and government grew organically from the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, our intellectual and societal foundations, whereas the Soviet and Russian Empires did not: they traced their intellectual lineage directly back to the Byzantine Empire, bypassing the modern West. Earlier Russian influences persisted in the Soviet model of a single-party state supported by a powerful intelligence service that, at times, co-opted organized-crime structures for both political and economic purposes. Furthermore, Uzbekistan was subject to its own distinct pre-Russian history of khanates and other much older societal and governmental structures that are only now beginning to re-emerge as Soviet influence fades.
The U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship has had its ups and downs over the past quarter-century. Washington dialed back its relations to little more than maintenance level after our “initial exuberance.” But then world history changed with the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Uzbekistan, with Moscow’s concurrence, almost immediately granted the United States access to its air base at Karshi-Khanabad in south-central Uzbekistan to support our military retaliation against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. diplomats remember a marathon 36-hour negotiating session; Ambassador Richard Hoagland was on that negotiating team at that time as the State Department’s Director for Central Asia. When they straggled back blurry eyed, after signing the agreement, to the Intercontinental Hotel in Tashkent, excited watchers of CNN in the hotel lobby shouted, “Look! We’re helping you bomb the Taliban!” as the U.S. air war began in Afghanistan.
Late 2001 to 2005 were a sort of Golden Age for U.S.-Uzbekistan relations. But an event in Andijon in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley helped put an end to that. Washington’s high-profile condemnation of Tashkent for the massacre of at least several hundred of what we deemed to be peaceful protesters led, in part, to Uzbekistan annulling the agreement for the U.S. use of Karshi-Khanabad in summer 2005. Only ‘in part’ because there was another factor. Tashkent had come to learn that Kyrgyzstan was receiving rent payments from Washington for the use of its Manas International Airport for the same purpose of supporting U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, whereas the original U.S.-Uzbekistan agreement for Karshi-Khanabad was silent on reimbursement. Tashkent logically asked to renegotiate the agreement, but then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would not entertain such a notion. And so, Tashkent, already irked by the U.S. condemnation of its actions at Andijon, closed U.S. access to Karshi-Khanabad, and U.S.-Uzbekistan relations went into a near deep-freeze for close to a decade.
“Finger wagging” and “naming and shaming” emerged in annual reports to Congress during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations over Uzbekistan’s well-documented problems, especially in the areas of human rights, good governance, and economic transparency. This approach was not well-received in Tashkent. However, to its credit, Tashkent never radically cooled its relations with Washington to the breaking point, primarily because Uzbekistan’s sovereignty and independence depend upon a careful balancing act of good relations among Moscow, Beijing, Washington, and Brussels.
The good news is that American diplomacy in the post-Soviet world seems once again to be moving in the direction of a version of realpolitik that carefully balances U.S. values and longterm goals with a healthy dose of reality. The United States will always support Western values, but it must provide this support in an intelligent and nuanced way.
Another positive development of historic importance is that Uzbekistan is now undergoing long-awaited social and economic reforms under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Furthermore, Uzbekistan feels increasingly secure in its own sovereignty and independence to look outward toward its neighbors in the region — and beyond — to identify areas of mutual interest and cooperation. Some have begun to entertain the idea that forming a regional association of states might have real value in protecting their own independence and promoting their individual prosperity. The United States should strongly promote this trend.
Again, the Caspian Policy Center is pleased to present this in-depth report, The New Uzbekistan. We warmly welcome your comments at [email protected] and would be glad to answer any of your questions.