Leadership Transition in Uzbekistan: What’s next for Central Asia?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Uzbek men gather to pay their last respects during the funeral of President Islam Karimov in September 2016.

Uzbek men gather to pay their last respects during the funeral of President Islam Karimov in September 2016.

Though dwarfed by Kazakhstan in terms of geographic size, Uzbekistan is strategically vital to peace and stability in Central Asia. Encompassing a great portion of the resource-rich Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan shares borders with all four other post-Soviet Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – as well as Afghanistan. As such, the death in September 2016 of Islam Karimov, president of the country since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent rise to power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev will have a substantial impact on efforts in the region to counter terrorism and foster development.

Under Karimov’s rule, Uzbekistan adopted a relatively isolationist foreign and security policy, especially after the Andijan massacre and the withdrawal of American troops from the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, located in south-eastern Uzbekistan, in 2005. The aforementioned massacre occurred when Uzbek Interior Ministry and National Security Service troops opened fire on protesters alleged by Karimov’s regime to have been organized by Hizb ut-Tahrir extremists and the terrorist group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), potentially killing hundreds and drawing condemnation from the United States and the international community. Since then, there have been few updates to Uzbekistan’s National Security Doctrine, with that document outlining terrorism and Islamic extremism as the chief threats facing the country.

Such non-state actors certainly remain prominent on the list of security challenges facing Uzbekistan as Mirziyoyev takes power, though their particular structure and tactics have changed since Karimov’s 2005 crackdown. In August 2015, the IMU leadership pledged alliance to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), precipitating the fragmentation of the former group as some factions declared their rejection of ISIS and continued commitment to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other traditional allies in Central Asia. In a sense, Uzbekistan’s militant Islamists are being pulled apart by two competing interests or causes: on the one hand, the original goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Central Asia centred on Afghanistan, and on the other hand, the allure of travelling westward to wage religious war on behalf of ISIS. The siren call of ISIS complicates Uzbekistan’s security situation – hundreds of Uzbek fighters have reportedly joined training camps in Syria and Iraq since 2013 – but this also presents a strategic opportunity for Uzbekistan as the exodus of fighters weakens the domestic presence of IMU and its various factions.

Mirziyoyev also inherits a border dispute with Kyrgyzstan, specifically regarding the status of a small mountain called Ungar-Tepa in Uzbek and Unkur-Too in Kyrgyz. In March 2016, two Uzbek armoured personnel carriers and approximately 40 troops appeared in the area, prompting Kyrgyzstan to deploy troops and border police in response and for emergency talks to be held in Moscow under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Mirziyoyev seems interested in the mending of fences in the region, travelling to Turkmenistan in March 2017 as his first official visit abroad. But it is difficult to say how willing he will be to pursue a negotiated compromise with Kyrgyzstan or finalize an agreement on border demarcation.

Were Mirziyoyev to reach a rapprochement with Kyrgyzstan, it would present a significant opportunity for Uzbekistan to re-engage with the CSTO and potentially step up defence cooperation with the country’s neighbours. In particular, the CSTO formed in 2009 a so-called Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), currently comprised of the Russian Federation’s 98th Guards Airborne Division and 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade, as well as infantry battalions from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This would go some way toward entrenching any normalization of Uzbekistan’s relations with the rest of the region, fostering the mutual trust necessary for any border agreement with Kyrgyzstan to be successfully implemented.

It is also important to note that, while Uzbekistan has withdrawn from the CSTO, it has maintained some degree of involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In 2004, the SCO established the headquarters of its Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, as much to secure continued Uzbek participation in the organization as it was a recognition of the country’s geo-strategic importance to the fight against terrorism in Central Asia. Furthermore, Tashkent has been the site of many important milestones for the SCO, such as the signing of a memorandum in June 2016 that would see India and Pakistan become full members – the SCO membership is currently comprised of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, and of course Uzbekistan. Given the clout that Uzbekistan has come to hold in the SCO, a drive for membership of Afghanistan in the organization in order to ensure greater support for Uzbek-Afghan border security could be successful.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (R) attend the rountable plenary meeting during the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the International Conference Center at Yanqi Lake on May 15, 2017 in Beijing, China. (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images).

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (R) attend the rountable plenary meeting during the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation at the International Conference Center at Yanqi Lake on May 15, 2017 in Beijing, China. (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images).

However, Mirziyoyev’s views on these issues are currently a mystery. Domestic observers have described him as “even tougher” than Karimov and exhibiting a similarly strict management style. Despite serving for many years as a regional governor and as Prime Minister of Uzbekistan from 2003 to 2016, he has largely managed to avoid the public eye. There is some reason to believe he will be more open to external engagement and regional solutions than his predecessor, though. For example, in 2006, Mirziyoyev hosted South Korea’s then-Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook in Tashkent. Their talks resulted in several agreements that boosted bilateral trade, particularly a deal to supply South Korea with 300 tons of Uzbek uranium ore a year from 2010 to 2014. This served to partially alleviate some of the pressure from economic sanctions imposed by the US and others in response to the aforementioned Andijan massacre. Given his demonstrated willingness and capacity to negotiate linkages with countries beyond the region, it would not at all be surprising were Mirziyoyev to launch an ambitious series of talks and overtures to the world following his visit to Turkmenistan.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

This entry was posted in English, Paul Pryce, Uzbekistan.

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