MOSCOW - Tuesday, July 24, 2012 -
Russia has faced diplomatic problems in Central Asia this summer. On June 28, Uzbekistan sent a note informing the Secretariat of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of its withdrawal from the organization.
Experts cite two reasons for this action. First, the Uzbek leaders were unhappy about Russia’s attempt to strengthen CSTO. Second, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov wanted to resume military-political partnership with Washington. NATO troops may leave Afghanistan via Uzbekistan’s transit airports. Washington may also decide to reopen bases on Uzbek territory.
This move is typical for Tashkent. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Karimov’s strategy has boiled down to securing benefits from cooperation with different blocs. Uzbekistan signed the Treaty on Collective Security (the Tashkent Treaty) in 1992 and withdrew in 1999. In 2006 it joined the CSTO and now withdraws from it. This balancing act allowed Tashkent to restrain U.S. influence in 2005 and slow the strengthening of Russia’s role in the region with NATO’s help in 1999 and 2012.
Russia is upset about Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO. On May 15, President Vladimir Putin met with Islam Karimov in Moscow to discuss the backlog of problems in the bilateral relationship. On June 4, Putin paid an official visit to Tashkent. Following this visit, the sides signed the Declaration on Deepening the Russian-Uzbek Strategic Partnership and a memo of mutual understanding on further measures regarding Uzbekistan’s accession to the Treaty on the Free Trade Zone. Uzbekistan’s decision to walk out of the CSTO three weeks later was a setback for Russian diplomacy.
Russia’s policy failures in Uzbekistan are part of a broader trend. In the last three years, Russia’s disagreements with Central Asian countries have been growing.
In 2009, there was a gas conflict between Gazprom and Turkmengaz, which prompted Ashgabat to step up the construction of gas pipelines to the south and the east. Uzbekistan expressed its displeasure over the 2010 Sino-Russian Cooperation Agreement on Combating Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism. On July 11, 2012, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Taalaibek Omuraliyev announced Bishkek’s intention to raise the price of Russia’s lease of military installations in Kyrgyzstan.
There were even tensions with Tajikistan over its accession to the customs union. Last May, a number of Tajik officials (from Foreign Ministry Speaker Davlatali Nazriyev to President Emomali Rakhmonov) announced that the Russian media does not give adequate coverage to political and economic life in Tajikistan.
Russia’s current policy in Central Asia was shaped by a string of diplomatic successes in the mid-2000s. In 2003-2007, Moscow established the CSTO, signed beneficial contracts on the transit of Turkmen gas and began talks on the formation of the customs union. After the events in Andijan in 2005, Uzbekistan closed American bases on its territory and returned to the CSTO. This series of successes made it seem that Central Asian countries were destined to be partners and even allies of Moscow.
However, most Russian successes were the result of U.S. diplomatic mistakes. The attempts of the George W. Bush administration to support the opposition in Central Asian countries undermined Washington’s position.
The Barack Obama administration has undertaken a number of measures to restore the U.S. presence in the region. As in 2002, Washington once again seeks to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an observer or even partner. Washington is also conducting consultations with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on the possibility of military-political partnership and support for Turkmenistan’s energy policy. On October 22, 2011, U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton held closed-door talks with Karimov. This was probably when the decision on Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from CSTO was made.
For a long time, Russia believed that the leaders of Central Asian countries had learned the lessons of Andijan. The Uzbek crisis has shown that this is not the case. Central Asian states are inclined to cooperate with Russia but also want to build relationships with the United States and other NATO countries directly, without Moscow or Beijing.
External threats (whether from the Taliban or color revolutions) have faded, and Central Asian states are embracing a balance policy. Therefore, the new challenge for Russia is to develop a strategy to maintain its position in the region.
(This article was first published in the ValdaiClub.com web site. See original article at http://valdaiclub.com/blogs/46760.html)