Crossroads Asia

Can Trump Bring Balance to US-Uzbekistan Relations?

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Crossroads Asia

Can Trump Bring Balance to US-Uzbekistan Relations?

As Tashkent and Washington revive their strategic partnership, eyes are on reforms.

Can Trump Bring Balance to US-Uzbekistan Relations?
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After delivering brief remarks following a working lunch with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is the first Uzbek president to visit the White House since Islam Karimov in 2002, U.S. President Donald Trump responded to shouted questions about North Korea.

And therein lies the unfortunate reality of U.S.-Uzbekistan relations: they will likely always take a backseat to more pressing concerns in Washington and as such, American policy toward Uzbekistan may continue to lack the nuance the relationship deserves. That said, there’s an opportunity to rebalance U.S. relations with Uzbekistan, which have been relatively dysfunctional for some time.

Mirziyoyev’s visit to Washington was a success on many fronts. The joint statement published after the meeting announced the “launching of a new era of strategic partnership.” The commitment to “reinvigorate”  the strategic partnership between the United States and Uzbekistan demonstrates the normalization of a relationship that has swung wildly over the years. As Navbahor Imamova wrote for The Diplomat earlier today, “The U.S. tacked from partnership to hostility, back to partnership, once again to hostility, and then finally back to partnership.”

There were triggers for each swing — the Andijan massacre in 2005, the deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan relations in 2009 — but settling a decent balance between criticism and assistance was difficult during the Karimov era and will continue to be difficult for similar reasons.

Here, in the early days of the Mirziyoyev era, the buzzword is “reform.” Mirziyoyev, who served as Karimov’s prime minister for more than a decade, has taken a different tack in orienting Uzbekistan within Central Asia (as a good neighbor) and in the larger region (as a connector and convener). Reforms have touched many sectors, with economic reforms the centerpiece. Currency convertibility, for example, makes Uzbekistan a more attractive investment destination. Uzbekistan signed over $4.8 billion in contracts and agreements with U.S. business this week.

While in the joint statement, Trump “recognized Uzbekistan’s tremendous progress on important political, economic, and social reforms under the leadership of President Mirziyoyev,” regional observers may be more circumspect. Reforms — in rhetoric and decrees — have touched on social and political issues, but tangible progress has been slower to come.

In a statement from 12 human rights organizations ahead of the visit urging the U.S. Congress (not, interestingly, Trump himself) to press Uzbekistan on human rights issues, Muzaffar Suleymanov of Civil Rights Defenders said, “We welcome the pace of changes in the country, but more needs to be done to improve Uzbekistan’s tarnished human rights record.”

While first deputy chairman of the Senate of the Oliy Majlis, Uzbekistan’s parliament, Sodiq Safoyev mentioned the need for a new parliament, for fresh faces, there’s been little mention of political opposition. As Peter Leonard pointed out in an article for Eurasianet aimed at pouring a little cold water on the excitement over Uzbekistan’s reforms, Ikhtiyor Abdullayev, head of the State Security Service (the rebranded SNB), reportedly said in March, “We have information that the non-state opposition parties Erk and Birlik have appealed to the Justice Ministry. Their main goal today is to legalize their activities, and for tomorrow it is disrupt peace and tranquility in our country.” Viewing opposition parties as disruptive doesn’t bode well for true political reform in Uzbekistan.

On the free press front, while Tashkent recently accredited its first American journalist, Navbahor Imamova of the Voice of America, BBC Uzbek is more than nine months in waiting for promised credentials and Uzbekistan recently denied a visa to a New York Times reporter.

Then again, Trump — as demonstrated in his tweets and rally statements — doesn’t appear to care terribly much about political opposition or press freedoms.

In other areas, Trump and Mirziyoyev seem to have a degree of synergy.

In their brief remarks at the White House, Trump and Mirziyoyev traded compliments. Trump referred to Mirizyoyev (without trying to say his name) as “a highly respected man in his country and throughout.” Mirziyoyev, in turn, lauded Trump on his “historical tax reforms” and job creation in the United States, easily playing to Trump’s ego with flattery.

After mentioning trade and mutual investments, Trump also noted that the United States and Uzbekistan were “working together from the standpoint of the military, including his purchase of equipment and military equipment from the United States.” No details on that front have been made available.

U.S.-Uzbek relations have long centered on security issues such as counterterrorism and the war in Afghanistan. This aspect of the relationship was strained in 2005 after the Andijan massacre. Harsh criticism from the United States was met with the eviction of the U.S. from a military base — K2 — near the Afghan border. But by 2009, trouble with Pakistan resulted in the development of a logistic networks through Central Asia and in 2015, when the United States was in the midst of the Obama administration’s withdrawal Washington donated 308 MRAPs to Uzbekistan.

Mirziyoyev and his delegation didn’t come to Washington begging for aid; they came with business propositions and similar concerns about Afghanistan. With U.S.-Pakistan relations at a dangerous low and Pakistan rocked with internal political churning ahead of elections in July, a stable security partner in Uzbekistan is much desired. According to the joint statement, Mirziyoyev “assured continued support for the Northern Distribution Network and its contribution to achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan.” Mirziyoyev also reiterated Uzbek support for Trump’s South Asia strategy.

Mirziyoyev’s reform program, and the tone in which Uzbek officials took to speaking across Washington this week, diplomatically smoothes the way for deeper cooperation between the United States and Uzbekistan.

Few deny that a window of opportunity has opened for the United States to influence the progress of reforms in Uzbekistan but there will naturally be disagreements on how much Washington ought to push and on what levers exactly — and that’s something that’s been true of several consecutive administrations, all with more diplomatic manpower on hand than this one and far deeper commitments to human rights. That said, the window isn’t bespoke for Washington alone. International organizations and other countries can do a lot to influence continued reforms in Uzbekistan, even if the United States does not. If Uzbek officials are serious about what they’ve said in Washington this week, they’ll welcome all the help they can get.