In recent years, Uzbekistan has made headlines as the international community welcomed Tashkent’s shifting foreign policy under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. On the surface, it may seem that there is a complete discontinuity in Uzbekistan’s political course in the post-Islam Karimov era. After all, Mirziyoyev introduced a number of social and economic reforms, pardoned many political prisoners, and launched a crackdown on Karimov-era officials. Within the region, Mirziyoyev visited every Central Asian capital in the first year of his presidency. Uzbekistan has made progress toward settling a decades-old border dispute with Kyrgyzstan, dropped opposition to Tajikistan’s dam project, and continued to improve relations with the outside world.
What is often left unmentioned, however, is the source of this apparent change. The current foreign policy discourse has its roots not in Mirziyoyev’s new vision, but a strategy change under Islam Karimov. A closer look at Uzbekistan’s 2012 Foreign Policy Concept highlights a major change in the ways and methods Karimov thought Uzbekistan should use to approach foreign relations.
Behind domestic reforms, bureaucratic reshuffling, and ever-present clan rivalries, Mirziyoyev’s approach to foreign policy follows the 2012 concept left by his predecessor. But unlike Karimov, who was overly cautious and paranoid about regime security, Mirziyoyev has pursed it much more aggressively.
Foreign Policy Under Karimov: From Isolation to Change
Constrained by limited access to credible data and independent research, assessing Tashkent’s foreign policy becomes a challenging task. It is not always easy to trace changes in Karimov’s perception of security. One of Karimov’s qualities that is often overlooked behind a carefully constructed image as a beacon of stability is his adeptness to change. Since becoming first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan (CPU) in 1989, Karimov was faced with inter-ethnic clashes and political pressures coming from Moscow and various religious and political opposition forces. By and large, Karimov’s success of holding on to power during these turbulent times boiled down not only to his authoritarian politics but also sheer maneuverability. He paid lip service to Moscow when it was appropriate, strategically sided with Mufti Muhammad Yusuf to counter Wahhabi influence early on, and later appropriated the nationalist cause championed by the opposition party Birlik.
Karimov approached foreign policy in a similar manner. Uzbekistan pursued what is often called multivectorism, in which Tashkent conducted a non-committal adaptive foreign policy and tried to maintain balanced relations with competing powers. For much of the duration of Karimov’s rule, Uzbekistan strove for balanced relations with external powers, successfully playing big states against each other, and resisted cooperation with its neighbors. During this period, Uzbekistan swung between regional communities as it saw fit to pursue its interests. For instance, Uzbekistan joined and withdrew from the Russian-led CSTO twice, joined and withdrew from the American-led GUAM, and suspended its membership from the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) in 2008. As a result, many attempts at regional cooperation became futile. State security was linked to political and economic self-reliance. Faced with a multitude of geopolitical challenges and Karimov’s insistence on self-sufficiency, Uzbekistan’s international relations often fluctuated.
In part, this behavior can be explained by Uzbekistan’s struggle for recognition and equal status. Even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was a sense of humiliation and deep resentment among the republic’s elites toward Moscow, following the anti-corruption campaign that targeted high profile elites for systemic over-reporting of cotton production. Karimov made it his mission to defend Uzbekistan’s cultural authenticity and boast Uzbekistan’s importance for the international community. This was reflected not only in Tashkent’s cultural policy of creating a sense of historical importance by appealing to its often imagined past, but also a refusal to accept a junior partner status in its relations with other states. On the other hand, the country faced serious security threats, which included militant Islamists, drug and human trafficking, economic vulnerability to external shocks, lack of economic diversification, and unresolved land and resources disputes with neighboring states. The practice of self-sufficiency and non-dependency made it very difficult for any actor to build predictable and stable relations with Uzbekistan. Despite many shortcomings, Karimov managed to build one of the most stable and resilient autocratic regimes in the post-Soviet space.
Unpacking the 2012 Security Concept
Against this backdrop, Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy looks radically different. Tashkent today openly pursues regionalism as a foreign policy tool, which assumes greater commitment and interdependence. However, these changes had begun under Karimov’s presidency. The 2012 Foreign Policy Concept became a cornerstone of Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy direction by establishing two important principles. First, the concept was based on the principle of neutrality. It prohibited Uzbekistan from joining military blocs, hosting foreign military bases, and participating in peacekeeping and other military operations abroad. Second, and most important, it gave greater priority to Central Asia. The document linked state security with economic development and security of the region as a whole.
These changes reveal a few important aspects of the new foreign policy approach. The 2012 concept represents Tashkent’s attempt at addressing a rapidly changing environment. A year earlier, then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement of plans to gradually withdraw troops from Afghanistan and hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014 sent shock waves across Central Asia. The presence of the American troops in Afghanistan guaranteed a level of security and predictability that the whole region enjoyed for over a decade. There was a realization in Tashkent that isolationist politics had run its course.
On both measures, Uzbekistan demonstrated flexibility in its approach. By declaring military neutrality, Tashkent sent a clear signal that it will continue its multivector approach of leveraging various interests of big players. It was also a timely measure in light of growing Chinese influence and Russia’s continuous attempts to strengthen its positions in the region. The second measure is where real changes took place. Despite two decades of resisting cooperation with neighboring states in the name of self-sufficiency, non-dependency, and stability, Tashkent saw the value of forging ties with the rest of the region. After all, the reasoning is clear and compelling. A policy of isolationism was relatively successful at containing external threats, but it came at the expense of economic development and regional stability.
Foreign Policy Under Mirziyoyev: Central Asia Plus Afghanistan
It would be unfair to treat Mirziyoyev’s foreign policy as lacking in originality. The purging of the old guard from the government, such as the head of the National Security Services Rustam Inoyatov and Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, certainly gave the new administration room to maneuver. Unlike his predecessor, Mirziyoyev demonstrated an ability to find political compromises with other Central Asian states. This was a timely change given the plethora of unresolved issues. The pace and energy with which Tashkent engages with its neighbors would have been unimaginable under Karimov. What is more, attempting to co-opt Afghanistan into Central Asia has become a top priority.
Given the circumstances, declaring Central Asia as a priority region and using diplomacy remains the only viable option. The looming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the uncertainty it brings leaves Tashkent with no other option but to establish working relations with Kabul. It is reflected in Uzbekistan’s tireless attempts to build a dialogue with the current administration of Ashraf Ghani as well as the Taliban. It is also clear that Uzbekistan puts enormous resources at the forefront of solving the Afghan peace puzzle.
Despite international efforts in Afghanistan, the security of the whole region remains under threat. The complexity of the situation forced the Uzbek government to seek new ways of dealing with external threats it put a lid on for so many years. If Uzbekistan is successful, the benefits don’t stop there.
Good relations with other regional players will boost Uzbekistan’s trade and allow for economic cooperation. Despite reporting inflated economic growth for years, Uzbekistan struggles with poor economic diversification, lack of investment, and high unemployment. By bringing Afghanistan into the wider regional economy and building infrastructure, Uzbekistan may also seek sea access.
It is unlikely that Uzbekistan will make any significant changes to its foreign policy approach at this time. The international community and big regional players are very supportive of Uzbekistan’s current measures to boost regional cooperation. Ultimately, it is peace in Kabul that will determine the longevity of Tashkent’s open policy. If Afghanistan plunges into greater violence, there could be enough political force within the country to send Uzbekistan back into isolation.
Aleksey Asiryan is a Ph.D. Candidate in political science at York University, Canada.