Dealing with Uzbekistan After Karimov`s Likely Re-election
Aftab Kazi

On December 23, Uzbek President Islam Karimov will almost certainly secure a third term in office. With Karimov re-elected, the West will whether it likes it or not have to consider how to approach relations with this pivotal country. This poses both challenges and opportunities. Karimov’s sixteenth Independence Day speech provided indications of a wish for an opening to the West. Ahead of the election, the EU has been easing post-Andijan sanctions imposed two years ago, while General Motors is negotiating the establishment of a Chevrolet plant in Uzbekistan, indicating a possible opening for an improved relationship with the West.

BACKGROUND:  President Islam Karimov will be contesting the presidential election on December 23, nominated by his Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan.  Karimov is seeking a third term, in spite of legal controversies surrounding his ability to stand for a third term. Several legal loopholes allowed Karimov to skirt the ban on a third term, a decision that he seems to have taken rather late. Offical Tashkent links the decision to the alleged insistence of the network of local Uzbek civil associations (Mahalla and other) around the country, comprising approximately 5000 local associations nationwide that carry substantial influence in Uzbek civil society but are largely ignored by the West.

In spite of continued executive dominance over the political system, Uzbekistan has implemented several reforms that could provide the institutional basis for political development. One example is the bicameral political structure, which is in place; while the second is the gradual devolution of powers from the federal to the local government, as local governments or Hakimyat are now elected, not appointed by the executive. While it will take time for this reform to be effectively implemented, it is a potentially important step. Other important reforms include the abolition of the death penalty, and the transfer of the right to issue arrest warrants from the prosecutor to the courts. Uzbekistan now has formally adapted a national integration policy for national minorities and a program of affirmative action. The Oliy Majlis has enacted several new laws of governance in various sectors including privatization of farms and in the health sector.

Amid significant difficulties, a new railroad from Nukus in western Uzbekistan to Navai (close to Bukhara) was constructed, together with an oil refinery in Andijan and refurbishing of several national monuments that provided work opportunity. The country is now self-sufficient in grain as well as in some industrial products. The independent development plan also benefited from assistance from Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and Kazakhstan, besides the major international financial institutions.  For 2008, Uzbekistan has already signed foreign direct investment accords worth US$1.8 billion.

For the December 23 elections, the Uzbek government has invited approximately 300 international observers, including 8 from the United States, to monitor the election.  The government’s electoral strategy is based upon an evolutionary model corresponding with the operating levels of political culture and the geopolitical psychology of this landlocked state, which despite its international orientation tends to rely inward.

Two recent speeches by President Karimov indicate a movement toward greater openness to restoring damaged relations with Europe and the United States. Karimov’s Independence Day speech last August sought to address Uzbekistan’s past and current problems. Karimov’s speech highlighted the significant post-Soviet transition problems and his government’s resolve to deal with them, coupled with his handling of international terrorism, of which Uzbekistan has had a significant share.  His speech emphasized that his government had to recreate almost every ministry and department to govern the new nation. He also claimed a 7 percent rise in GDP over the last two years, asserting that Uzbek per capita income has increased twelve-fold since 1991 and by a factor of 2,5 since 2000. Karimov acknowledged that the income distribution may not be standardized nationwide, with particularly rural areas lagging behind, but it is gradually improving. Moreover, Karimov emphasized that the Uzbek model of development focused on building a strong state, “which was objectively necessary in conditions of transition period and establishing the national statehood”, but that “the main task of this period of reforming our state system must be a consistent and step-by-step transition from a strong state … to a strong civil society.”

A December 10 speech, for the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of the Constitution, went further, focusing directly on foreign relations. President Karimov directly addressed relations with the West, noting that “it is not a secret for anyone: there are still those who assert that today some discord still continues between Uzbekistan, and the United States of America and European states. It is not difficult to understand that they would want such discord to exist from which they would draw a particular interest.” This statement is reminiscent of Karimov’s speeches in earlier days, when they usually referred to Moscow’s imperial agenda, and constitutes an important break with recent trends.

IMPLICATIONS:  In his speech, President Karimov stressed the need for Western governments to invest in Uzbekistan’s infrastructural development projects. He emphasize that Uzbekistan will “never turn off the road” of seeking cooperation with international partners, specifically mentioning America and Europe.

So far, the West has shown interest only in purchasing Uzbekistan’s major assets or invested into non-infrastructural projects.  Criticism on slow economic and political reform appears to have isolated this Central Asian country – in spite of being pivotal in terms of its location, literate population and national resources – that once was considered the most pro-U.S. government in the region, something that numerous academic studies have highlighted.

The perceptual differences between Uzbekistan and the West derive from Uzbekistan’s evolutionary model of economic and political development, which emphasizes the requirement of national stability before the democratic foundations are laid on a solid footing. Uzbek officials also complain that the Uzbek government is often criticized in the West, even when it does the right thing.  In particular, the perceptual differences over the May 2005 Andijan incident, in which several hundred people were killed, have been a serious impediment. Where Western officials accused Uzbek government forces of firing on peaceful crowds, the Uzbek government argues that it faced militants and terrorists attacking government installations. Moreover, the perceptual differences resulted partly from uncorroborated initial negative media coverage of the Andijan incident. At least three scholarly studies in the United Kingdom and the United States (by Shirin Akiner, John C.K. Daly et.al., and Abdumannob Polat) have shed greater light on the incident, the latter specifically addressing the early media reporting, but failed to alter the predominant Western view. This has further prevented the normalization of relations.

However, Uzbekistan continues to participate in the dialogue against international terror, including  hosting the anti-terrorism headquarters of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Furthermore, the geopolinomic balance in the world is in the process of changing, with the weakening of the West both as a a player with clout, and as a model in Eurasia and elsewhere. Alternative transit routes and the gradual revival of the Silk Roads, as well as new oil and gas pipeline projects, contribute to this. This is particularly true in Eurasia where China and Russia are emerging as leading regional powers.  The isolation and geopolitical psychology of landlocked states have left Central Asian states with no alternative but to participate in the emerging regional economic and political networks.  However, whereas the West has accepted countries such as Egypt and their political and economic systems within the bounds of their operating political culture, this has not been the case in Central Asia. With regard to Uzbekistan, a country of considerable size and regional self-image, this has made western policies counter-productive.  If these perceptual differences continue, Western long-term influence in the region will be left handicapped.

CONCLUSIONS:  Trade and transportation routes are important potential solutions to the problems in the regional economy in Central Asia and the Caucasus.  Just as the EU has embarked on a process of trying to normalize its relationship with Uzbekistan for the sake of its long-term interests, a debate is ongoing in the United States on rectifying differences with Uzbekistan.  Whereas western companies often claim that Central Asia lacks an appropriate investment environment, General Motors’ decision to establish a major Chevrolet plan in Uzbekistan boldly reflects major business considerations regarding the region.

President Karimov is likely to be re-elected for a third term, ensuring that the United States will need to remain engaged with his government for the foreseeable future.  Considering the nature of the political culture and geopolitical psychology of this double landlocked state, the United States would benefit by seeking a Modus Vivendi with President Karimov’s third term and his evolutionary model of development, something that in turn may help Uzbekistan to feel safer and less isolated in the world community, something that would likely increase the influence of Western actors over the medium term.  Uzbekistan shares our concerns on anti-terrorism and is a secular country. As is the case in the EU, there is a need for proactive policy changes in the U.S.. In this currently deadlocked context, the recent conciliatory statement by President Karimov on relations with the United States and Europe for mutually advantageous relations (reported by the Moscow Times on December 12, 2007) reflects a possible opening in foreign policy matters that could be utilized to bring Western interests in the region forward.     

AUTHOR’S BIO:  Professor Aftab Kazi is Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University-SAIS and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm.