The Case for Closer U.S. Ties with Uzbekistan

Mosaic dome in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Pixabay/Public domain

Uzbekistan and the United States can go from quiet success to quiet success and build a businesslike and respectful relationship.

Uzbekistan is embarking on the post-Karimov era after the sudden death of Islam Karimov, the man who led the country for 27 years, as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, then President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, and then first President of the independent Republic of Uzbekistan. Despite concerns about instability and clan infighting, the transition to a new era of leaders has so far been smooth. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the long-serving Prime Minister, was named acting President in an extra-constitutional wiggle after the designated successor, the Chairman of the Senate, declared his own unfitness for the presidency. Mirziyoyev quickly made some controversial appointments, though nominations to the more senior and sensitive positions will come after the elections in December.

Assuming Mirziyoyev wins election in December - a very safe assumption – what direction might the country take and how should the United States engage the new government? Russia was quick to make its interest known when Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the memorial service for Karimov. Mirziyoyev told Putin his presence “says a lot” and declared an interest in solidifying the relationship between their countries, which may presage a departure from Karimov’s policy of distancing from Russia. The United States, by contrast, sent a mid-level official who met the Foreign Minister. Central Asia has a personalized leadership system and the next American President will have to invest time in meeting Mirziyoyev, if for no other reason than that Putin will visit Tashkent as often as he needs to get what he wants: an Uzbekistan again allied, hopefully formally, with Russia via its tools for regional governance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union.

The United States and Uzbekistan have had a checkered relationship. After the Cold War, Karimov sought better relations with the West, while maintaining good relations with Russia and China. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Uzbekistan made its bases available to the United States for military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, and in March 2002 the countries signed the Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework.

Relations cooled when Uzbekistan was publicly accused in 2004 and 2005 of killing prisoners, but in both cases the Uzbek government was vindicated as impartial investigations established the prisoners committed suicide. In no case were the retractions given as much airplay as the initial allegations.

The break between the United States and Uzbekistan came in May 2005 when Uzbekistan was accused of killing large numbers of peaceful protestors in the city of Andijan after attacks on police and military facilities and the murder of hostages by an armed Islamist group. The killings were expected/hoped for by some activists and opponents of the Karimov government and their reactions, other than political opportunism, can probably be ascribed to “scenario fulfilment,” that is, you see what you expect to see. The initial information from Andijan was sketchy and the international media was absent, but the media and NGOs piled on anyway. The U.S. government sent mixed signals, which aggravated ongoing tension over the lack of U.S. payment for the use of the airfield at Karshi-Khanabad, so the Uzbeks pushed back by expelling U.S. forces from the country. Sanctions were imposed on Uzbekistan by the European Union (EU), which banned responsible Uzbek officials from Europe and embargoed exports of arms and military equipment. In the United States, the State Department favored terminating relations while the Defense Department opposed an international investigation and sanctions. The United States finally settled on some additional limits to pre-existing Congressional bans on assistance unless the Secretary of State waived the sanctions by certifying the country is making progress in the area of human rights. Since then, Uzbekistan has continued to receive six-month waivers and a limited amount of financial assistance. The EU removed all sanctions by 2009, citing positive trends in human rights.