When thinking of authoritarian nations, one often arrives at North Korea, Syria, Vietnam, and even China or Russia. Rarely thought of is the central Asian nation of Uzbekistan. Though it is certainly not as notorious in the club of authoritarianism, Uzbekistan is crucial to consider.
On September 2nd, Uzbekistan’s first president Islam Karimov died, forcing in a new era for this country of thirty-one and a half million. This is the first change in government for Uzbekistan in twenty-seven years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union granted Uzbekistan independence in 1992. Since 1990, before the nation was even its own republic, Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist, restricting freedom of the press, silencing dissidents, and holding heavily exclusionary and illiberal elections (Karimov won 91% of the vote in the last election in 2007), in order to secure his own power as president.
Karimov left no political heir following his death, and the process by which a successor was chosen, though ostensibly outlined by the constitution, was an uncertain one. Karimov’s Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, eventually rose as the victor, acting as interim president beginning September 8th, with elections for the presidency scheduled for December 4th.
Since Mirziyoyev’s ascension to the presidency, however, the December elections are looking increasingly unnecessary. Shortly after Karimov’s funeral in early September, Russian president Vladimir Putin met with Mirziyoyev, which not only legitimized Mirziyoyev’s claim to power, but also led to declarations that there will be “building and strengthening” of ties between the two nations
The relationship between Uzbekistan and Russia has not always been so amicable. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan resisted Russia’s attempts to form a Commonwealth of Nations-esque body of former Soviet states, and additionally opted to not join the Russo-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. In the 1990’s, Uzbekistan sought to distance itself from its former Soviet leader, choosing to hesitantly ally with the United States in the war on terror. And after Karimov’s funeral, US President Barack Obama issued a statement reinforcing America’s commitment to its “partnership with Uzbekistan”. This statement of friendship should be a guiding principle for the United States’ interest in Central Asia, and it is essential that the United States court Uzbekistan in this period of major transition.
Within the coming months, it is likely that a choice will be forced as to Uzbekistan’s future. Between the United States and Russia, Uzbekistan has extremely differing interests in fostering relations with these nations, interests that largely counteract each other. In today’s quasi-Cold War area of international politics, Putin continues to hark back to the Soviet days, and the former Soviet bloc; in particular, the Baltic states and the “Stans” are of extreme interest to his creation of this post-Soviet geographic alliance.
Should Uzbekistan choose to ally more closely with the United States however, the tenant of Uzbekistan’s sovereignty, which was held dear by Karimov, will be more respected, and will give the United States an intriguing ally in Central Asia. The United States will not be happy with many observers’ predictions that Mirziyoyev will continue Karimov’s authoritarian style of jailing, or even eliminating, political opponents and heavily controlling the media; however, it is crucial that America continue to discuss Uzbekistan as a closer ally in this region. If Uzbekistan does not reciprocate the United States’ partnership, it will undoubtedly move closer to Russia, which was the largest international presence at Karimov’s funeral. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attended personally, and Putin visited Mirziyoyev in the Uzbek city of Samarkand mere days after, with Mirziyoyev remarking of Putin, “this is the shoulder of a true friend”.
The one certainty at the moment, however, is only uncertainty. Uzbekistan is a nation that has not seen governmental change in 27 years. Though we cannot call it a new democracy, the changes in Uzbekistan’s government will call forward a new era of Central Asian and post-Soviet relations. It is worrisome that Russia has already been meeting with Uzbek leadership, and this author hopes to see a bi- or even multilateral meeting with the United States and its allies. At a time when Vladimir Putin is hoping to gather these nations under Russia’s wing, it will be crucial to not only watch Uzbekistan’s path in the coming months, but also for the United States to work diplomatically to actively shape it towards American interests.
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