Monday 12 September 2016

Will Uzbekistan get closer to Russia? Ask the new boss

it was an exciting prospect. A long due, long expected political transition in a country that had never seen a political transition before. The promise of change in one of the most repressive regimes on Earth. Speculation about succession. What is in the constitution? Will different clams have its round on the windy top? Nah. What we have seen in the week after the State funeral of Karimov, on September 3rd, matched what most political analysts were expecting, continuity, with perhaps the thinnest layer of unpredictability, which, was can be easily seen, just serves to the purpose of continuity.

Most predictions (mine as well) were that power in Uzbekistan would go either to the prime-minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev or to the finance minister Rustam Azimov. Shavkat soon appeared to be the heir to the throne. During the funeral, it was him who led the tributes to Karimov. He shaked the hands of the very few foreign dignitaries present (among them, surprise, surprise, Tajikistan's Emomali Rakhmon, with whom Karimov had a "difficult" relationship, to say the least). It was Mirziyoyev who received Putin when he rushed to Samarkand to visit Karimov's tomb right after the G20 summit in China. And it was Mirziyoyev that, on a joint session of the Majlis (Parliament) on September 8th was anointed as interim President until the elections called for December 3rd. That was all very predictable. Even if Rustam Azimov were the one leading the tributes, it wouldn't have been strange at all. Basically, what happened in the days after Karimov suffered his stroke and was brain dead and before the official announcement of his death was an intensive round of negotiations between the elites to decide who would best play the role of guardian the continuity of their political privileges. Mirziyoyev had years of experience as PM. Represented the interests of the powerful cotton industry and had the blessing of the security services. The drawback, compared to Rustam Azimov, was the lack of contact and experience dealing with the West (Azimov had worked with the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development).

On the other hand, Mirziyoyev had especial connections with a key player in the region, Russia. This stems from the family level. Mirziyoyev's niece was married to a nephew of one of the most powerful tycoons in Russia, Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek billionaire whose assets include part of the Arsenal football club in England. His nephew died in a car crash, but the good relationship between the two men has apparently continued. This could be seen as just a small detail, nothing that could add weight to the assumption that Mirziyoyev will get closer to Russia than Karimov. Nevertheless, in today's Putinite Russia, most deals are sealed in the shadows, between friends and allies. It is a parallel state in which definitely mafia rules of connections, honour and loyalty to the core group apply. Though distant, Mirziyoyev has a connection with a member of this inner circle and, in Putin's world, this is key. It is the perfect bridge to push for changes that probably Karimov would have seen with great caution. And this is a surprise that came by with the new Uzbek leader. There are few indications, already, that he will align himself much closely to Moscow.

Mirziyoyev tried to turn things a little topsy-turvy though. In his address to Parliament after been appointed, he said: "The firm position of our country, as before, is to not join any military-political bloc, to not allow the deployment of military bases and objects of any other state on the territory of Uzbekistan, or the deployment of our soldiers outside the borders of the country." That literally means that Uzbekistan, under his lead, will not rejoin the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), Russia's Military alliance with most Central Asian countries of which Uzbekistan was a member and then left. Twice. Karimov was known to be as wary of neo-imperialist aspirations of Moscow as it was of the democratizing agenda of the US. He liked to play with both superpowers, sometimes getting closer to one and, them, shifting sides. During the offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan from 2001, he allowed the US to use an air base in the South of the country. Then, in 2005, on the wake of the Andijan killings that generated so much criticism against Karimov in the US, he withdraw the authorization for use of the base and got closer to Russia. Well, apparently Mirziyoyev would be like this. Hence, continuation.

But on the same speech, he devoted interesting minutes to Moscow. He said that he expected a "consistent and comprehensive strengthening of friendly relations with the Russian Federation". And noted that current treaties between Russia and Uzbekistan "met the interests of both nations and serve to bolster stability and security in the region". Here, he is saying something completely different. He is saying that expect closer ties between the two parties and that current ties serve the very core of Islamov's rule, stability and security. I see here an opening to further treaties if more effort is needed in the region to enforce stability and security. It might be the case that Mirziyoyev is trying to play Karimov, getting closer to Russia, but keeping his cards close to his chest to play as he please later. Nevertheless, I believe that, in this case, he would have been much more conservative in his comments about the links between his country and the Russian Federation. This is he announcing his way forward, not saying that he might choose one.

If this prediction is correct, Central Asia's geopolitics would be shaken. China, especially, would have to reassess its especial relationship with Tashkent (here is an excellent analysis) in a key moment. The recent bomb attack against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek suggests that Uyghur separatists might be expanding its operations to targets overseas in the region. This has never happened before. And, so far, China has avoided strengthening military and security ties with Central-Asian countries weary of Russian interests in the region. What would happen next? Could a new pro-Russia Uzbekistan be a source of tension between Beijing and Moscow?

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