In August 2012, the Oliy Majlis (OM) – Uzbekistan’s parliament – adopted the new Concept on Foreign Policy Activity of the Republic of Uzbekistan. This document, albeit important and necessary per se, has its strengths, weaknesses and uncertainties. These are reflected in the concepts of “no base,” “no blocks,” and “national interest” respectively. The new foreign policy approach taken by Uzbekistan, which seemingly advocates a higher degree of international nonalignment, may nevertheless clash with the strategies of other Central Asian states and raises questions about future military basing and cooperation across the region.
BACKGROUND: Uzbekistan’s new Concept on Foreign Policy Activity is not a completely new document regulating the foreign policy of this state. The first legislative act in this sphere was adopted in 1996, five years after gaining independence, and termed the Law “On Principles of Foreign Policy.” That Law comprised such principles as equality and mutual benefit in international relations, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, active participation in the activities of the UN, OSCE and other international organizations, integration into international security structures, non-participation in military blocks, support for international conflict prevention and conflict resolution activities. The subsequent foreign policy activity of Uzbekistan, however, has been far more complicated and sophisticated than the mere implementation of this law.
It is hard to argue that what many observers have called Uzbekistan’s pendulum behavior between Russia and the U.S. has been based on the principles indicated in the 1996 law. Tashkent’s critical attitude to the OSCE mission in Uzbekistan which led to the reduced status of this mission from the “OSCE Center in Tashkent” to “Coordinator of OSCE Projects” also hardly corresponds to these principles. Nevertheless, Tashkent has consistently adhered to the non-block policy and has stood aloof from the military exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of which Uzbekistan was a member from 2006 to June 2012. But at the same time, Uzbekistan’s military did participate in joint exercises with NATO in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the adoption of the new Concept was a timely message to the international community and to geopolitical rivals in Central Asia and a response to various allegations and speculations about Tashkent’s foreign policy strategies. A number of comments that have already been made by various experts and analysts regarding the meaning and significance of the Concept are concentrated mostly around two points, namely that Uzbekistan rejects the deployment of foreign military bases on its territory and that it refrains from participation in any military block. The old law did not prohibit the deployment of foreign military bases on Uzbekistan’s soil; the new Concept does. The old law did not reject Uzbekistan’s possible participation in international peacekeeping operations; the new Concept does. However, the old law did not mention Central Asia as a foreign policy priority for Uzbekistan; but the new Concept does.
IMPLICATIONS: The new Concept is a highly interesting and quite novel document and at the same time preserves some uncertainties of the previous law. The most ambiguous point of the Concept refers to the national interests of Uzbekistan. Like other states, defining Uzbekistan’s “national interests” is a highly contradictory undertaking. This notion can often serve as an excuse for any foreign policy decision. It is true that foreign policy can change in accordance with changing national interests, but at the same time the latter should be clearly defined and declared.
The draft Concept was recently approved by the Senate – the upper chamber of the Uzbek parliament. Four particular “no’s” can be noted in the text, namely no to the deployment of foreign bases in Uzbekistan; no to membership of any military block; no to participation in international peacekeeping operations; and no to the mediation of any external power in the resolution of regional conflicts in Central Asia. The Concept does not make clear whether and why national interests dictate these four stances.
In this context, it has to be mentioned that Uzbekistan established a strategic partnership with the U.S. in 2002 and an alliance with Russia in 2005, not to mention agreements on strategic partnership with some other powers. In this regard, the question arises as to the possible implications of a strategic partnership or alliance from the point of view of the new Concept. These are very specific forms of interstate interactions that predetermine, among other things, long-term security cooperation, including military cooperation. The latter can take different forms, ranging from bilateral consultations to the use of military infrastructure of the partner-country in case of a security threat, as the Uzbek-Russian Agreement on Alliance Relations says. Bilateral consultations on security issues and joint military exercises are envisaged in the Uzbek-American Declaration on Strategic Partnership as well.
Another strategic factor that the new foreign policy Concept of Uzbekistan should have taken into account relates to the Central Asian regional context. The Concept does mention the region and includes the quite innovative and principled point that all regional problems should be solved by the countries of the region themselves without the interference of third parties. However, some strategic questions remain open.
For instance, if a neighboring state would accept the presence of foreign military bases and if it is a member of a military block (like the CSTO) then Uzbekistan’s conceptual “no-block” and “no-base” stance will likely face a security dilemma. Any security challenge to Uzbekistan caused by the deployment of new military bases in the territory of a neighboring country or by the appeal of that country to the CSTO for the resolving regional conflicts can force Tashkent to revise its foreign policy stance.
Russia, in turn, can find itself in a quite delicate situation given the twofold strategic situation unfolding in Central Asia: on the one hand, Moscow and the Russia-led CSTO have to fulfill their obligations in the region, including the possible deployment of new bases in Kyrgyzstan as was announced some time ago. But on the other hand, Russia’s Central Asian strategy should comply with its alliance and strategic relations with Uzbekistan which resists the deployment of Russian or CSTO bases in the territory of the neighboring countries.
CONCLUSIONS: The “national interests first” approach to foreign policy is correct by definition and by default, and is axiomatic for any state. However, the adoption of the Concept of the Foreign Policy Activity of the Republic of Uzbekistan revealed an issue that is very peculiar to all countries of Central Asia. The “no base” policy is the strength of the Concept because it is aimed at demilitarization of the region; the “no block” policy seems to be a weakness because it overlooks the benefits of multilateral arrangements; the “national interests first” policy contains a dose of uncertainty because it does not define those interests.
The document reveals another conceptual problem as well; namely that unilateral, bilateral and multilateral approaches to the construction of foreign policies of Central Asian states can yield contradictory outcomes since they can create unintended problems for each other. Therefore, the main challenge for all states of the region can be formulated as follows: until and unless their foreign policy outlook is based on the imperative of Central Asian interdependence and stem from a “Central Asia first” strategy, their foreign policy activities will entail a probable security dilemma, the resolution of which will constantly require revision of national interests.AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Bilim Karvoni” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.