The flurry of regional diplomatic activity in recent months has demonstrated that Central Asia’s two main states, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, are finally taking concrete steps in response to the failure of regional security institutions in Central Asia, and in the direction of working jointly to assume greater responsibility for their own security and reduce security dependence on Russia. The closer alignment between Tashkent and Astana is a novel and crucial development in Central Asian security affairs.
BACKGROUND: Two factors have had a major impact on the way in Central Asian elites approach the issue of regional security. The first was the failure of the two regional security organizations – the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – to intervene in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 to stop ethnic violence. The second is the continuous uncertainty about the situation in Afghanistan following the planned withdrawal of U.S. and NATO in 2014. As this author argued previously, (see the 03/16/2011 issue of the CACI Analyst), the failure of regional security institutions in Central Asia has encourage Central Asian leaders to work jointly to assume greater responsibility for their own security and reduce security dependence on Russia. Given their regional status, it was only natural for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to become the driving force behind such a move.
In early September, the Presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov, held a summit in Astana to discuss security challenges facing Central Asia. The summit was held following the suspension of Uzbekistan’s membership in the CSTO in June. At the press conference, both presidents spoke of their shared views and approaches to security challenges, including the issue of water resources in Central Asia. They announced their decision to work jointly to preserve stability and security in the region, and come up with effective preemptive measures to meet new security challenges stemming from “terrorism, extremism, and aggressive drug trafficking.” It was also announced that they would hold frequent meetings to deal with rising challenges more effectively.
The common regional security approach announced by the two presidents was an unprecedented step given Tashkent’s prior reluctance to engage in regional cooperation. For Astana, it validated Nazarbayev’s long-standing efforts to promote closer regional cooperation and integration.
The meeting of the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan point at a qualitatively new level of understanding and cooperation between the two countries. Some observers even speak of the emerging France-Germany type of relationship with wide-ranging implications for Central Asia and beyond. Indeed, their statement that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two upstream countries that control water resources in Central Asia, needed to take into consideration interests of the three downstream states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) before building any hydropower stations had an unmistakable impact on President Putin’s visits to Bishkek and Dushanbe. In both cases, the Russian president essentially supported the position of his Kazakhstani and Uzbekistani counterparts. In Bishkek, despite signing an agreement to build the Kambarata 1 and Upper Naryn chain of hydropower stations, Putin remained non-committal as to the timetable and even suggested that the issue be discussed with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Such a discussion took place in Almaty on October 5th with no agreement reached.
IMPLICATIONS: The changing character of the regional security relations was evident when, following the Russian president’s visit to Bishkek, Nazarbayev and Karimov had a phone conversation that confirmed their joint position on water resources and construction of hydropower stations in the region. Their conversation took place on the eve of Putin’s visit to Tajikistan and clearly had an impact on the latter’s decision to avoid any commitments vis-à-vis Russia’s participation in the construction of the Rogun hydropower station.
It became apparent during Karimov’s visit to Turkmenistan on October 1-2 that the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have set an agenda for devising a new regional security framework. Apart from the regional water issues, the main topic of his talks with President Berdimuhammedov was security cooperation, including preventive steps to maintain stability in the region and, most importantly, joint protection of their countries’ borders with Afghanistan. The discussion on the latter issue was another unprecedented development given Turkmenistan’s neutral status and its absence from any post-Soviet security arrangements and organizations with the exception of the 2006 Treaty on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia.
For his part, Nazarbayev demonstrated the aspiration for a new, more independent security and political identity for Central Asia during his visit to Turkey on October 10-12. In one of his speeches, the president of Kazakhstan called for political and economic integration of the Turkic nations. As he put it, “Two hundred millions of our compatriots live between the White Sea and Altai. If they become united, we would become a big and influential state on the world arena.” This statement reflected, in part, the apprehension of many among Kazakhstani elites toward preserving their country’s independence within the Eurasian Union proposed by Vladimir Putin in 2011. In fact, having committed his country to the membership in the Union, Nazarbayev immediately moved to soft-pedal its creation by suggesting postponing it until 2015.
The pending withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, the ineffectiveness of existing security architecture in the region as well as increasing pressure by Russia to push through its Eurasian Union project, viewed by many as an attempt to re-create a Soviet Union, impelled the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to search for regional approaches to address current security challenges. Against the backdrop of Russia’s agreements with Kyrgyzstan to establish a Russian military base and with Tajikistan to extend the presence of the existing one, Nazarbayev and Karimov have taken the first steps toward devising new security arrangements independent of Russia.
In parallel to security cooperation between the two countries, another encouraging development is Uzbekistan’s decision to make Kazakhstan its first free-trade partner in the CIS and the decision of the two presidents to take joint steps to facilitate Uzbekistan’s accession to the CIS free trade agreement by the end of 2012.
Given the growing instability and uncertainty about post-2014 Afghanistan as well as growing Russian assertiveness in the region, we are likely to see a deepened cooperation between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the political, economic, and security areas. The alternative was well outlined by Nazarbayev in 2010: “Either we remain a perpetual supplier of raw materials for the world economy and wait until an imperial power takes us over or we take action to establish an influential union in the Central Asian region.” Whether the two countries can build on the current momentum in their relations should be clear fairly soon. In keeping with the decision to have a more frequent and effective dialogue on regional issues, Karimov and Nazarbayev have scheduled their next meeting for March 2013 in Tashkent.
CONCLUSIONS: The new level of understanding and relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, along with their independent posture in the region and on the international arena, has hardly escaped the Kremlin’s attention. Thus, their success will also depend on Russia’s response. Moscow’s surprisingly muted reaction to Uzbekistan’s decision to suspend its membership in the CSTO and Putin’s noncommittal stance vis-à-vis hydropower projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may indicate that Russia is willing to come to terms with Uzbekistan’s and Kazakhstan’s resolve to play a more independent regional and international role. Karimov’s recent statement that “Uzbekistan shall keep distance from various military-political blocs and alliances,” reject deployment of foreign military bases on its territory, and conduct an “independent, consistent and active foreign policy,” may further reassure Moscow and prod it to accept the new reality. If this is indeed the case, Moscow may ultimately opt for a revival of the old framework of its relations with the region that goes back to the time when the region was known as Srednyaya Aziya i Kazakhstan, i.e., Central Asia and Kazakhstan.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Sergei Gretsky is Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University.