The Uzbek government’s notification on October 15, 2008, that Uzbekistan is suspending participation in the Eurasian Economic Community raises as many questions regarding the resilience of traditional political alignment in the “post-Soviet” region as it does regarding the Uzbek government’s assessment of the “neo-Uzbek” future. While many analysts in the post-Soviet regions continue to look at political dynamics in terms of the legacy of the Soviet past and the requirements of the restoration of traditional security and economic linkages, the Uzbek leadership’s bold move is an indication of the growing willingness to look at tomorrow’s policy challenges in innovative terms. In this context, Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s innovative “6+3 Initiative” calls for a dramatically different approach of aligning European, Russian and U.S. interests with those of the Central Asian states in addressing normalization in Afghanistan — the most urgent challenge.
BACKGROUND: Eurasian inter-state cooperation is in an important phase of redesign. Over the past two decades the principal policy concerns throughout the Eurasian region focused on post-communist transition and managing the consequences of the disintegration of the USSR. The importance of these issues has now become far outpaced with the forward-looking challenges relating to greater competition over market position (particularly with respect to energy and minerals), a rapidly changing security terrain (particularly with respect to the risks to Central Asia from Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency), new challenges that are just over the horizon (particularly ballistic weapons technology, and the nuclear balance given Iran’s uranium enrichment program), and a new set of environmental challenges (particularly relating to population change, water and electricity supplies, and public health conditions). There is a growing amount of sentiment among the analysts within the Eurasian policy making establishments suggesting a major paradigm reorientation: inter-state cooperation arrangements need to be reoriented to be less backward-looking and significantly more forward-looking.
The political context in the region has been increasingly dynamic. New Eurasian regional international organizations have been established, modeled for the most part on previously existing organizations. These new Eurasian organizations address security and economic challenges in ways that parallel the functions of existing international organizations, in some cases complementing them and in some cases conflicting with them. The two most important organizations are the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the restored and institutionalized follow-on to the 1992 Collective Security Treaty, and the EAEC, a revised and more compact format for achieving many of the goals that the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) arrangements failed to achieve.
The EAEC grew out of the simple goal, common among all the members of the CIS, to establish and retain a “single economic space” throughout the former Soviet region. What this meant was essentially making it possible for trade and commerce to flourish on the basis of market-driven supply and demand. When the CIS arrangements proved unable to achieve that, countries turned to a variety of alternatives. The most promising was the program of Eurasian integration developed by Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev. Since its inception in 1994 and for several years, Nazarbayev’s Eurasian integration ideas were greeted in Kremlin circles with little enthusiasm.
That changed when the Putin administration came to power in Russia. Qualms about Eurasian integration were put aside and Russia first adopted and then became the leading sponsor of the idea of Eurasian economic integration. The Eurasian Economic Community was established in October 2000 in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, to institutionalize this, establishing a new framework for inter-state cooperation. The EAEC members, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and – after it joined in January 2006, Uzbekistan – committed themselves to adopting common policies on trade, migration, currency exchange, and infrastructure development. EAEC members adopted specific agreements designed to coordinate labor, monetary, customs, employment, tax, and investment policies on a region-wide basis. The EAEC set itself a goal of establishing a free trade area, while eliminating or at least regularizing internal tariffs. The EAEC announced it intended to create common external tariffs and establish a unified system for inter-bank payments and settlements. Gradually the EAEC members began to expand the overall mandate to the idea of forming a single energy area, a single transport area, a gas alliance, a single securities stock market and a new Ruble zone.
IMPLICATIONS: Even as Eurasian cooperation activities grew in number and visibility, in terms of summits, meetings, conferences, communiqués, resolutions, decrees, and, of course, in terms of the sheer volume of normative acts, bureaucratic policies and provisions, there was a conspicuous absence of commensurate growth in the achievement of the objectives. Dissatisfaction led to questions which eventually led to objections. Uzbekistan’s leaders from the early days of the Soviet collapse had responded with alacrity at new cooperative initiatives but had also demonstrated very limited patience with agreements that consistently failed to deliver. Uzbekistan was a founding member of both the Central Asian Union and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, as well as joining GUAM in 1999. But Uzbekistan was also the first to walk away from these enterprises when they failed to address Uzbekistan’s interests with respect to problems of trade, labor migration, the energy-water nexus, and political extremism.
Despite joining the EAEC, Uzbek President Islam Karimov eventually became dissatisfied with the inability of the cooperation organizations to achieve their goals. Karimov, who along with Nursultan Nazarbayev is one of the true veterans of the post-Soviet period, began proposing innovative approaches. Karimov announced a major initiative to support Afghanistan reconstruction in April 2008 when he stated at the Bucharest NATO conference that “Uzbekistan stands ready to discuss and sign with NATO the Agreement on providing for corridor and transit through its territory to deliver non-military cargos through the border junction Termez-Khayraton, practically the sole railway connection with Afghanistan.” Attempting to forge yet another transnational cooperative undertaking, Karimov in May 2008 announced the idea of merging the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Community in order to collectively work with Europe on security cooperation throughout the region.
Karimov’s innovative proposals have been met with pained expressions of puzzlement from Russian diplomats and simple puzzlement from western diplomats. Uzbekistan’s suspension of the EAEC is apt to cause consternation among the more legalistically inclined of the Russian policy establishment, given that it appears to be a move whose implications are undefined. The EAEC is a voluntary organization. The EAEC charter specifies provisions for withdrawal. Members are free to withdraw with a year’s notice and with assurances of fulfilling financial and other commitments of membership. The procedure and consequences of “suspending” participation is not defined in the charter. The idea of suspending treaty compliance is not without precedent (given that Russia in July 2007 “suspended” its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty). But the idea of suspending participation in an international organization does imply some uncharted territory in international law.
CONCLUSIONS: Uzbekistan’s suspension has provided fuel for political pundits who see Uzbekistan’s decision as a result of “Great Game” political machinations. Those who argue that “when the American position is strengthened, the Russian position is weakened” see Uzbekistan’s initiatives as facile manipulations effected by the incoming presidential administration in Washington. Despite the fact that there is no evidence for this from anything the Uzbek government or the U.S. government had said and that the incoming administration officials are still months away from even occupying their desks, let alone devising any grand strategies, it is easy for some analysts to see Central Asia as the soccer field for Great Powers. This is unfortunate because it diminishes the role of Central Asian diplomats and policy officials, relegating them to the role of objects rather than subjects. It also detracts attention from the more important foreign policy challenge for all of Central Asia, the normalization and stabilization of Afghanistan.AUTHOR’S BIO: Gregory Gleason is a professor at the University of New Mexico and the George C. Marshall European Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed in this article solely represent those of the author and not the U.S. Government.