BACKGROUND: Since the Collective Security Treaty of several former Soviet republics was signed on May 15, 1992, in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, the country has remained a reluctant party to this Treaty. In 1999 Uzbekistan did not prolong the Treaty and for long remained outside the sole post-Soviet collective security arrangement.
The CST was transformed into an Organization – the CSTO – in 2002 and has since then functioned as the only full-fledged security institution in the post-Soviet space. After being exposed to an alleged “color revolution” attempt committed in May 2005 by the so-called “Akromiya” group – a splinter of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir Islamic organization – in its provincial Andijan city, Uzbekistan decided in 2006 to restore its membership in the CSTO, perceiving the events as allegedly plotted by the U.S. (see the 01/11/06 Issue of the CACI Analyst). Concerned with the survival of its regime, Tashkent turned to Moscow hoping for a tentative security umbrella, due to Moscow’s support for authoritarian regimes in its neighborhood and its concern over the possibility of color revolution scenarios in Russia itself.
However, Uzbekistan’s newly established membership in the CSTO remained nominal since 2006. Tashkent did not ratify any agreement adopted in the frameworks of this organization, has not attended its joint military exercises, and has refrained from active involvement in other non-military spheres of cooperation. In June 2012, Tashkent finally announced officially that Uzbekistan suspended its participation in the CSTO. This ad-hoc situation lasted until December 2012. Between its suspension and its complete termination of membership in the CSTO, Uzbekistan adopted its new Foreign Policy Concept in September 2012 (see the 09/05/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst). The Concept asserts four “no’s”, namely: no to deployment of foreign bases in Uzbekistan; no to membership in any military block; no to participation in international peace-keeping operations; and no to the mediation of any external power in the resolution of regional conflicts in Central Asia.
On the eve of the December 19 CSTO summit, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made a visit to Tashkent during which it was stated that Russia and Uzbekistan remain strategic partners and maintain alliance relationships. This chain of events has reflected Uzbekistan’s complete abandonment of the multilateral security arrangement and its bilateral preferences in this sphere.
IMPLICATIONS: The decision was adopted as international forces are being withdrawn from Afghanistan and all Central Asian countries express serious concerns about the possible exacerbation of the situation in Afghanistan by 2014. Interestingly, one of the official explanations for Uzbekistan’s exit from the CSTO was that Uzbekistan disagreed with the organization’s stance on the Afghan issue. In reality, however, it seems that Tashkent wants to stay free from geopolitically burdened obligations within this quasi-alliance and to prepare for any option regarding its security arrangements.
Meanwhile, it is symptomatic that President Karimov uses any occasion to express his apprehension with the imminent tension and instability in the region after the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan. Delivering his congratulations to Uzbekistan’s Military Forces on January 14, 2013, on the occasion of the Day of the Defender of the Motherland, he underlined that the situation in the region is troublesome, that a number of non-traditional threats can spread in the region, such as proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, political and religious radicalism and extremism, conflicts nearby Uzbekistan’s borders, activation of terrorist groups, exacerbation of socio-economic problems, political and inter-ethnic enmity as well as rivalry of external forces in the region – all likely to lead to a destabilization of the military-political situation.
The president also mentioned the recently adopted new Foreign Policy Concept of the Republic of Uzbekistan. The foreign policy, Karimov argued, is based on a strong strategic approach, especially in the security sphere, and requires among other things the utilization of all means to achieve vital ends. However, it also requires a prudent combination of unilateral, bilateral and multilateral instruments.
Abandoning the CSTO, however, seems to have deprived Uzbekistan of a unique, albeit very inefficient, multilateral platform for watching, contributing, influencing, self-positioning, and if necessary deterring.
Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO is likely to have geopolitical implications for Central Asia’s regional security architecture. The question of “who will protect Central Asia as a whole and individual countries of the region and against whom?” is actually a question of threat assessment and defining means and ways of responding to those threats. It nevertheless seems that Tashkent disregards the significance of permanent engagement with neighboring countries in security matters.
In this regard, Uzbekistan’s choice – adequate with respect to the CSTO per se – is inadequate when it comes to neighboring countries. The latter have the CSTO at their disposal and can appeal to it at any time when they find it expedient for the solution of regional security problems but will do this without Uzbekistan. At the same time, without Uzbekistan, any regional security problem will remain unsolved even with CSTO assistance. Interestingly, on the one hand, should the regional security environment be exacerbated in Central Asia, and not unlikely due to tension between CSTO members and Uzbekistan, the CSTO can be appealed to for security assistance. However, on the other hand, Tashkent’s existing strategic and alliance relationships with Moscow – the pillar and motor of the CSTO – can preclude any responses.
The main strategic flaw in the behavior of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states is their obsession with national interests and disregard of a common regional perspective. Hence, Uzbekistan could have discussed its decision with its neighbors, at least in order to demonstrate good will in the region. Yet, some new tokens of post-CSTO arrangements in Central Asia undertaken by Tashkent have also appeared. In September 2012, President Karimov met with Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbaev in Astana (See 12/12/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst) and in October with Turkmenistan’s President Berdimuhammedov in Ashgabat. Both meetings covered Afghanistan and underlined the need for joint efforts to meet anticipated challenges after the drawdown of ISAF. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are strengthening their strategic ties with Russia. The Russian leadership recently decided to provide Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s armies with free military technology, worth US$1.1 billion $400 million respectively. Uzbekistan must take this into account.
Finally, the analysis of Uzbekistan’s gains and losses from abandoning the CSTO must also consider possible NATO-CSTO contacts. Russia is eager to establish such contacts whereas the NATO (or the U.S.) is reluctant. Would-be interactions between these two organizations could create a new and unprecedented security and geopolitical environment in Central Asia in which Uzbekistan must find its niche. The expected activation of relations between Uzbekistan and NATO in the aftermath of the Afghan campaign will require a more cooperative security policy from Tashkent on the regional level, also implying cooperative interaction with the CSTO.
CONCLUSIONS: Uzbekistan’s options regarding regional security arrangements and international security partners have turned into a geopolitical riddle. On the one hand, the country avoids multilateralism in the security sphere and prefers bilateral arrangements. However, the CSTO’s inefficiency can hardly be substituted with Uzbekistan-Russia bilateral strategic cooperation. The problem of national security in such a complex region as Central Asia cannot be solved without strong commitment to multilateral international and regional security arrangements.
On the other hand, even Uzbekistan’s national security, narrowly defined, is best ensured by recognizing the importance of regionalism in Central Asia. The expected restoration of the NATO-Uzbekistan partnership will inevitably bring up the issue of multilateral regional security arrangements. Moreover, if cooperation between NATO and the CSTO is to evolve, then Uzbekistan, in spite of its recent departure from the CSTO, cannot remain indifferent to such cooperation and continue insisting on its ambiguous bilateralism.
While it is doubtful that Uzbekistan’s decision to leave the CSTO was a prudent one, the CSTO’s loss is also evident. While there is no question that Uzbekistan was a stubborn and difficult member, it remains an open question how the CSTO will now engage in Central Asia and deal with regional security problems without Uzbekistan.
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