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  Will Uzbekistan replace Ukraine in the Eurasian Union?

Fabio Belafatti, Coordinator of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asian Studies (Vilnius University, Oriental Studies Centre) and lecturer of Central Asian Politics
2014 11 03

The explosion of the Ukrainian crisis has suddenly cast doubts on the feasibility of the entire project of the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU). Russian president Vladimir Putin made it very clear that an EaEU without Ukraine would lack an important symbolic component. It’s not just a matter of symbols, though: with Ukraine, the EaEU loses also a massive market, the second largest (after Russia itself) in what the Kremlin would like to be a competitor of the European Union.

Following Ukraine’s distancing from the Kremlin, the only other former Soviet republic with a comparable (albeit smaller) population and economic potential is Uzbekistan, in the heart of Central Asia. With a population of almost 30 million, Uzbekistan would provide a significant addition to the EaEU’s internal market. Whether Moscow will manage to convince Tashkent to join the Union is a completely different matter, though.

Main principles of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy

The core feature of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy is the constant attempt to maintain independence by playing different great powers against one another. President Islam Karimov hasmasterfullyused Russian, American and Chinese interests against one another to maintain the country’s independence and get economic benefit from each great power. He has also promoted relations with regional powers such as South Korea and Japan to maximize the country’s ability to attract foreign direct investment.

Following a period of closeness with Russia, Karimov distanced the country from its powerful former master by leaving the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in 1999 and joining GUAM, an organization created to limit Russian influence, in the same year. In 2001 he rapidly aligned the country with the West in a bid to exploit the amount of military aid made available to countries on the forefront of the War on Terror. After a few years, however, he expelled American troops from Uzbekistan following disagreements with the Bush administration over Uzbekistan’s human rights record. This did not entail a simple rapprochement with Russia, but rather a more sophisticated “game” of courting different powerful players, among which China quickly rose to play a major role. In a gesture that epitomizes the fluidity of Uzbekistan’s alignments, Tashkent re-joined the Moscow-led CSTO in 2006 and then suspended its membership again in 2012.

The purpose of these continuous geopolitical changes are at the same time economic and political: alongside an independent foreign policy, Karimov also set Uzbekistan on a path of economic autonomy (if not pure and simple isolation) whose initial purpose was to protect the country from the negative effects of economic transition from communism, but has later developed into a form of protectionism in which the ruling élite has a massive potential for personal enrichment, to the detriment of general welfare. In such a context, it makes perfect sense from a regime-survival point of view to maintain as much economic and political autonomy as possible to avoid losing precious (and profitable) control over the economy.

Uzbekistan and the EaEU

Initial interest and reasons for joining

In light of this independence-seeking behaviour, many observers were surprised to hear high-ranking Uzbek officials express moderate interest in the EaEU (which was still called “Custom Union” at that time) back in late 2013.

At a first sight, this would have made a lot of sense: Russia was and remains Uzbekistan’s main trading partner, and it’s the destination of millions of Uzbek migrants whose remittances constitute 16.3% of Uzbekistan’s GDP. The second most important member of the EaEU, Kazakhstan, is another significant trading partner for Uzbekistan. The risk of being excluded from such markets would be a reason enough to seriously consider EaEU membership, especially since Uzbekistan’s prosperous automotive industry sells one third of its production to Kazakhstan and Russia. Moreover, if Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were to join, Uzbekistan would find itself entirely surrounded by EaEU countries with no direct access to external markets.

Another powerful argument for Uzbekistan to join the EaEU is the decreased NATO presence in Afghanistan: non-lethal military supply for NATO troops travel through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), whose main branch crosses Uzbekistan as far as its southern border, not far from Mazar-i Sharif in Northern Afghanistan. The NDN has brought a significant amount of investments and infrastructural development projects to several regions of Uzbekistan, with considerable benefit that will inevitable dwindle with the diminishing of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, potentially forcing Uzbekistan to look for alternative sources of income. 

Food supply might be another good reason to join the Union: even though Uzbekistan has replaced part of its cotton cultivation with food crops and is now self-sufficient (being one of the main exporters of fruits and vegetables among former Soviet Union countries), experts believe that the country would still largely benefit from regional integration in the context of food production. Considering the kind of environmental issues, water management problems and lack of regional cooperation that affect Central Asia, membership in an institution that could provide a common legal framework and a stable platform for dialogue on the model of the EU would definitely contribute to consolidate Uzbekistan’s food self-sufficiency.

Counter-arguments: Uzbekistan on its own

None of these arguments seem strong enough to set Uzbekistan on a clear path to join the EaEU. Quite the opposite, in fact: following initial interest, the Uzbek leadership has been quick to dismiss the possibility to join the Union any time soon, preferring to adopt a critic wait-and-see attitude.

In June, president Karimov took a very strong position against the EaEU, calling it a threat to states sovereignty and expressing his concerns that economic integration would result in loss of economic and inevitably political independence. The reputation of the EaEU, which many observers see as a sort of reconstituted Soviet Union dominated by Russia, clearly does not appeal to strong leaders like Karimov.

After all, due to Uzbekistan’s protectionist economic system the main benefit that the EaEU could offer, i.e. an increase in external trade, is not necessarily a top priority. Moreover, the cotton sector, a crucial component of Uzbekistan’s economic equation, is not very much oriented towards EaEU countries and would not be seriously affected if Uzbekistan were to refuse to join the Union.

The issue of immigration deserves a separate consideration: for other Central Asian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, this factor alone would be significant enough to keep them as close as possible to Russia, whatever the cost. For Uzbekistan, immigration presents relatively more nuanced issues: on the one hand, remaining outside of the EaEU would indeed make it more difficult for young unemployed Uzbeks to migrate to Russia. It is not clear, however, if this is being seen as a serious issue by Karimov: on the one hand, he has often shunned Uzbeks who emigrate to Russia, suggesting that he wouldn’t be very concerned if they were to lose their jobs and return to unemployment in Uzbekistan. At the same time, however, he is undoubtedly aware of the fact that emigration is useful to vent off social frustration that could potentially result in popular unrest. In any case, the concern for migration itself doesn’t seem to be strong enough to push Uzbekistan straight into Moscow’s embrace.

Uzbekistan’s future choices

Already in 2011, Russian analysts suggested that Uzbekistan may decide to stick to its usual policy of independence and move closer to China as a reaction to Russian integration initiatives. Now, this possibility seems to be materializing. Recent visits of president Karimov to China in August this year clearly indicate a tendency in this direction. Russia is definitely not making an effort to make the EaEU more appealing: the Ukrainian crisis has made leaders like Karimov very of Moscow’s intention, and Putin’s recent remarks about Kazakhstan’s supposed lack of dignity as independent state have further widened the gap. 

It is therefore highly unlikely that Uzbekistan will take any step in the direction of the EaEU for the time being. Economic benefits can be achieved by strengthening ties with China and other Asian countries: Tashkent seems to be busy doing exactly this not only with Beijing but also with Seoul, Tokyo and some Gulf Countries. There isn’t a real alternative to this: relationships with the West are still complicated by the aftermath of the disagreements of the mid-2000, and are in any case less trouble-free than those with Asian countries due to the human rights requirements that Western countries often put in place (albeit half-heartedly) as a condition for aid or investments.

Conclusions

As long as Karimov remains in power, Uzbekistan is likely to maintain its equidistance from great powers; the question is, rather, whether his successors will do the same. Karimov is already 76 and the behind-the-scenes struggle for his succession is already raging. Despite all his shortcomings as a leader, nobody would deny the fact that Karimov has been a world-level master at keeping powerful foreign influences at bay. This is of course strictly connected to the kind of internally self-sufficient, personalistic regime he created, in which the prosperity of the élite is closely connected to its ability to control the economy. 

Whoever succeeds Karimov will face the choice of reforming the system or leaving its internal functioning unchanged. The former option would inevitably require a revision of the principles of economic protectionism, which in turn may make it necessary to pursue a path of stronger regional integration. If this scenario were to materialize, becoming a member of the Eurasian Union would become a necessity.

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