BACKGROUND: The elevation of the U.S. – Uzbekistan relationship to strategic partnership in March 2002 induced great expectations in both countries regarding the prospects for bilateral cooperation. The Declaration on USUSP was drafted as a comprehensive document that comprises six chapters on cooperation in the political, security (military and military-technical), economic, humanitarian (including development of human resources), and legal fields, plus an additional chapter on general cooperation. In the preamble, the sides stated that they recognize the importance of a consistent implementation of democratic and market reforms in Uzbekistan as a necessary precondition for ensuring political, social, and economic stability, sustainable development, prosperity, and national security. In addition, Uzbekistan’s independence, territorial integrity and sustainable development, as well as the inviolability of its borders, is mentioned as a key factor in maintaining stability and security in Central Asia. These two statements contain two quite illustrative messages: on the one hand, democratic reforms and security are interlinked. On the other, Uzbekistan’s security and development is considered together with that of Central Asia in general, and not in isolation from the region at large. Such views were reinforced further in the declaration’s provisions.
Since the adoption of the USUSP declaration, the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship has experienced a test of time reflected in explicit and implicit geopolitical trends in Central Asia. In the aftermath of the 9/11 events and the subsequent deployment of a U.S. contingent at the K-2 air base in Uzbekistan’s southern city of Karshi for supporting the operation in Afghanistan, the strategic partnership became imminent. However, President Karimov’s statement in early 2005 that a situation of “strategic uncertainty” had arisen in Central Asia revealed the increasing geopolitical perplexity experienced by Uzbekistan.
When the Andijan events occurred in May 2005 and the U.S. accused Uzbek authorities of “indiscriminate use force” during the anti-terrorist operation against insurgents in Andijan, the USUSP was reversed because Tashkent construed the uprising as evidence of a U.S. plot against Uzbekistan’s government. Given the experience of “strategic uncertainty,” Tashkent had already in June 2004 signed the Treaty on Russian-Uzbekistan Strategic Partnership (RFUSP) and in November 2005 went on to sign the Treaty on Alliance Relationships with Russia. Thus, from 2004-2005 Uzbekistan increasingly sought to balance strategic partnerships between two geopolitical rivals – the U.S. and the Russian Federation.
However, Washington and Tashkent have increasingly sought rapprochement from 2008 on, and even during their preceding differences the declaration remained in force and was never renounced by either side.
IMPLICATIONS: In early 2013, President Karimov once again reiterated the competition between foreign powers in the region, especially in the context of the ongoing U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan which is to be completed by 2014. Therefore, Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO last year was accompanied with an Uzbek-Russian statement of commitment to the RFUSP. When it comes to the USUSP, some tokens of the strategic partnership can currently be envisaged in the context of four factors of consequence for the entire region: the functioning of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) and the launch of the U.S. New Silk Road Strategy; the reactivation of NATO-Central Asia relations; the revision of the U.S.’s global posture; and the geopolitical transformation of the Eurasian space. We can add to this the factor of the U.S.-Russian “perezagruzka” (reset), in turn implying a need for Uzbekistan to reset its relations with both powers.
Uzbekistan’s two “perezagruzka” policies in terms of implementing two contradictory documents will be challenging not least because both great powers attribute a distinctive meaning to the very notion of strategic partnership. Particularly, the USUSP Declaration mentions different variations of the word democracy 11 times, whereas the RFUSP Treaty makes no such reference. In addition, the USUSP emphasizes the regional dimension of strategic partnership, whereas the RFUSP only mentions the region once in very general terms. As for Uzbekistan’s commitment to the letter and spirit of the USUSP, strategic partnership will in any case require it to grasp the normative dimension. As for its commitment to the RFUSP, this document emphasizes the military dimension, leaving other dimensions in more modest formulations.
Meanwhile, the NDN and the New Silk Road Strategy has become a specific trigger for the Washington-Tashkent strategic partnership. While it could be a beneficial new starting point, even the first steps toward its implementation risk irritating the Russian side. Hence, both sides need to consider what it means for Uzbekistan to be a strategic partner to the U.S. and vice versa. The same question is equally valid in the relationship between Tashkent and Moscow.
For the time being it seems that both the U.S. and Uzbekistan could actually, intentionally or not, end up reducing the significance and meaning of a de jure strategic partnership to a de facto opportunistic one. The U.S. only needs the NDN in operation to withdraw its forces and technology from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan is interested in taking financial advantage of the NDN and keeping the leftovers of military equipment which were used in Afghanistan. Real strategic partners are supposed to move beyond such short-term lucrative cooperation. The end of the operation in Afghanistan in 2014 will not only change the regional strategic and geopolitical situation and the U.S. posture in the region, but Uzbekistan itself is expected to change in connection with the upcoming parliamentary elections in December 2014 and presidential elections in March 2015.
In 2009, the U.S. and Uzbekistan set up a high-level annual bilateral consultations (ABC) mechanism and since then three ABCs have taken place in which a wide range of issues are covered such as trade and development, investments, energy, agriculture, health, parliamentary exchanges, education, science and technology, counter-narcotics, border security, counter-terrorism, religious freedom, trafficking in persons, development of civil society and human rights as well as the operation in Afghanistan. The letters ABC have a symbolical designation, implying a new beginning, a reset and also benchmarks. The ABCs and overall reset of U.S.-Uzbekistan relations can have long-term geopolitical and strategic implications if these relations finally meet the criteria of real strategic partnership.
Finally, the recent visit of Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov to Washington was obviously an important step in U.S.-Uzbekistan bilateral relations, but whether it amounted to a crucial step in terms of the USUSP remains to be seen.
CONCLUSIONS: In spite of Uzbekistan’s exit from the CSTO, the strategic and alliance relationships between Russia and Uzbekistan were nevertheless restated. However, while U.S.-Uzbekistan relations are experiencing a new rapprochement, the two sides have not yet restated the USUSP. Tashkent needs to find a prudent resolution of the geopolitical contradiction between the two treaties. Yet, before engaging in strategic partnerships, all three states first of all need to define their national grand strategies vis-à-vis each other.
Substantial and quintessential questions must be addressed in this respect, as well. Can two states professing two different value systems become real strategic partners? Should they revisit and revise the content of the USUSP? Are the strategic partnerships between Tashkent and Washington on the one hand Tashkent and Moscow on the other contradictory?
Strategic partnership implies a special type of relations between states going far beyond the features of ordinary cooperation. It requires a high level of mutual trust along with long-term, sustainable and comprehensive cooperation especially in the sphere of security interests, as well as similar positions on major international issues. Both sides of the USUSP should, for instance, cooperate more intimately on issues related to Afghanistan than is required by NDN-driven communications. Overall, the letter and spirit of strategic partnership should not be obscured. The call “Retreat or move forward!” can be addressed to both states, who are currently de jure but not yet de facto strategic partners.
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.