The 25th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s Independence was ruined by the death of the country’s first and only president, Islam Karimov. This turn of events could present some serious dangers for the future of this Central Asian republic, some of which are of direct interest for Europe, in particular, and the West in general.
It is for this reason that the absence of European leaders at the funeral and the visit, albeit after the funeral, of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the gravesite of the late Uzbek president poses a rather worrying question.
Does Europe understand Uzbekistan’s role in matters of security and energy and the risk that Russia could regain a prevalent influence which it had lost during the years that Karimov was in power?
Karimov had installed an authoritarian regime, no different than other regimes in Central Asia. Playing with the idea of nationalism, however, he had succeeded in keeping Russia out of his country.
Despite the authoritarian regime and the international accusations concerning human rights violations and the lack of democracy, many European and Western leaders sought relations with energy-rich and strategically important Uzbekistan.
After all, it is an undeniable fact that Uzbekistan plays a special role and holds an important position in the region.
With its population of 31m, Uzbekistan is the biggest country in Central Asia. And while it has a tiny number of national minorities living within its territory, Uzbek minorities can be found in almost all neighbouring countries. Even more important, however, is that Uzbekistan does not share a border with Russia and its Russian minority represents just 3% of its population.
The country holds a unique strategic point for security matters as it has a common border with Afghanistan. As regards transport, Uzbekistan offers a unique path for the Chinese inspired ‘new Silk Road’.
And, it is an energy-rich country, making it important for the global energy market!
During the regime of Karimov, Uzbekistan played with all the big powers but did not join any particular ‘club’. A founding member of the Moscow-inspired Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in 1992, Uzbekistan withdrew its membership. It was also a member of the anti-Moscow GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) organisation for more than a decade, but supported Russian actions in Ukraine. It never recognised the annexation of Crimea and discussed cooperation with the United States after American troops withdrew from Afghanistan. Only the Islamic threat, which the regime presented as a huge issue, brought Uzbekistan closer to Russia, during the last years. Under Karimov, Uzbekistan always managed to foil any Russian attempts to gain a foothold in the country. In fact, the Russian minority’s desire for closer cultural relations with Moscow was restricted.
But after Karimov’s death, there is growing speculation concerning the continuity of the regime’s policies.
The dangers of social uprising or the rise of an Islamic fighting movement, as well as internal fights for leadership, are constantly referred to as possible destabilisation factors.
These could create serious problems, not only at a regional level, but at an international level as well.
What is most important now is for Europe and the West to become more responsive and more interested as regards the next steps that will be taken in Uzbekistan.
The European Union and the West have a real stake in ensuring that Uzbekistan remains a “non-aligned” factor in Central Asia.
Afghanistan remains in turmoil and the threat of the Taliban is still alive. Islamic State and its jihadist allies in Central Asia could move their operations there after the IS ‘dominium’ in Middle East collapses. Any internal fighting for power could paralyse the energy and the transport sectors with the repercussions being felt in Europe as well.
Any sudden changes in the country could provoke uncalculated damages for energy, security and transports.
Of course, it is possible that none of these ‘catastrophic’ theories will ever ring true. Karimov, on many occasions, had shown he had established a solid authoritarian regime. Also, the fact that in Uzbekistan the ‘cult of personality’ is not present, let us suppose that the regime will find a way to pass the post-Karimov era without any upheavals.
It is because Tashkent matters for Europe and the West that we should be closely following the developments in Uzbekistan.