By Alexandros Petersen
Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the second time does not come as much of a surprise for long-time observers of Tashkent’s foreign policy. Before finally calling it quits, Uzbekistan’s leadership had expressed frustration with the group’s overtly anti-Western guise, its fealty to Moscow and its pretensions at competition with NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Uzbek forces have not participated in the group’s military exercises and President Islom Karimov made a point of not attending CSTO summits. In contrast, his recent visit to Beijing for the SCO summit was highly publicized, as was a new strategic partnership agreement signed with China.
The snap analysis by Russian and Western observers alike is that Uzbekistan’s withdrawal is a clear sign that in Tashkent’s constant geopolitical vacilation, it is once again looking West. Vladimir Zharikhin of the CIS Institute said that the move showed, “a clear desire of President Karimov to flirt with the United States”, but that Uzbekistan can and may well renew its membership in the CSTO.
Other Russian analysts speculate that the withdrawal is a sign of a future basing agreement between Tashkent and Washington. To be sure, the two capitals are working more closely than ever, since the violence in Andijon in 2005, to ensure that the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan is orderly. U.S. and Uzbek officials also often speak about common goals to bring more development to Afghanistan, as a salve against future large-scale conflict to Uzbekistan’s south.
However, few analysts – not even Chinese commentators – have posited a link between the CSTO withdrawal and Uzbekistan’s increasingly comfortable relations with China. The juxtaposition of Karimov’s recent handshakes with Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping and last Thursday’s abrupt decision is striking. In our meetings across Central Asia, but also in Uzbekistan, Raffaello Pantucci and I find that policymakers, analysts, academics and ordinary people tend to agree that while the United States is the current geopolitical alternative to Moscow’s heavy hand, the long-term alternative is China.
While decision-makers in Tashkent may not necessarily see the geopolitical map in such simple terms, the fresh ink on their strategic partnership with Beijing almost certainly played into their decision to give Moscow the cold shoulder.
Alexandros Petersen is author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.