The instability that arose from the August 2021 collapse of the U.S.-backed regime and rise of the Taliban has provoked renewed fears of transnational drug smuggling and terrorism
Uzbekistan, double-landlocked in the heart of Eurasia, is situated in the middle of waves of geopolitical turmoil. While the country has made strides since 2016 under its current president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, toward a more open form of governance and proactive foreign policy, it also is simultaneously grappling with Russia’s reshaping of the security dynamic in the former Soviet Union, the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the rising ambitions of China. This dynamic has intensified Uzbekistan’s imperative to develop a broad range of partnerships.
This presents the United States with opportunities to grow its influence in Eurasia, as well as questions over how to engage with what remains, in spite of Mirziyoyev’s reforms, a repressive political regime that demonstrates no sign of transformation into a liberal democracy anytime soon. Tashkent’s handling of recent unrest in Karakalpakstan in particular demonstrates the depth of changes to Uzbekistan since Mirziyoyev’s ascent, while cautioning that the country’s regime remains authoritarian. While not overstating U.S. interests in Central Asia, Washington broadly wishes to see the region gain greater negotiating power vis-à-vis China, Iran, and Russia by way of more autonomy in economic and military affairs; democratize; and collaborate with transatlantic institutions on security and trade.
Diplomacy and Security in Central Asia
Afghanistan remains the top priority for U.S.-Uzbekistan relations. The instability that arose from the August 2021 collapse of the U.S.-backed regime and rise of the Taliban has provoked renewed fears of transnational drug smuggling and terrorism. While the Taliban promised the United States and the international community at large that it would keep al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups out of Afghanistan, this was never a promise the Taliban could realistically fulfill even if it desired to carry through. That the United States killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a compound linked to influential Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani speaks to how the Taliban regime remains deeply entangled in international Islamist extremism. What’s more, the looming prospect of factional rivalries within the Taliban further proliferating violence bodes poorly for Taliban authorities’ ability to keep a lid on jihadist groups both inside the country and in the region.
Uzbekistan is on the front lines of this security crisis, as evidenced by a July rocket attack, believed to have been perpetrated by ISIS, that damaged homes in the southern city of Termez and has renewed fears about violent spillover from Afghanistan in Central Asia. Even so, Tashkent has adopted a pragmatic, engaged diplomatic approach toward the Taliban and has urged authorities in Kabul to crack down on jihadist groups in the country. Beyond security, Tashkent’s decision to cooperate with the Taliban reflects its desire to avoid the interruption of infrastructure projects and foreign direct investment that many worry may result from the instability emanating from Afghanistan and to prevent a broader spillover of security threats into the country.
As a result, Uzbekistan has taken a leadership role in organizing diplomacy around Afghanistan. As Western interest in Afghanistan wanes relative to Russia’s war in Ukraine, Uzbekistan has proactively engaged other states to stabilize its southern neighbor – though the Taliban’s unreliability and lack of credibility may jeopardize any longer-term vision for peace and cooperation. Uzbekistan remains interested in Afghanistan as a transport corridor with the potential for economic linkages to the Arabian Sea region and beyond. Tashkent will do all it can to see a stable, cooperative political regime emerge in Kabul to preserve its own security and attractiveness as an emerging market destination for foreign direct investment.
This same impulse has led Uzbekistan to increase its regional presence, mending fences with its other neighbors. Turkmenistan’s new president, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, recently paid a visit to Tashkent, giving Uzbekistan a chance to forge closer ties with its closed neighbor, and at a regional summit in Kyrgyzstan in July, Mirziyoyev highlighted the economic opportunities of closer cooperation between Central Asian states. These ties give Uzbekistan a chance to build on this rhetoric of cooperation and play a leading role in pushing regional integration and formats that empower Central Asian states and potentially give them greater leverage as a bloc in their relationships with China and Russia. They also create a stronger toolkit of relationships to deal with regional crises that might directly implicate Uzbekistan’s own stability. Relations with Tajikistan, once poisoned by deep mutual suspicion and intrigue, have improved dramatically, with Mirziyoyev forging a relationship with Tajik President Emomalî Rahmon and his son and heir apparent, Rustam Emomalî. Tajikistan’s history of civil war and vulnerability to destabilization from Afghanistan, coupled with shared interests in managing economic cooperation and water usage between the countries, led to Uzbekistan’s imperative to establish better ties.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further tested Uzbekistan’s delicate foreign policy balance. Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov criticized the invasion and reiterated Uzbekistan’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity in April, but his resignation a month later – ostensibly for health reasons – could suggest his boldness ran ahead of Tashkent’s official position. While many elements of Uzbek society remain sympathetic to Ukraine, the dominance of Russian language-media in the country has led to a greater familiarity with Russian narratives on the war over those of its Ukrainian victims. Mirziyoyev’s government has also taken steps to stay close to Moscow; he recently hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit and shuttled to Moscow for an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States on Putin’s birthday. Like its Central Asian peers, Uzbekistan likely will avoid firm positions on Ukraine as much as possible.
Uzbekistan’s Strengths and Challenges
Uzbekistan’s population is young and growing, which poses both challenges and opportunities. Incidents of unrest foster continued risk of domestic upheaval. In the Fergana Valley, limited resources coupled with a complex mix of ethnic Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek populations have historically stoked conflict, most recently in 2010, when instability from a revolution in Kyrgyzstan spilled over into violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have engaged in conflict over water rights near where the two share a border with Uzbekistan. In Karakalpakstan, some elements of the Karakalpak population engaged in unrest in July to protest constitutional changes that would have eliminated their right to succeed from the country, reviving fears in nationalist social media circles that ethnic Kazakhs or Kazakhstan-based Karakalpak opposition would aid Karakalpak demonstrators.
While Uzbekistani authorities previously had violently suppressed unrest and expelled U.S. military and NGOs following Washington’s criticism, its response to the crisis in Karakalpakstan suggests an evolution in Uzbekistan’s position. Tashkent has boosted its lobbying efforts to secure its interests in Washington and has convened a parliamentary commission to investigate the causes for unrest. For all this process’ clear defects, it demonstrates that the regime understands it cannot afford to inflict violence with the impunity it previously enjoyed if it desires greater cooperation with transatlantic partners. This also may reflect a shift in Uzbekistani authorities’ strategy in how and to what degree they seek to explain violence to their population. This comparatively greater responsiveness to public and international scrutiny demonstrates the Uzbekistani state’s concern for its image at home and abroad and the genuineness of its desire for better relations with the U.S. and others.
The country’s economy has posted strong growth over the past decade, with annualized GDP growth in the mid to high single digits. However, domestic factors also create risks for Uzbekistan’s stability. While meaningful progress has been made, Uzbekistan remains a deeply authoritarian state. The country’s human rights record, once infamous for the alleged boiling and freezing of opponents of the regime, has gone from abysmal to poor. Reporting continues to implicate top officials in transnational corruption.
Uzbekistan is strengthening partnerships in every vector of its foreign relations. In addition to moves to deepen its relationship with the United States, such as agreeing to send Uzbekistani soldiers to join joint regional exercises organized by the U.S. in Tajikistan in August, it has also moved ahead with the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project. The route marks a new stage in attempts to develop a middle corridor that would allow trade to cross Eurasia between the territories of Iran and Russia, which have diminished in their attractiveness as transit countries given the effects of the U.S. sanctions regime. This project is part of a broader prioritization of regional connectivity.
Uzbekistan has been a leader in the trilateral format between India, Iran, and itself to use Chabahar port for the export of Uzbekistani goods, and it looks likely to upgrade its relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. While Uzbekistan held joint military exercises with Turkey in recent years, the cooperation was limited. Following Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s visit to the country in June, a trilateral Azerbaijan-Turkey-Uzbekistan summit in Tashkent on Aug. 3 produced a declaration to expand cooperation. Before visiting Samarkand for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in September, Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered a speech highlighting Uzbekistan’s importance to China. As Russian influence wanes in Central Asia, Uzbekistan has made it clear that it intends to pursue an “all of the above” approach to developing new strategic partnerships.
While Tashkent’s active role both in organizing and participating in declarations and summits marks a shift toward a new international role, so too does the crisis in Karakalpakstan bode mixed tidings for Uzbekistan’s security. Uzbekistan’s regime is engaged and ready to work with partners to enhance their country’s position as a key node in commerce across the emerging Middle Corridor. The United States should continue to prioritize strong engagement with Uzbekistan as a pillar of its diplomacy in Central Asia and put more emphasis on programs through the American Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce to bring U.S. businesses and investment to the country. It also should promote greater security cooperation to assist Uzbekistan in responding to the new uncertainties on its Afghan border.
The United States must move beyond dialogue to more concrete and actionable commitments of support. Recognizing Uzbekistan’s position as a broker with the Taliban regime in Kabul, the U.S. should find synergies with Tashkent to relieve Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and build leverage on the Taliban. Lastly, Washington should encourage Tashkent to take a leading role in institutionalizing Central Asian regional political and economic integration, something leaders hinted at in July’s Cholpon Ata summit in Kyrgyzstan. Simultaneously, Washington should continue its support for human rights groups and elections monitoring to push the regime toward more genuine and deeper liberalization.
Uzbekistani society has changed, but the risks of renewed instability remain. The U.S. should seize the opportunity to form a more meaningful bilateral relationship with a promising if troubled partner.