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Russia and Uzbekistan Sign "Treaty of Alliance Relations"

Dr. Jyotsna Bakshi was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 27, 2005

    The Russia-Uzbekistan Treaty of Alliance Relations signed by President Vladimir Putin and President Islam Karimov at a glittering Kremlin ceremony on November 14, 2005 marked the completion of a full circle in Tashkent's relations with Moscow following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also signified the Central Asian Republic's return to the Russian orbit.

    With 26 million people, Uzbekistan is the most populous Central Asian country. Also, a sizeable number of ethnic Uzbeks live in neighbouring states. Located in the very heart of Central Asia and having common borders with all other Central Asian states, it occupies a very important position in the region. Uzbekistan is also richly endowed with natural resources like gold, uranium, gas and oil. It is the fifth largest cotton producer and the second biggest exporter of cotton in the world. Though its oil reserves are not as large as that of its neighbour Kazakhstan, Uzbek oil reserves are still a substantial 297 million barrels (according to the CIA's The World Factbook). With the biggest army in the region, Tashkent has been widely seen as entertaining ambitions of becoming the regional hegemon in the post-Soviet period. Moreover, Uzbekistan - in comparison with other Central Asian states - went the farthest in asserting its independence from Moscow. In March 1999, it withdrew from the Russia-led CIS Collective Security Pact and the Uzbek military began to be trained by the United States. However, on December 11, 1999, Russia and Uzbekistan signed a bilateral military and military-technical cooperation agreement. In June 2001, Uzbekistan joined the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO), which was interpreted as reflecting the Uzbek desire to manoeuvre between Russia and China. The Uzbek elite believes that it is the major bulwark against the spread of political Islam and Islamic militancy in the former Soviet Central Asia.

    Unlike Russia and many other former Soviet republics that had opted for economic "shock therapy," Uzbekistan did not suffer any steep decline in its GDP in the initial post-Soviet period largely due to its persistence with the Soviet-era economic structures. President Karimov was often quoted for having emphasized that "one should not destroy the old home till a new home is built". By the middle of the 1990s, however, the Uzbek economic model appeared to have lost steam. Socio-economic distress faced by the bulk of the population is seen as the Achilles' heel of the current system, which may be exploited by religious extremists in the absence of political space allowed to secular political opposition.

    Uzbek Policy Zigzags

    In the post-September 11 period, Uzbekistan was the first among the Central Asian Republics (CARs) to offer a military base at Karshi Khanabad to the USA for supporting military operations in Afghanistan in the war against terrorism. The US deployed about 1,000 military personnel at Karshi-Khanabad also known as the K-2 base. During President Karimov's visit to the USA in March 2002, USA and Uzbekistan signed the "Declaration on Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework". From the US point of view, strategic partnership with Uzbekistan and the appearance of the US air bases in Uzbekistan and at the Manas airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, were major gains in a region which was not so long ago the exclusive preserve of Moscow. What is more, the US military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan was not viewed only in the context of the ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, but was also seen as a counterweight to both the Russian and the Chinese influence in the region. It naturally evoked the ire of the latter.

    The US-Uzbek strategic partnership rested on the horns of a dilemma from the beginning, buffeted as it was by vocal criticism in the West over the absence of democracy and the violation of human rights in the republic. In the fiscal year 2004, the USA withheld $10.5 million in aid, including $6.87 million in military aid, because the State Department could not certify that Uzbekistan was moving toward multiparty democracy. The 'colour' revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and in Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005 alarmed the Uzbek authorities about the dangers of a close embrace with the West. They suspected that Western NGOs were seeking to prepare opposition forces as an alternative to the present government and consequently began to place restrictions on the activities of West-aided NGOs.

    President Karimov had started edging towards Moscow in a bid to follow a 'multi-vector' policy and acquiring space for manoeuvre even prior to recent precipitation of relations with the USA. The turnaround in Uzbek relations with Russia came in September 2003 at the time of President Putin's visit to Samarkand on the way from Malaysia to Moscow. Following informal talks between Putin and Karimov, Uzbek officials were told to "make friends with Russia again". By that time, a certain disenchantment with the West had set in Uzbek circles, especially with regard to the scale of Western aid. Karimov was reported to have remarked at the time, "We had hoped that the international community would meet us with open arms". These aspirations had not come true. On June 16, 2004, Uzbekistan and Russia signed the Treaty on Strategic Partnership. In October 2004, Russia was admitted to CACO (Central Asian Treaty Organization), giving it a greater official role in Central Asian geopolitics.

    The May 13 violent incidents in Andijan - the Ferghana Valley city of Uzbekistan - brought to fore the great power rivalry for control over Central Asia. The Uzbek authorities were peeved by the Western demand for an independent international enquiry of the killings, and the airlifting of more than 400 Uzbek refugees to Rumania and other countries. On July 5-6, 2005, the SCO summit at Astana - to which India, Iran and Pakistan were invited as observers for the first time - called upon the USA to specify a time-frame for the withdrawal of its bases from Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan subsequently agreed to the continuation of the US air base at the Manas airport, reportedly in lieu for increased aid. However, on July 29, 2005, Uzbekistan served notice on the USA to evacuate the Karshi-Khanabad base within 180 days. Thereafter, Uzbekistan demonstrably moved closer to Russia and China. President Karimov's June 29, 2005 visit to Moscow was followed by the summit meeting of CACO at St. Petersburg on October 6, 2005, where a decision was taken to merge CACO with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Community (EEC). President Putin described the move as "the best birthday gift" to him.

    Russia-Uzbekistan Treaty of Alliance Relations

    Growing camaraderie between Uzbekistan and Russia has been epitomized by the signing of the "Treaty on Alliance Relations" on November 14, 2005. "The Treaty of Alliance Relations" seems to answer the security concerns of the Uzbek regime, while it provides Russia an opportunity to reassert its influence in the geostrategically important region. The security treaty is purported to be in keeping with Article 51 of the UN Charter which allows for 'collective self-defence'. Article 2 of the Uzbek-Russia treaty stipulated that:

    "If an act of aggression is committed against one of the sides by any state or group of states, this will be viewed as an act of aggression against both sides….the other side...will provide necessary assistance, including military assistance, as well as giving aid through other means at its disposal."

    Article 3 of the treaty stipulates that:

    "In case of emergence of a situation, which, according to the view of one of the sides, may pose a threat to peace, disturb peace or touch upon the interest of its security, as well as emergence of threat against one of the sides of the act of aggression, the sides would immediately would bring into force the mechanism of corresponding consultations for agreeing positions and coordinating practical measures for regulating such a situation"

    And Article 4 opens up the possibility of a Russian base in Uzbekistan. It provides for granting "the use of military facilities" on the territories of the signatories to each other "when necessary and on the basis of separate treaties" in order to ensure security and maintain peace and stability. However, in order to avoid hurting US sensitivities, the Russians probably do not wish to immediately establish a base in Uzbekistan close on the heels of the departing US troops.

    Blow to Western Strategy

    Western analysts have regarded these developments as a major blow to Western strategy in the region. They are seeking to draw comfort by harping on the inherent cleavages between Russian and Chinese interests and ambitions vis-à-vis Central Asia. Beijing was reported to have contacted Kyrgyz officials in early 2005 to explore the possibility of establishing a military base in Kyrgyzstan. Subsequently, after the Uzbek government's decision to close the US base, the Russian military analyst Vladimir Mukhin was cited to have remarked that the Chinese made quiet but definite enquiries about the possibility of gaining access to the base. Beijing's moves reportedly galvanized the Russians to quickly conclude the military alliance with Uzbekistan to foreclose the possibility of the Chinese seeking to fill up the vacuum (Stephen Blank, "China Joins the Great Central Asian Base Race", at Eurasia Insight at, November 16, 2005).

    As regards the accepted wisdom in the corridors of power in many of the post-Soviet states dominated by the former Communist elites, it is increasingly becoming oriented towards ensuring 'economic' growth and prosperity first, before conditions are considered ripe for 'political' liberalization or democracy. Amidst all this, the struggle for control and influence over the post-Soviet space is intensifying.

    Need for Skillful Indian Diplomacy

    In view of the geopolitical tug-of-war among the major powers for control over Central Asia, India may be called upon to conduct an extremely skillful diplomacy. Central Asia, which is regarded as India's extended strategic neighbourhood, presents both challenges and opportunities. India needs to play a discreet but pro-active role to create a niche for itself. It can build on good will and considerable 'soft power' in the region in order to have a friendly, secular and stable Central Asia next to its turbulent north-western periphery.