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Uzbekistan: Analysis From Washington -- New Moves On An Old Chessboard

Washington, 16 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Tashkent's new willingness to recognize the Taliban as the Afghan government challenges Russian efforts to recoup influence in Central Asia as well as some widely held assumptions about the sources of Islamic fundamentalism there and elsewhere.

But because it does both of these things simultaneously, this latest Uzbek shift appears likely to rearrange many of the pieces on the chessboard of Central Asian geopolitics, calling old arrangements into question, opening the possibility for new ones, and possibly undermining his own position.

Speaking in Tashkent on 12 October, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said that he is ready to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. "It doesn't matter whether we like that government or not," he added. "The main criterion is whether the people of Afghanistan trust it."

If Uzbekistan eventually does take that step, Tashkent would become the fourth government around the world to do so, thereby reducing the isolation of a regime which controls 95 percent of Afghanistan's territory but which many believe sponsors terrorism.

But Karimov's remarks, a complete reversal of his position up to now, do not appear to be addressed primarily to the Taliban -- although his foreign minister has acknowledged that Tashkent has had informal conversation with Taliban representatives.

Instead, Karimov's about-face appears directed in the first instance at Moscow and those Central Asian countries which are following its lead and also at Western governments which up to now have been his biggest supporters.

By announcing his willingness to recognize the Taliban, Karimov effectively rejects Moscow's entire effort to regain influence in Central Asia by positing an external fundamentalist threat to these countries that they can meet only with Russian aid.

The most recent of these Russian attempts came earlier last week when Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as well as those of Armenia and Belarus to discuss a common response to Islamist threats.

The tenor of that Bishkek meeting was reflected in the comments of a Kyrgyz security official who argued that threats to the stability of the Central Asian countries are "external" rather than "domestic" and that they come "from Afghanistan."

And this same official added that the Russian Federation is "the core and the nucleus of regional security, around which other countries are consolidating" because they see Russian forces along the Tajik-Afghan border as an important deterrent.

Karimov not surprisingly stayed away from the Bishkek meeting, but his subsequent statement makes it clear that he rejects both Russia's diagnosis of the problems Central Asia faces and Russia's prescription as to how to deal with them.

Indeed, by adopting this new position on the Taliban, Karimov is challenging more than just Moscow's efforts. He is calling into question the view that Islamic fundamentalism is something that can be exported from one country to another.

That would put him at odds not only with Russia and his Central Asian neighbors but also with many Western governments on whom Karimov has relied to pursue his independent course. Almost all of them remain convinced that fundamentalism is an exportable phenomenon.

Moreover, some Western governments are likely to be especially concerned by the timing of his words. They came just as some suggested a link between the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole and Osama bin Laden, to whom the Taliban gave refuge.

And Karimov's shift could also have some important domestic ramifications if either his regime or its opponents should conclude that Tashkent's harsh approach to Islam is breeding the very Islamic fundamentalism for which the Taliban had been blamed.

In either case, that could lead to new challenges and changes in Uzbekistan and as a result of these to changes in its relationship with its neighbors, with Russia and with the West.