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Uzbekistan: Direction Unknown

Islam Karimov has been president of Uzbekistan since 1990.
Islam Karimov has been president of Uzbekistan since 1990.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, greeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his presidential residence in Tashkent last week, put a rosy glow on his country's future with Washington.

"We highly value relations between the U.S.A. and Uzbekistan," he said in comments broadcast on Uzbek state television's first channel on December 2. "We note with great satisfaction the dynamics and content of cooperation."

A presidential press release lauded "close ties" between the two countries' governments and highlighted "dozens of joint energy, light industry, and transportation projects, and that there are more than 200 enterprises in Uzbekistan that have American capital in them."

But despite Karimov's optimism, observers are puzzled about Tashkent's lack of a clear direction when it comes to its own future and its relations with the United States and other countries. And this failure by Uzbekistan, they say, could have negative implications on the effort to establish stability in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region.

James Nixey, research fellow at Chatham House on Central Asian and South Caucasus issues, says, "It's hard to engage [with Uzbekistan], and if you can't engage even on the most basic levels then you're kind of at a loss to what to do.

"If they don't have a policy toward the West, it's hard for the West to have a policy toward them," Nixey says.

Diplomatic relations with Tashkent have never been easy.

After Washington criticized Uzbekistan's deadly use of force to break up antigovernment protests in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005, the Uzbek government ordered U.S. troops out of Uzbekistan, which in turn put a strain on the war effort in Afghanistan.

The Uzbek government has alternately had good ties with the West, then turned toward Russia and China, and turned back again.

Uzbekistan, through its participation in the new Northern Distribution Route (NDR), is playing a major role in the transit of nonlethal NATO cargo to Afghanistan. U.S. officials have said more than 90 percent of the goods shipped via NDR transit Uzbekistan, and indications are that NDR's importance will grow due to security problems along transportation routes through Pakistan.

Cracks In The Relationship

But even as Washington and Tashkent have drawn diplomatically closer, cracks in the relationship remain.

During her trip to the Uzbek capital, which raised eyebrows among human-rights observers, Clinton called on the Uzbek president to make good on earlier promises to expand democratic freedoms in the country. In remarks released by aides, Clinton was quoted as saying that she had told Karimov "to demonstrate his commitment through a series of steps to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are truly protected."

Experts say that in its approach on human rights, foreign policy, and even its own economic development, Uzbekistan is exhibiting a worrying lack of foresight.

John MacLeod, senior editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says the Uzbek government appears content to be "reactive" as opposed to initiating change domestically or regionally. This lack of foresight or planning, he says, is a concern because "the world is changing around Uzbekistan."

"How do [the Uzbek authorities] see the future 10 years hence? If the answer is that they're not really thinking about it, that's problematic," MacLeod says.

The state media and the Uzbek government, MacLeod says, portray everything as fantastic as it is right now.

"The very hierarchical, tightly controlled, censored narrative that the regime puts out about itself -- it's not a plan to simply tell everybody that everything's great and that our economic policies are just bang on, [or that] our monetary policies, which are really quite highly controlled, are just absolutely the answer. That isn't policy making, that's just propaganda," MacLeod says.

MacLeod says the Uzbek people do not necessarily believe what they are being told but accept it as part of "an unspoken bargain." This, he says, is because they can say: "You know, things are pretty bad, but it seems to be better than those other places and we'll put up with it."

In reality, however, it is hard to argue that the situation in Uzbekistan is poised to improve.

Uzbekistan has deposits of oil and gas but not enough to become a major supplier and meet the needs of the country's population -- nearly 28 million and growing rapidly. Besides cotton, Uzbekistan has few major exports. Few foreign investors come to Uzbekistan. Tashkent has opted out of regional organizations and generally has bad ties with all its Central Asian neighbors. (Turkmenistan being a possible exception.)

Uzbekistan has no close international allies. And Karimov and his government appear to have no real campaigns -- short- or long-term -- for invigorating the economy, social reforms, or major infrastructure and communications upgrades.

Neighbors With A Course

This lack of direction contrasts with Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors, who even if they, too, come under criticism for their respective approaches, appear to be following a course in such areas as economics or foreign policy.

Last month, for example, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took steps toward their respective goals of greater energy independence. Kyrgyzstan started the first unit at its Kambar-Ata-2 hydropower plant (HPP) and Tajikistan temporarily blocked the Vakhsh River so it could start construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant.

Governments in both countries hope realization of such projects will, in the next few years, create more jobs, bring in more revenue from electricity exports, and hopefully help improve social conditions.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have enormous deposits of oil and natural gas. With revenue from these energy resources, they are building up major cities, improving infrastructure, and courting ties with international investors and governments both to the east and west.

Uzbekistan, meanwhile, remains the "most introverted" of the five Central Asian states, according to Nixey, leaving other states unsure where they stand with Tashkent.

"I do agree that the lack of strategic vision is kind of endemic. It's kind of getting worse, and this means that there's not going to be any serious engagement in Uzbekistan for at least the next five years," Nixey says.

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