Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov appears to have reacted to the US presidential elections by turning towards the West. He has agreed to release from prison some political prisoners who were sentenced during the bloody suppression of the uprising in Andijan. So far, it is not exactly clear what form this new relationship will take between the West and the most populous nation in Central Asia. But this enormous country, which also borders Afghanistan, may become a good economic and political partner for the West.
In view of the new situation, Karimov has announced that Uzbekistan will suspend its membership of the Eurasian Economic Community. The formal justification for this is disagreement with the Community's customs policy. Uzbekistan is leaving the union de facto, as the charter does not allow suspension of membership.
Alexei Vlasov, head of the Information and Analytical Centre for the Study of Political Processes in the post-Soviet space comments:
„I would not describe these processes as a definitive change in Tashkent's geopolitical orientation. This changes every three years. It is highly likely that in 2010-2011 internal politics in Uzbekistan will result in the pendulum moving in the opposite direction. At the moment it's more a matter of tactical moves by Islam Karimov, because today closer cooperation with the EU and USA is useful."
„Will this foreign policy trend facilitate a revival of the democratic opposition in Uzbekistan?"
„There is practically no democratic opposition in the country - it has gone into exile. In 2005 attempts were made to form an opposition, which was known as the „Sun coalition" and led by Sanjar Umarov. Most of them are now outside Central Asia - mainly in the EU and the USA. These people will not be able to have any real influence on changing the situation, even if under Western influence Karimov does introduce more serious political reforms."
„And what if the West starts actively sponsoring the opposition?"
„The main social tension today is not connected with any potential democratic opposition. Most young people in Uzbekistan (with the exception of a small percentage) have no chance of continuing their studies at university after they leave school and are forced to look for work abroad. If the crisis hits the Russian Federation hard and there are cuts to jobs on building sites and in other sectors of the economy, young people who would have gone to the Russian Federation as migrant workers will stay in Uzbekistan.
„These young people become social outsiders. They seek consolation not in secular political activism, but in religion, which promises a fair future for everyone. There is no officially permitted Islamic party in Uzbekistan. There are already five political parties. I don't think that Karimov will tolerate another party based on religious principles in the near future, even if it adheres to „legal Islam".
„But there is also illegal Islam. There are organisations, which the Uzbek government describes as radical extremist. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, for instance, which was founded in 1996. Many people believe that this is a „network", which can temporarily increase or reduce its activities, depending on the situation."
„Will the present financial crisis affect Uzbekistan? And if so, how exactly?"
„We may assume that by establishing new relations with the EU, Islam Karimov is preparing a kind of „safety cushion" . Its main function will be to receive financial, infrastructural and other assistance in a situation when a large number of Uzbek migrant workers lose their jobs."
„Given that Uzbekistan is the largest Central Asian nation, will its withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Community affect Russia's position in Central Asia?"
„At the heart of Russian policies in Central Asia is Kazakhstan. Of course, relations with Uzbekistan are important, particularly in the energy sphere. But Uzbekistan's presence in the Eurasian Economic Community cannot be said to be of fundamental importance in projects that are implemented under the patronage of Russia."
„Will the EU and USA be able to supplant Russia as the senior economic partner in relations with Central Asia?"
„For Russia it is important that the EU and the USA do not have a united political strategy in Central Asia; they have different interests, both economic and political."
From Moscow, Bakhrom Khamroev, human rights advocate, political émigré and one of the leaders of the Uzbek opposition comments:
„Karimov can be seen to fluctuate between Russia, the USA and the EU. On several occasions he has deceived everyone. After the shootings in Andijan, Karimov flew into Russia's arms. This is the sort of person he is: today he embraces Putin, and tomorrow, when the Democrats form the new administration in the USA, he will embrace Obama. It should also be remembered that there are several influential factions in Karimov's administration with divergent opinions: some advise cooperation with the Russian Federation, others with the USA or the EU. So far no one has clearly determined a direction for foreign policy."
Russia was very late in forming a relationship with Uzbekistan. It should have initially worked not with Karimov, but directly with the Uzbek people - sponsoring various educational programmes and working on cultural exchanges. It should have set out to win the trust of the Uzbek people. Then it would have maintained its influence. All the neighbouring countries know what sort of dictator Karimov is. He is destroying his own people. He has no permanent friends. He is always making accusations. Since he came to power, Karimov has accused the Uzbek people and Russia of all kinds of transgressions. In the 1990s, he said that the country needed to move away from Russia...
If the pro-American Islamic opposition wants to get into power, it could get rid of Karimov instantly, as soon as Barack Obama goes to the White House. But the USA is categorically opposed to the introduction of Sharia law in Uzbekistan. They have quite a sober view of the situation and do not want an Islamic faction to come to power in Uzbekistan.
The article was published first by the Skt. Petersburg weekly Delo.