Is Tashkent clearing the decks for the US?Posted: 16/07/2012
By Dr Nicholas Redman, Senior Fellow for Geopolitical Risk and Economic Security
Uzbekistan has once again suspended its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the alliance of former Soviet states that also includes Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tashkent is saying it took this step because it wishes to develop relations with Afghanistan bilaterally, rather than as part of the CSTO bloc, and because it opposes efforts to deepen military cooperation within the CSTO.
Yet Uzbekistan’s fellow CSTO members suspect the decision has more to do with a wish by President Islam Karimov to reopen the Karshi-Khanabad air base to US forces.
Russia thought it had closed off this possibility last year, when CSTO members agreed that no foreign military bases could be opened on CSTO territory without the agreement of all member states. But US interest in new transit corridors to and from Afghanistan has grown over the last year, as doubts have intensified about the reliability of Pakistani routes, and as the time draws closer to withdraw troops and equipment from Afghanistan. Possessing Central Asia’s only rail link to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has been courted by the US Secretary of State; the CSTO decision seems to be President Karimov’s way of clearing the major impediment to opening a US base on his territory.
Uzbekistan has a track record of being a fairweather CSTO member. It suspended its membership in 1999 to join a nascent pro-Western grouping of CIS states including Georgia and Azerbaijan, and only returned in 2006 after the Andijan killings ruptured its relations with the West. Even on its return, it was a reluctant partner, prompting Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko to call for the alliance to eject it in late 2011.
Nevertheless, Karimov’s move is a blow for Russia. President Vladimir Putin has pledged to make integration of the former Soviet states a priority for his third term, and he must have expected that – as the end-of-2014 deadline for the conclusion of ISAF’s mission approaches – the Western military footprint in Russia’s Central Asian backyard would shrink. That would provide some consolation for Russia, considering that it might be obliged to shoulder a greater burden for security in Central Asia once ISAF packs up.
Frustratingly for Russia, Uzbekistan is not the only Central Asian ally talking to the Americans about military transit. Tajikistan is using US offers of military aid to wring better terms for extending the lease on the 201st military base. With 7,000 service personnel, that is the biggest Russian military base abroad. Tajik negotiators have reneged on a verbal agreement to extend the lease by 49 years; they are now proposing shorter timeframes, higher rental fees and free supplies of arms and ammunition. Russia’s commander-in-chief of land forces, Vladimir Chirkin, has grumbled about the apparently endless haggling.
The prospect of Kyrgyzstan seeking a way to keep the US air base at Manas open beyond 2014 can’t be ruled out either. The Kyrgyz earlier promised Russia to close Manas, only to do a U-turn after they had banked the first tranche of Russian aid money given as a reward.
Russia’s CSTO partners could counter that Moscow shouldn’t complain – because it broke ranks first. They claim they were not consulted before Russia agreed to open a new air-and-land transit hub in Ulyanovsk for US forces going in and out of Afghanistan.
How long the Uzbekistan–US rapprochement will last is anyone’s guess. The authoritarian Karimov is not the ideal partner for a democracy that cares about its image and seeks to champion human rights around the world. That’s perhaps why the other CSTO members are hesitating to sanction Karimov: they suspect that sooner or later, Uzbekistan will return to the fold.