Uzbek foreign policy unlikely to change greatly
Uzbekistan is in the process of implementing a presidential succession plan, following the death of the country's long-time leader, Islam Karimov, announced on September 2nd. During more than a quarter of a century in power, Mr Karimov was largely successful at balancing the competing influences of Russia, China and the US. The prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was appointed as acting president on September 8th, and is almost certain to become the head of state following a presidential election to be held on December 4th. Mr Mirziyoyev has said that Uzbekistan has no plans to join military or economic blocs, and that he will continue with the policies of his predecessor.
Of the three major powers, Russia was the first to try to forge a relationship with the new leadership in place following Mr Karimov's death. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, did not attend Mr Karimov's funeral on September 3rd owing to his attendance at the G20 summit in China. However, on September 6th he visited Uzbekistan to pay his respects at Mr Karimov's grave and to hold talks with the Uzbek leadership. The main goal of Mr Putin's visit was clearly to establish a relationship with the new Uzbek leadership as a means of supporting Russia's geopolitical and economic interests in Uzbekistan. Mr Putin stressed that Russia hopes for stability in Uzbekistan and continuity in Russian-Uzbek relations. More probably, however, Mr Putin is seeking a closer partnership with Uzbekistan than was possible under Mr Karimov, who kept Russia at arm's length owing to his suspicion of Russia's regional integration projects and of its hegemonic plans.
Mr Mirziyoyev has a reputation as being pro-Russian, although there is no hard evidence to suggest that he will look more favourably towards Russian interests than did Mr Karimov. Mr Mirziyoyev offered Mr Putin a warm welcome that went beyond the demands of protocol, thanking him for lending Uzbekistan "the shoulder of a true friend" and pledging to continue Uzbekistan's "strategic partnership" with Russia. In a speech to parliament on September 8th Mr Mirziyoyev singled out maintaining good relations with Russia as a foreign policy priority. However, he also mentioned the US, China and Europe as priority partners, and told parliament that Uzbekistan would continue to reject membership of military, economic and political blocs. This is in line with our view that Uzbekistan is unlikely now to join any of the Russian-led regional integration bodies that it shunned under Mr Karimov, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO, from which Uzbekistan withdrew in 2012) or the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU, which it has never professed any intention of joining). Mr Mirziyoyev also said that Uzbekistan would not allow foreign military bases on its territory, under a doctrine adopted in 2012. Uzbek suspicions of Russia's intentions have been heightened by Russia's efforts since February 2014 to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, and this is likely to remain so under the new Uzbek leadership. However, there may be room for incremental improvements in Russian-Uzbek relations.
On September 6th Daniel Rosenblum, the US deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Central Asia, visited Uzbekistan on a trip designed, he said, to demonstrate the US administration's "continued commitment to our partnership". Mr Rosenblum held talks with Abdulaziz Kamilov, the minister of foreign affairs, but did not meet Mr Mirziyoyev. The US enjoys limited leverage in Uzbek political circles, and is likely to continue to do so in the post-Karimov era. Relations were marred earlier in the current century by US criticism of Uzbekistan's human rights record, and in 2005 the Uzbek government expelled the US military from an airbase following US criticism of the killing a large number of protesters in the town of Andijan. In recent years, however, the US administration has refrained from criticising Uzbekistan publicly, and this is unlikely to change owing to the need to develop good relations with the new leadership to ensure Uzbekistan's continued co-operation over security issues. Although Uzbekistan will see this in its interests too, a substantive US-Uzbek rapprochement is unlikely to be a priority for either side.
We expect China also to pursue a continuation of the status quo in its ties with Uzbekistan, and it is not likely to seek a larger political or security presence there in the short term. China's main regional goal is to support its economic power, with the priority in Uzbekistan's case to assure continued gas exports to China. China may push for greater Uzbek commitment to its "One Belt, One Road" regional integration project, but we believe that Uzbekistan will still try to stand aloof from such efforts for fear of becoming too beholden to external economic pressure from a single source.
Mr Karimov sometimes took a confrontational approach to relations with two of its smaller Central Asian neighbours, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, often because of frictions over land and water resources, but also because of personal enmity between the leaders. Mr Karimov's death could offer scope for improvements in these relationships, and in his speech to parliament on September 8th
Mr Mirziyoyev suggested that this was possible.
However, there are two reasons why a significant improvement in Uzbekistan's relations with the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan is unlikely. First, frictions over use of regional resources remain after Mr Karimov's death and would take major concessions on both sides to resolve, which so far look unlikely. A recurrent area of contention is water resources. Whereas the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan—which lie upstream on Central Asia's main waterways—want to harness the rivers for hydropower projects, Uzbekistan contends that their hydropower projects could pose a risk to its commercially important cotton crop. There have also been frequent tensions over border issues and territorial control. These have been highlighted again in 2016, as Uzbekistan has engaged in a stand-off with the Kyrgyz authorities over control of the disputed Ungar-Too Mountain in the Fergana Valley. The Uzbek authorities have used the stand-off to pressure the Kyrgyz Republic to remove checkpoints controlling access to the Kasan-Sai Reservoir, which lies inside Kyrgyz territory but is claimed by Uzbekistan.
Second, Uzbekistan's new leader is unlikely to give ground in disputes with Central Asian neighbours over territory and resources, for fear of being perceived as weak by competing domestic political factions and the population, or as a pushover by regional and international actors. The new leader may therefore see the adoption of a hard line with neighbours as a means of consolidating his standing at home. If, as expected, Mr Mirziyoyev formally becomes president in December, he may also be strongly tempted to pursue a hawkish regional policy.
Ties with Kazakhstan could strengthen
There is a greater prospect for improvement in Uzbekistan's relations with Kazakhstan, since the two countries—as large downstream energy producers with a shared desire to ensure access to water resources—have considerable common interests. Personal rivalries between Mr Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's president, may have prevented a close partnership from developing. However, Mr Nazarbayev has already taken steps to establish relations with the new Uzbek leadership. On September 12th he visited Uzbekistan to pay his respects at Mr Karimov's grave and to meet Mr Mirziyoyev. The Kazakh-Uzbek relationship may improve if the two countries use their common ground to assert shared interests, and perhaps even to promote better integration and co-operation within Central Asia as a whole. Despite the similarities of Uzbekistan with Turkmenistan— both are gas producing autocracies—their positions as competitive energy suppliers to China and their isolationist foreign policies will probably keep relations distant.