There can be no two opinions that Russian President Vladimir Putin will run into many an obstacle as he advances the Eurasian Union project. But Putin relishes meeting challenges and often tackles them even without their coming to him. The stopover in Tashkent last week almost got submerged in the hurlyburly of Putin’s state visit to China and the SCO summit meeting in Beijing. It was a short visit of a few hours but Putin made an important statement making Tashkent his first destination in Central Asia after returning to the Kremlin.
Uzbekistan will be a tough nut to crack in Moscow’s efforts to get the Eurasia Union project going. Without Uzbek participation, the project’s credibility may suffer. Its strategic location bordering Afghanistan, its big population base and its long traditions of statecraft, its settled society (when much of the region was steeped in nomadic culture), Ferghana Valley, it being the cradle of Islamic culture in the region — all these make Uzbekistan a valuable member of the Eurasia Union.
From all accounts, Putin’s visit to Tashkent was a grand success, especially the signing of the MOU committing Uzbekistan to get on board the CIS free-trade zone agreement within this year. The sense of elation on the Russian side is palpable
But things are never so easy with Tashkent. Its sturdy independence can spring nasty surprises and even in the Uzbek version of the outcome of Putin’s visit, there was a twist in the tale — the official news agency not forgetting to quote
a (state-sponsored) political scientist to convey a message that all the “evidence of closer relations between Russia and Uzbekistan… is unlikely to indicate a drastic development in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy towards Russia, moreover, to the detriment of ties with the USA.”
The news agency then goes on to add: “The political scientist did not risk forecasting how Uzbekistan’s relations with the West and Russia would develop after the NATO force’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. He thinks that Uzbekistan’s foreign policy changes unpredictably because of a very unsteady geopolitical situation in Central Asia. Tolipov stressed that despite great achievements, including military ones, in Afghanistan, the main objective, which is to eliminate the hotbed of terrorism, has not been achieved. The foreign military forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan may increase geopolitical interests in the country and destabilise the situation in Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries.”
Got it? Tashkent is hedging. Indeed, this is going to create headaches for the SCO as well, as it seeks a bigger role in Afghanistan
. Will Tashkent welcome an assertive SCO in Afghanistan? Uzbekistan is a great solo player but makes poor team players. Besides, it has big ambitions as a regional power and would feel awkward holding the SCO banner in Afghanistan. Despite the mayhem of the Mujahideen rule in Kabul in the early 1990s, an Uzbek historian once proposed a Uzbek-Afghan-Pakistan confederation — under Tashkent’s leadership, of course.
What is Tashkent’s grouse? Simply put, it is currently enforcing an economic blockade of Tajikistan following the tiff over water-sharing. The Tashkent-Dushanbe equations have always been difficult but a nadir has been reached and some say the Uzbek Big Brother won’t mind a ‘regime change’ in Tajikistan. So, even under the SCO banner, Tashkent wouldn’t brook dealings with Dushanbe — not even in a major military exercise that is linked to the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan.