Uzbek President-elect Shavkat Mirziyoyev (L) receives certificate of election from the Central election committee Mirza-Ulugbek Abdusalomov, during his inauguration ceremony at the parliament in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on December 14, 2016
After the death of Karimov, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has produced a new literature these days in some expert circles which analyzes the change and reform of past trends of Tashkent, and hopes to see a convergent environment created in the Central Asia in the future. Clearly, this happens if just this issue is focused upon; without analyzing the impact of past and future events. In contrast to the hope to change some of past stressful trends, another hypothesis can be suggested: these reforms are temporary, and the purpose of the policy of tolerance regarding the regional states is to pass through the difficult stage of transition to the post-Karimov period.
The systematic selection of Mirziyoyev as the acting president, the upcoming elections and Uzbekistan’s new leadership efforts to reduce external sensitivity as well as Tashkent’s more flexibility toward regional stressful issues are considered a trilogy used by Uzbekistan to pass through the critical period of transition. This trilogy can be analyzed to find the reasons why Tashkent’s new behaviors are claimed to be expediential.
Mirziyoyev- Karimov’s Similar Thought
A crisis desired by many after the death of President Islam Karimov has not come true even after more than two months, as the succession of the person in question - Mirziyoyev - was well managed. During this time, not only did any internal rebellion take place by the potential opposition, but also armed groups and forces that occasionally create some security problem for the country did not react. In fact, internal and external oppositions both did not react. This trend, based on a macro view, suggests that the new management will follow the past strategies as well, and there will be no war and crisis for the new leadership, so others cannot achieve their political-structural goals.
In the early days that conflicting news were announced about Karimov’s death, it became clear that Tashkent’s political structure has also taken necessary measures for this sensitive issue. The consensus formed in favor of Shavkat Mirziyoyev in those days was not a decision made in just one week. Definitely this issue has been discussed since years ago by adding/ removing some staff and intellectual ideology to the state’s management system. This decision became apparent immediately after the death of Karimov. Why and how this consensus was achieved among the elites close to power is a subject that needs more room to study, but this consensus necessarily shows that the senior officials of Tashkent have properly followed a programmed and measured plan.
On the other hand, the people of Uzbekistan, unlike some claims mainly proposed by the media, were relatively satisfied with Islam Karimov due his security-building measures. The majority of people in Uzbekistan were also satisfied with the stability in the economic approaches, despite the financial and monetary crises in the region.
The field survey carried out on people’s conditions across the country, from all aspects, also indicates a considerable amount of people’s safety and relative welfare, and only that part of the population associated with the highly religious and extremist groups were more or less generally discontent with how they were treated.
At the same time, Mirziyoyev, being a Prime Minister of Uzbekistan for more than a decade and knowing the framework of the tasks set for him, is well familiar with the domestic conditions. Within the fundamental reform of the constitution done in the winter of 2015 that turned the country into a semi-parliamentary system, he has been, according to the ruling party’s view that won a majority of votes, a decision-maker during Karimov and will remain so. So from this perspective, the seemingly big change in Uzbekistan’s current foreign policy may not be credible.
Upcoming elections and Uzbekistan’s new leadership endeavors to reduce external sensitivity
But the question raised here is that why a conciliatory approach is taken, despite claiming that the former strategy will be continued in the new period. The answer to this question is: the upcoming presidential elections and the need to reduce the issues that cause sensitivity for the regional and global public opinion in the critical period of transition.
The election, even in the most democratic states of the world, has been challenging itself. Uzbekistan, becoming one of the options for the influence and mobility of radical movements in recent years, is strategically located in the Greater Khorassan plan of the ISIS. Occasional movements of the “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan” either in paying allegiance to the ISIS, or in getting involved in clashes in northern Afghanistan along with mainly external political oppositions, show that this Movement is certainly looking forward to getting a chance in the political unrest, and taking advantage of the turmoil. The months leading to elections in many states of the world usually provide the opportunity for all types of opposition groups to control over the government, relative to its strong or weak performance, or create crisis.
Uzbekistan, passing through the transition period, and facing serious opposition in its neighboring states on the eve of elections, assumes converging and partially eliminating misunderstandings with neighboring states are expediential policies letting her pass safely through this critical stage. Therefore, she not only invites and welcomes the cooperation with the global and regional states, but also manages the surrounding environment in a way that makes the international community less sensitive to the potential undesired events in the context of elections. This conciliatory approach, though temporary according to the hypothesis suggested here, will face some change based on Tashkent’s macro policies and their continuation after the elections and the stabilized situation and formal transition of power to Mirziyoyev.
Tashkent’s flexibility toward regional stressful issues
The issue occupying the minds of many experts these days is that why Uzbekistan did not follow her traditional positions regarding the construction of the Rogun Dam by Tajikistan. The question raised here is that the government in Tashkent, willing to open an inevitable war against Dushanbe until a few years ago in case of Tajikistan’s continued construction of the Rogun Dam, how is it now that she is silent to Emomali Rahmon’s promotional show riding a bulldozer, and announcing the finalized decision to build the Rogun Dam?
In addition to this silence of convenience, even these days the unprecedented subject of Dushanbe-Tashkent direct flights is discussed which has a particular meaning as the desired level of cooperation in the norm of international relations. Of course, the fact that some border disputes between the two always hostile states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are to be resolved should also be added to these events. Clearly, these cases have so far been only theoretically discussed, and there is still a long way to go to operationalize these agreements, but the new strategy of Tashkent’s foreign policy in the region tells us a new story. Outside the territory of Central Asia, even Russia, Iran, the European Union and the US have also found hope to improve relations with Tashkent, and they have so far talked about ways to increase their interactions.
In response to this uncertainty, according to the hypothesis proposed here, the expediential nature of the change in the macro approaches of Uzbekistan in cooperating with the regional states and the resolution of issues in their favor are both due to the issue of transition of power to a new period. Regarding the Rogun Dam, considered one of the long-lasting claims of both states at the regional level, it is unnecessary for Uzbekistan to show a negative reaction due to reasons like the approach of winter and no cultivation of cotton, and at the moment Tashkent prefers to be silent in this regard. In other cases of disagreements, especially border disputes, Tashkent will propose her positive new projects and approach until the political situation in Uzbekistan is relatively stabilized, and will wait for her counterparties’ response. In this case, at least she can achieve her goal from one perspective: stabilizing the transition period of power to Mirziyoyev.
Mohammad Alavizadeh, an analyst of Central Asia Affairs, is the fellow at Research Institute of Eastern Iran
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