Following the death of Uzbekistan’s long-time leader, Islam Karimov, the small Central Eurasian state is facing a crisis of government. For the past quarter of a century, the personality of Islam Karimov dominated Uzbek politics. Many young Uzbeks, who grew up being tested on “their knowledge of books authored by [the] President” have never known any political paradigm other than Karimov’s regime. While it is likely an anointed successor will emerge, such as the interim ruler Nigmatilla Yuldashev or current Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the unsettling possibility of a power vacuum exists. Given the high costs of intervention and relatively low strategic payoff, the United States should prioritize stability in Uzbekistan over democratization if a power vacuum arises.
The possibility of a power vacuum in Uzbekistan is harrowing because it would create a fertile environment for terrorist groups to gain footing in the country. Despite last year’s steady rate of 8% GDP growth, a decrease in political stability could cause foreign investments to drop, triggering domestic economic contractions. Shrinking economic opportunity could in turn stimulate feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement. Actions by the Karimov government and the United States curtailed the potency of militants since the 2004 Embassy bombings, but the absence of a central administration with U.S. support could create an opportunity for groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or al-Qaeda to regain a foothold. The United States should work to legitimize the new Uzbek government to mitigate the risk of a resurgent extremist presence in the Muslim majority country historically challenged by terrorist activity.
Another danger of a political vacuum is the possibility that the resultant instability and fight for dominance will become lethal for local civilian populations. If no dominant faction emerges, the possibility for the situation to devolve into violence is high. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, under a temporary caretaker government following the 2010 April Revolution, ethnic violence broke out between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, leading to 426 deaths and a large flow of refugees. The demographics of Uzbekistan are similar to Kyrgyzstan’s at the time of the riots, and the tensions between Uzbeks and the Russian, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh minorities could lead to violence or further political upheaval.
The potential dangers of an unstable Uzbekistan are great enough that both Russia and China could be motivated to work with the United States to manage the transition. For Vladimir Putin, the sizeable population of Russian speakers in Uzbekistan motivates Russian involvement. Putin has repeatedly displayed his commitment to the protection of what he believes are threatened Russian diaspora communities and would likely support actions that mitigate risks to Russian Uzbeks. China has both economic and security reasons to guide Uzbekistan’s transition. It is already developing Central Eurasian natural gas infrastructure to feed its energy needs and an unstable Uzbekistan could disrupt the process. China committed security forces to prevent terrorist groups from gaining a foothold in its northwest borderlands where the groups might find sympathy in the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, who have proven disruptive for China. Further instability in Uzbekistan could make Chinese security forces’ task even more difficult.
The United States should work with Russia and China to prevent any political instability or growth of terrorist activity near Afghanistan. With the amount of blood and treasure the United States invested in Afghanistan, burdening the government in Kabul with threats from extremist groups would be disastrous. Given Uzbekistan’s current conditions, this coalition of major powers should work to provide stability as Uzbekistan undergoes political transition. As pursuing democracy would likely alienate the Russians and Chinese, the United States should prioritize concerns of security over those of democratic transition to avoid the deterioration of the security situation in Uzbekistan.
There are several ways for the United States to encourage stability in Uzbekistan during the transition of power. When a new leader emerges, his or her credibility can be supported by facilitating regular diplomatic operations with the United States. Secretary Kerry, along with a U.S. delegation should visit the capital, Tashkent, to discuss matters of trade and security. While experts believe authoritarianism prevented potential radical activity in the country, the United States will share security interests with the new Uzbek administration, regardless of government type. Shoring up civil institutions, such as the police and antiterrorism units, could prove a bulwark against the threat of extremist forces. Legitimacy could also be conveyed through the United Nations by pursuing joint resolutions with Uzbekistan over shared interests. Participation in the international community will give the new government needed clout and paths to cooperation.
It is not always in U.S. interests to actively devote more resources to the expansion of democratic norms. The United States should not overplay the death of Karimov as a chance for improved human rights in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is less strategically important than it was during the height of Operation Enduring Freedom, and attempting to gain influence in the country now would be risky. The United States ended its formal operations in Afghanistan and is adopting its lauded pivot to Asia. Both the Russians and the Chinese are likely to oppose democratic or human rights operations, as the former considers Uzbekistan in its political sphere and the latter considers it part of its economic sphere. This does not mean that the United States should abandon its efforts for greater democratization and human rights expansion with assistance from the international community, but taking direct action to undermine political elements opposed to democratization in Uzbekistan entails unpredictable risks.
The United States must promote stability in Uzbekistan by working with Russia and China rather than promoting democracy. The decision to forgo aggressive democracy promotion in Uzbekistan will trigger criticism if it is done for fear of provoking the Russians and Chinese. Explaining this decision requires clearly statements that the United States seeks to build stability in Uzbekistan but cannot commit enough resources to facilitate a democratic transition. President Obama has referenced the dangers of overstretching U.S. resources. With today’s U.S. military and political commitments, a policy to deliberately pursue the liberalization of Uzbekistan is not strategically valuable enough to merit meddling in Central Eurasian affairs. The possibility of creating more diplomatic difficulties with China and Russia or inadvertently delaying the creation of a government to fill the power vacuum is too great. Instead, the United States must focus on maintaining stability in Uzbekistan, even if it means cooperating with another tyrant and delaying the global advancement of liberal democracy.
First published in International Affairs Review at the George Washington University. Original posting can be found here.