With Islam Karimov finally, finally dead, whither Uzbekistan, the hinge of Central Asia? I don’t know, but people smarter than me might.
There’s always been something romantic about Uzbekistan, the most populous nation in one of the most unknown regions in the world, has always had a romantic feel to it, if you were of a certain bent. When it became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed like it came forth out of the mist of some dreamy history book. Ancient cities like Samarkand and Bukhara were real again, instead of Silk Road myths.
Or maybe that was just me, and the age I was. But still, thinking of those incredibly old and once extremely important cities was thrilling. The lived reality of their current state, especially after brutal Soviet repression, and the modern state of Uzbekistan, run by Islam Karimov, the old Stalinist, was completely different. It was a grey and cruel nation headed by an unshakable tyrant, who death now just finally took. It roiled with discontent, and was, to those paying attention, one of the forerunners of the modern era. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fought guerilla war in-country and in Afghanistan.
In a wierd way, it was once again at the center of things, and still is. There is a certain inexorable logic to geography. Though it doesn’t border Russia or China, it is at the center of both their designs for Central Asia. It’s population and centrality make it impossible to ignore. It is also is key to Afghanistan, which is why the US buddied up with a dictator for so long.
With Karimov dead after 27 years of grim authority, and with a new President chosen after the sturm und drang of official mourning, what happens next? I can’t even fathom, but will point you toward people who can. At Foreign Policy, Reid Standish sums up the challenges facing the new President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev:
Yet China remains the largest economic player Central Asia and has heavily invested in infrastructure across the region to promote its “One Belt, One Road” project, a 21st-century version of the Silk Road that’s intended to connect China to Europe through the Central Asian countries. But while Beijing is an important economic force, it has so far largely refrained from playing a larger political or security role in the region. The United States, meanwhile, has significantly scaled back its footprint in Central Asia following the drawdown of operations in Afghanistan and the closure of U.S. air bases in Uzbekistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Moscow, in contrast, has pushed to solidify its influence in Central Asia through regional organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military bloc, of which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are members, and the Eurasian Economic Union, which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have joined. Uzbekistan has so far resisted membership in these organizations, despite Putin’s entreaties, and whether Mirziyoyev opts for closer ties with Russia will have a major effect on Uzbekistan’s future.
(Of course, that’s just foreign policy challenges. He also has the challenge of being the first new leader after nearly three decades of autocratic and repressive rule, to a poor country that has a roiling internal war.)
Of course, for any Central Asia analysis, you should always find whatever Ahmed Rashid is writing. Luckily, he has an essay in the Finanical Times.
And, if you want background, and really insightful pieces on Central Asia (and the Caucasus), I’ve always found that the bluntly-named Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst does great work. It’s biweekly, so it doesn’t have comment on Karimov’s death and it’s aftermath yet, but there is always great stuff here.
The Stans are one of those regions that force you to realize the interconnectedness of the world and the weight of geography. It’s where China blends into Russia (starting in the Uigher regions), where Afghanistan reaches toward the Europe. It mocks maps, and shows that our modern borders have little resonance with historic reality. These countries, SSRs, have as their sole basis Soviet mapmaking and Stalin’s obsession with ethnicity. It’ll be interesting to see how it continues its post-Soviet transitions in a time where the modern state system is facing unsolveable challenges.