Thursday, April 22, 2010

Uzbekistan Spooked by Kyrgyz Unrest

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has expressed solidarity with Russia, setting aside disputes that have strained relations between the two to stress shared concern about instability in Kyrgyzstan. Analysts say unrest in Kyrgyzstan could threaten Karimov’s regime, Alexander Osipovich writes for EurasiaNet.

By Alexander Osipovich in Moscow for EurasiaNet

"Our viewpoints coincided completely," Karimov said after talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during his first visit to Russia in more than two years. "What is going on today in Kyrgyzstan is in nobody’s interests -- and above all, it is not in the interests of countries bordering Kyrgyzstan -- and there is a fairly serious risk that these processes will acquire a permanent character."

Speaking at the start of his talks with Karimov, Medvedev said: "Clearly, both Russia and Uzbekistan are interested in having the authorities in Kyrgyzstan be strong and having the people of Kyrgyzstan develop and prosper."

The provisional government in Kyrgyzstan, which swept to power April 7 amid the collapse of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration, has so far been unable to assert full control over the country. A pogrom in a Bishkek suburb on April 19 that left five dead underscored the new leadership’s lack of control over developments.

If the Kyrgyz unrest spins out of control, it could undermine Karimov, the 72-year-old strongman who has ruled Uzbekistan for the past two decades, analysts said.

Uzbekistan and Russia "are identically interested in avoiding the worst-case scenario in Kyrgyzstan," said Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia department at the Institute of CIS Countries in Moscow.

Instability in southern Kyrgyzstan, where supporters of Bakiyev have challenged the provisional government, could easily spill across the porous border into Uzbekistan, Grozin said. The analyst noted that the last popular uprising that ousted a president of Kyrgyzstan -- the Tulip Revolution of 2005 -- was followed just weeks later by mass protests in Andijan, Uzbekistan, the biggest show of opposition to Karimov’s rule during his two decades in power. That protest was violently suppressed by Uzbek authorities with a large loss of life.

Karimov’s regime is also worried about the riots that have roiled Bishkek in recent days. The unrest is fuelled mainly by poverty and could set a precedent for Uzbekistan, said Ana Jelenkovic, a London-based analyst for the Eurasia Group consulting firm. "These are not anti-government protests: they stem from frustration with poverty, the state of the economy and quality of living. All of those issues exist (and are worse) in Uzbekistan than in Kyrgyzstan," Jelenkovic said.

Though Karimov’s security forces would likely deal swiftly and more resolutely with any similar uprisings in Uzbekistan, "the concern is real and certainly it is in Karimov’s interests to align with Russia on this," she added.

Karimov’s visit to Moscow, which also included talks with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has been widely seen as an effort to mend strained relations between Russia and Uzbekistan.

Last summer, Karimov boycotted a summit in Moscow of the Collective Treaty Security Organization and refused to support the creation of a CSTO rapid-reaction force, a pet project of the Kremlin as it seeks to build up the CSTO -- a loose grouping of former Soviet republics -- into an alliance that can serve as a Russian-dominated counterweight to NATO. Karimov’s boycott came after Uzbekistan fiercely objected to Russian plans to establish a new military base in southern Kyrgyzstan.

The Uzbek government has raised eyebrows in Moscow by flirting with the United States in recent months. Tashkent has hosted a series of visits by top US generals and diplomats, believed to be aimed at securing greater cooperation on Afghanistan. Uzbek authorities also angered Russia by demolishing a Soviet-era war monument in Tashkent in November, a move that led pro-Kremlin youth groups to protest outside the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow.

Analysts cautioned against reading too much into Karimov’s shift to a more pro-Moscow stance, calling it a step in Uzbekistan’s long-standing policy of playing Russia, the United States and China off against each other.

"The pendulum swung too far to the West, and now Karimov has returned to the tactic of being closer to Russia. At least until the next readjustment, he will show a little more warmth to Moscow, and a little less of the whole-hearted embrace of the West," Grozin said. "The situation in Kyrgyzstan has brought a certain correction to Karimov’s policies."

Alexander Osipovich is a Moscow-based writer who specializes in regional affairs.

Editor's note:

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