MOSCOW–Russia moved to mend ties with Uzbekistan, the most populous Central Asian state, in an apparent bid to give its fading influence in the region the much needed boost. Russian efforts took place ahead of the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to be held in Tashkent later this year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Uzbek President Islam Karimov attend a meeting at Kuksaroy residence in Tashkent
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Uzbek President Islam Karimov attend a meeting in Tashkent in this file photo

Moscow offered to Tashkent some economic carrots. Earlier this month, Russia wrote off Uzbekistan’s $865 million debt. Moscow’s decision put an end to a long saga of bilateral financial claims and counter-claims, some dating back to early 1990s.

Russia also moved to strengthen energy ties with Uzbekistan. Russia’s natural gas giant Gazprom signed a contract with Uzbekistan energy monopoly, UzbekNefteGaz, to purchase 4 billion cubic meters (140 billion cubic feet) of natural gas from Uzbekistan in 2016. Earlier this year, Gazprom discontinued its gas supply contract with Central Asia’s major gas supplier, Turkmenistan.

Both Moscow and Tashkent shared political pledges by the SCO that currently includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. At a meeting of the Security Council secretaries of the SCO member-states in Tashkent on April 14, officials advocated adoption of the UN convention on countering international terrorism.

The statement, adopted at the meeting, said that international and regional security remained under threat from terrorism and the continued armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The SCO officials stated that Afghanistan’s settlement had a vital importance for regional stability. They also pledged to join forces to combat illegal drugs.

The next SCO summit is due in Tashkent on June 23-24, 2016, and Uzbekistan currently holds the SCO’s rotating presidency.

Some participants also used the SCO meeting in Tashkent on April 14 to solve bilateral disputes. Security Council secretaries of Kyrgyzstan, Temir Dzumakadyrov, and Uzbekistan, Viktor Makhmudov, had a separate meeting in Tashkent on April 14. They discussed measures to solve differences between the two neighboring nations.

There were increased tensions between Bishkek and Tashkent after Uzbekistan stationed troops and armored personnel carriers in disputed border area of Chalasart on March 18.

In response, Kyrgyzstan virtually closed the border. In late March, Kyrgyzstan also sought assistance from Russia-led regional security grouping, CSTO.

Russia-led post-Soviet security alliance, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This grouping has overlapping membership with the SCO. However, once a founding member of the CSTO, Uzbekistan has been reluctant to forge stronger security ties with its Central Asian neighbors and Russia.

On March 26, Uzbekistan agreed to withdraw its troops but the country’s relations with Kyrgyzstan remained strained. Therefore, the SCO did not manage to escape some internal feuds.

The SCO was formally created on June 15, 2001 in Shanghai. From 2004, the SCO had a secretariat in Beijing and a Regional Anti-Terrorist Force in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.

On July 10, 2015, the summit meeting in Ufa, Russia, accepted accession of India and Pakistan into the SCO. For the first time in its 15-year history, the SCO approved its enlargement. Belarus status was raised from a dialogue partner to an observer nation, while traditional foes, Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as Cambodia and Nepal became SCO’s dialogue partners.

Last year, the SCO also approved development blueprint till 2025 that prioritizes regional stability and conflict resolution, as well as Cooperation Program to Counter Terrorism and Separatism in 2016-2018 that envisages measures to counter the Islamic State threat in Afghanistan. However, the grouping insisted the SCO would not be transformed into a military bloc. In recent years, the SCO’s pledges to counter militant radicalism in Central Asia have entailed not too many practical results.

Russian efforts to improve ties with Uzbekistan can indicate Moscow’s intention to pay more attention to Central Asian affairs. However, it is far from certain whether Russia could overcome Uzbekistan’s traditional reluctance to forge stronger security ties with other former Soviet states.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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