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US can help Uzbekistan build resilience against Russia & China

Olivier Douliery/Pool Photo via AP
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference at the Hyatt Regency in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Wednesday, March 1, 2023.

Between Russia’s war in Ukraine and the strategic competition with China — and both heating up — Central Asia is now a region more important than ever for U.S. national and international security interests. While we are paying a lot of attention to China in the Indo-Pacific basin, we are almost totally neglecting its Eurasian dimension. Meanwhile, Beijing is taking advantage of a Russia weakened by war and sanctions in its efforts to become the dominant power in Central Asia.

Since the Chinese modus operandi is economic, it behooves us to help regional nations with political and economic resilience, particularly Uzbekistan. It was only six years ago that Tashkent began to shed a quarter of a century of isolationism following 115 years of Russian colonial rule.  

The Uzbekistanis have made significant strides since late 2016, when current president Shavkat Mirziyoyev succeeded his predecessor Islam Karimov, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since before its independence from the Soviet Union. Mirziyoyev launched a major reform initiative seeking to connect his country with the global community. Towards this end, his government has been pursuing a structural economic modernization agenda.

It’s hard though for Uzbekistan — a double landlocked country — to attract international investments. As the region’s most populous nation, it sorely needs them. The geo-economic fallout from the western-led global sanctions on Russia triggered by the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine greatly complicate matters for the country’s efforts towards social development. Corruption is a major problem that Tashkent is trying to tackle, but it can’t do it alone.

In 2018, Mirziyoyev unveiled a roadmap for reform with a focus on five main areas. These include: macroeconomic stability; accelerating the transition towards a market economy; strengthening social protection and citizen services; the role of the government as an enabler of the private sector; and environmental sustainability. The scope and pace of economic transformation has been so significant that The Economist in 2019 declared Uzbekistan the country of the year.

Convincing potential investors to do business in the country, however, will be terribly difficult if advancing the rule of law does not succeed. These domestic changes are taking place amid critical challenges on the foreign policy front. It is having to walk a fine line between former liege Russia and the West in the wake of the Ukraine war, while trying to manage a post-American and Talibanized Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan has been in compliance with international sanctions against the Kremlin. Tashkent’s goal is to protect itself from secondary sanctions, which are crucial in its efforts to garner investments. The case of the Uzbek-Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov who was slapped with sanctions exemplifies this dilemma. Tashkent has been lobbying for the removal of the sanctions against him, which restricts Usmanov’s ability to invest in the country of his birth.

While it deals with the winds blowing from the north, Uzbekistan cannot take its eye off the situation on its southern flank created by U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Tashkent became  vulnerable to the strategic vacuum in a Taliban-run Afghanistan. The country has been playing a lead regional role in trying to manage the jihadist regime, which serves U.S. interests in both Central  and South Asia. That said, growing infighting among the Taliban is creating an enabling environment for the transnational jihadist agenda of ISKP, which greatly increases the risk of a militant spillover into Central Asia.

Trying to keep a distance from the Russians while insulating itself from the Taliban is critical for Uzbekistan’s imperative to demonstrate that it is a safe place to do business. There are limits, however, to what Tashkent can do to change its external realities. But there are things it can do on the home front.

One of the principal domestic challenges is the legacy of Mirziyoyev’s predecessor. In particular, the former president’s daughter Gulnara Karimova, nicknamed Googoosha, and her financial misdeeds greatly undermined the reputation of the country. For 20-some odd years she was the country’s glamor girl, a diplomat, and a wealthy businesswoman, dabbling in pop singing and corruption.

A falling out with her father a couple of years before his death landed her in jail for theft of public funds. Another 10-year sentence was added in 2020. Despite the state’s efforts to prosecute her, attracting foreign investments remains hard. Washington can help repatriate funds associated with her and thus help Tashkent establish a precedent that corrupt elites cannot get away with their loot. Such an outcome would go a long way in boosting investor confidence.

Russia and China both have the geographic advantage over the United States in Central Asia — but Washington has a strategic edge over both in that it can definitely help build up capacity and resilience of states like Uzbekistan so they can resist pressures from Beijing and Moscow. This can be done by taking steps to support and guide the reform process that Tashkent has embarked upon. Measures that can strengthen the rule of law and eradicate corruption are not just critical but also essential pre-requisites for economic development, especially for post-Soviet states in Eurasia.

Kamran Bokhari, PhD, is senior director of the Eurasia Security and Prosperity portfolio at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington, D.C. He is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. Bokhari has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on Twitter @KamranBokhari

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan Taliban Central Asia Central Asian trade China Corruption Geopolitics Great power competition International development Russia sanctions Russian sanctions Russian war in Ukraine sanctions on russia Shavkat Mirziyoyev Tashkent Uzbekistan

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