Central Asian States
Chief among Uzbekistan's foreign policy challenges is establishing relations with the other Central Asian states, which at the beginning of the 1990s still were simply neighboring administrative units in the same country. The ties that emerged between Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian states in the first years of independence are a combination of competition and cooperation.
Because they have similar economic structures defined by a focus on raw material extraction and cotton and by the need to divide scarce resources such as water among them, the inherent competition among them contains the potential for enormous strife. This condition was emphasized, for example, in May 1993, when Uzbekistan halted the flow of natural gas to Kyrgyzstan in response to that country's introduction of a new currency.
The potential for strife is exacerbated by the perception of the other Central Asian states that Uzbekistan seeks to play a dominant role in the region. As the only Central Asian state bordering on all the others, Uzbekistan is well placed geographically to become the dominant power in the region. And Uzbekistan has done little to contradict the notion that it has historically based claims on the other Central Asian states: as the historical center of the Quqon and Bukhoro khanates, for example, Uzbekistan believes that it can claim parts of Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakstan. Uzbekistan's large and relatively homogeneous population provides it a distinct advantage in exerting control over other republics. Uzbeks also constitute a significant percentage of the populations of the other Central Asian states. For example, roughly one-fourth of Tajikistan's population is Uzbek, and large numbers of Uzbeks populate southern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakstan. And Uzbekistan's active role in aiding the communist government of Imomali Rahmonov to defeat its opposition in the long-standing civil war in Tajikistan has demonstrated that it is well prepared to use its own armed forces--which are the best armed in Central Asia--to promote its own strategic interests (see The Armed Forces, this ch.). The government of Uzbekistan already has declared its right to intervene to protect Uzbeks living outside its borders.
At the same time, however, economic and political exigencies have also required close cooperation between Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian states. The near collapse of their respective economies and the need to reduce their economic dependence on Russia have also encouraged ties among the Central Asian republics, including Uzbekistan. Isolated from Moscow in some ways and manipulated by Moscow in others, Uzbekistan has found it especially advantageous to enhance relations with Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. In January 1994, following their formal departure from the ruble zone in November 1993, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan agreed to create their own economic zone to allow for free circulation of goods, services, and capital within the two republics and to coordinate policies on credit and finance, budgets, taxes, customs duties, and currency until the year 2000. Although many other former republics had made similar statements of intent, this marked the first firm economic agreement between two former republics within the CIS.
Since its signing, this agreement has expanded its coverage for the two charter nations and by the addition of a third signatory, Kyrgyzstan. In April 1994, the agreement was extended among all three former republics to abolish all customs controls; and in July 1994, the leaders of the three states met in Almaty to agree to a program of greater economic integration in what they have identified as their "Unified Economic Space." This agreement produced the first steps toward a modicum of institutional change, such as the creation of a Central Asian Bank and an interstate council to formalize bilateral ties. It also marked a commitment for further expansion of direct ties.
Renewed cooperation between Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian states also has been evidenced in areas such as joint efforts to address the Aral Sea problem. For some time even before the breakup of the Soviet Union, conferences and declarations by leaders in Central Asia had called for more cooperation among the five Central Asian republics to resolve the problem of the Aral Sea and regional use of water resources. In December 1992, with World Bank (see Glossary) support, President Karimov took the lead in proposing the creation of a strong, unified interstate organization to resolve the problems of the Aral Sea. The heads of state of all of the Central Asian republics have met several times to coordinate activities, and all members pledged roughly 1 percent of their respective GDPs toward an Aral Sea fund. Although compliance has varied, this type of constructive and unified approach to a mutual problem remained theoretical in the early 1990s.
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