Cablegate: Russian Relations with an Assertive Uzbekistan
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MOSCOW 000337
DEPT FOR EUR/RUS, SCA, INR
E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/17/2020
TAGS: PGOV PREL UZ RS
SUBJECT: RUSSIAN RELATIONS WITH AN ASSERTIVE UZBEKISTAN
MOSCOW 00000337 001.2 OF 002
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MOSCOW 000337 SIPDIS DEPT FOR EUR/RUS, SCA, INR E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/17/2020 TAGS: PGOV PREL UZ RS
SUBJECT: RUSSIAN RELATIONS WITH AN ASSERTIVE UZBEKISTAN MOSCOW 00000337 001.2 OF 002 Classified By: Political Minister Counselor Susan M. Elliott for reason s: 1.4 (b), (d).
1. (C) Summary: In recent meetings, MFA and Uzbek Embassy officials stressed the positive aspects of Russian-Uzbek relations, including bilateral trade and Uzbek migrant workers in Russia. Uzbek President Karimov is due to visit Moscow in April following intergovernmental talks. Meanwhile, Russian officials have expressed frustration with Uzbek unwillingness to follow Russian proposals in regional fora and with Uzbekistan's tense relations with its weaker neighbors. An Uzbek Embassy official was quick to highlight the "new political dynamics" in the region, in which an increasingly assertive Uzbekistan stands up for its national interest. Comment: Russian officials are closely watching the U.S.-Uzbek thaw for any renewed U.S. military ties with Uzbekistan. Russia seems less cautious regarding U.S. economic engagement with Uzbekistan, particularly if U.S. investment helps to improve the overall economic climate in the country. End Summary.
Partners, but No Longer Strategic?
2. (C) MFA Third CIS Department Second Secretary Kiril Belikov told poloff that Uzbekistan is Russia's "second partner" in the region, after Kazakhstan, noting that Uzbekistan has the largest and fastest growing population in former-Soviet Central Asia (27 million) and influences ethnic Uzbek minorities in all of its neighboring countries, including Afghanistan. In a separate meeting, Second Secretary Yekaterina Chistova said that relations with Uzbekistan are fundamentally strong, despite some negative aspects, and noted that regular high-level bilateral dialogue resumed in 2009. Following President Medvedev's trip early in 2009, FM Lavrov visited Tashkent in December, the first Russian FM visit since 2005, according to MFA officials. Uzbek Embassy officials told us that President Karimov is scheduled to visit Moscow in late April, following upcoming intergovernmental meetings chaired by the Uzbek PM and Russian Deputy PM Sergei Ivanov.
3. (C) Uzbek Embassy Political Counselor Farkhad Khamraev termed relations with Russia as "stable and positive," although he was quick to dispel any perception that Russia still dominated the relationship. He said the West should understand that "the old political dynamics in the region have changed," and that Uzbekistan pursued its own national interest. Offering an example of the "new dynamics," Khamraev (quite boldly) claimed that Russia scaled down its plans for a military base in southern Kyrgyzstan after the Uzbeks voiced concerns about its proximity to their border. He said the facility would now be used as a training center for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
4. (C) Stressing that stability is Russia's primary interest in Central Asia, MFA officials said that Russia has urged Uzbekistan to resolve ongoing border water and electricity disputes with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but that there has been a lack of "political will." The Uzbek Embassy's Khamraev maintained that Russia supported Uzbek views on water rights in the region and that this was not a point of disagreement with Moscow. In regional multilateral groupings, MFA Department of Asia-Pacific Cooperation officials cited a number of Russian proposals which the Uzbeks have effectively blocked. Khamraev said that Uzbekistan wanted to ensure that its voice was heard among the larger players. He said Uzbekistan has chosen not to participate in certain Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) activities, despite currently serving as the SCO Chairman, and has halted its cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Community because "Uzbekistan was better off with bilateral discussions." Khamraev said the CSTO was a worthwhile security grouping that could provide some security guarantees, but that Uzbekistan participated selectively according to its national interests. Moscow experts noted MOSCOW 00000337 002.2 OF 002 that Uzbekistan has refused to join the CSTO Rapid Reaction Force, a decision that renders the CSTO "worthless" as a regional security grouping in the opinion of Moscow Carnegie Center's Alexei Malashenko.
5. (C) Central Asia expert Ivan Safranchuk, publisher of the journal "Bolshaya Igra" (The Great Game), told us that Karimov's personal relationship with Medvedev has been sour from the beginning. Safranchuk said Karimov has shown little respect for Medvedev and once told PM Putin (allegedly in Medvedev's presence) that Putin should have found a way to remain the Russian President. Safranchuk added that Gazprom's clumsy handling of Uzbek interests in the Caspian gas pipeline project dispelled Uzbek notions that Russia was a "strategic partner." Safranchuk also maintained that the "real Karimov" was genuinely eager for respect and good relations with the U.S. and the West, as he was in late 2001, and that he was not the Karimov we saw after the fallout over Andijon.
Resilient Economic Ties
6. (C) Separately, both the MFA's Chistova and the Uzbek Embassy's Khamraev emphasized the resilience of the bilateral economic relationship. Chistova said that while annual bilateral trade fell by 30-35 percent in the economic crisis, to around USD 2 billion, the drop was less than that with many of Russia's European trading partners. Noting Russia is Uzbekistan's largest foreign market, Khamraev said that bilateral trade was relatively unaffected by the crisis, with the exception of a large drop in automobile exports to Russia. He added that trade prospects were promising and, in particular, that discussions were underway to export Uzbek cotton directly to Russia, bypassing European markets.
Mutual Dependence on Migrants
7. (C) MFA and Uzbek Embassy officials also highlighted the mutual importance of Uzbek migrant workers in Russia. The MFA's Chistova estimated that between two and three million Uzbeks work in Russia, including illegal workers, and that annual remittances from Uzbek workers in Russia total more than USD 2 billion. Chistova also underscored that Uzbek migrants help to maintain important cultural ties by learning the Russian language and culture. The Uzbek Embassy's Khamraev claimed annual remittances were closer to USD 3 billion, off 10-20 percent from their peak before the economic crisis, and that the two governments will discuss an agreement on migrant labor at meetings in March. Suggesting that leverage on migrant labor issues is no longer one-sided, Khamraev argued that despite political rhetoric, high unemployment figures, and the recent uptick in birth rates, Russia has a critical long-term need for foreign labor.
8. (C) Comment: Beyond official pleasantries, Russian relations with an increasingly assertive Uzbekistan remain prickly. Russia has limited leverage with Uzbekistan on regional issues and within regional fora such as the SCO and CSTO. Uzbek assertiveness in the region is likely only to grow, and some Moscow analysts expect Uzbekistan's population to approach 50 million by 2050. Meanwhile, Russian officials are closely watching developments in the U.S.-Uzbek thaw. Given Russian sensitivities about foreign military activities in Central Asia, a renewed U.S. military relationship with Uzbekistan is likely Russia's greatest concern. Russian officials have said they consider NATO activities in its backyard to be temporary and limited to supporting the international coalition in Afghanistan. In contrast to its "sphere of privileged interests" in the military sense, Russia appears less resistant to U.S. and other foreign economic influence in Central Asia, and may even welcome U.S. investment in certain sectors, as Russian firms stand to benefit from improved economic policies and infrastructure that such foreign investment may bring. End Comment.