TASHKENT BETWEEN ANKARA AND TEHRAN: LESSONS OF THE 1990s AND OUTLOOK FOR THE FUTURE

Dmitri TROFIMOV


Dmitri Trofimov, Senior research associate with the Center for International Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (U) (Russian Federation)


Central-Asia: a Macro-region

In the early 1990s, following the emergence of newly independent states in Central Asia (and the Transcaucasus), observers predicted a cardinal change in the geopolitical configuration across the region from Turkey to Saudi Arabia to India to China. Nonetheless, most of those forecasts failed to materialize. The Central Asian states and their southern neighbors, just as in the early 1990s, still occupy a rather modest place on the scale of mutual foreign policy priorities, coming far behind not only Russia, the United States, and Western Europe, but even their traditional neighbors in the subregion.

Neither the admission of the Central Asian republics to the Economic Cooperation Organization and the Organization of the Islamic Conference nor their participation in pan-Turkic summits brought about any fundamental changes in the situation. Nor was it affected by the wave-like attempts to gain a foothold and consolidate positions in former Soviet republics—in particular on the part of China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, which counted on both purely economic advantages and the possibility to substantially consolidate their status in the region.

There is good reason to say that countries of the “Southern Belt”1 and Central Asia have failed to emerge as priority partners for each other, nor are they likely to become such at least in the medium term. The latter has to do with, above all, objective economic factors: the inertia of Soviet-era economic mechanisms, the absence of an investor friendly environment in Central Asia with a relatively undeveloped transport and pipeline infrastructure in the region as well as technical and political difficulties involved in their reorientation from the traditional northern direction to other directions. It is also important to note that the region’s resource potential as a whole (Uzbekistan’s in particular) fell short of expectations, as did its ability to integrate into the world’s raw materials market. Another serious impediment is the low donor-investment potential of most of the countries in the “Southern Belt,” which, as is known, not so much make as attract investment.

It is also essential to take into account the readiness (that emerged back in the early 1990s) by the majority of extra-regional players to regard Central Asia as a zone of predominantly Russian influence and responsibility, also reckoning with Russian interests to the maximum and avoiding direct confrontation with Moscow. Hence the basic objective: not so much to crowd Russia out of the region as to cooperate with it on new terms.

As for political factors hindering effective partnership with southern neighbors, in particular in the case of Uzbekistan, there is yet another consideration that needs to be factored in. For all the diversity of approaches by these countries’ leadership toward Central Asia, they seek to build their own strategy here on a region-wide scale, moving away from publicly identifying their priority partners, let alone supporting claims to regional leadership on the part of certain states. As far as Tashkent is concerned, it has been invariably disappointed with this position throughout these years.

Moreover, unlike, say, the United States, the leadership of countries of the “Southern Belt,” in their contacts with Uzbekistan, has never raised the human rights issue—highly sensitive to Tashkent—while in practice its southern neighbors have repeatedly shown readiness to support either the nationalist opposition (Turkey) or the Islamic opposition (Saudi Arabia, Iran). At any rate, the granting of political asylum to activists of the Uzbek opposition—M. Salikh, leader of Erka; and former Mufti Mukhammed-Sadyk Mukhammed-Yusef—in its time seriously aggravated bilateral relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, respectively; a short-term presence of leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on Iranian territory had a similar effect.

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Three-way interaction between Tehran, Islamabad, and Beijing, going back to the 1970s-1980s, became a key element in the formation of a new Central Asian macro-regional system in the early 1990s. This cooperation aims to coordinate efforts in countering U.S. influence in the region (Islamabad is noncommittal on this issue) as well as the influence of Turkey and Russia (whose leadership Tehran and Beijing once saw as pro-U.S.). Another objective was a relative division of spheres of influence with recognition of Iran’s prevailing interests with regard to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, and Chinese interests with respect to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Finally, Pakistan’s preferential rights were recognized with respect to Uzbekistan. In addition, efforts were deployed to work out a coordinated strategy toward states in the region and to propose acceptable—from the point of view of the “troika’s” interests—solutions to the Tajik and Afghan conflicts.

By the mid-1990s, the aforementioned lineup of forces changed substantially. Gradually, Russia adjusted its somewhat inadequate pro-Western tilt, invigorating its policy in Central Asia and the Middle East as well as its position toward India and China. The emergence of the Taliban seriously compounded Pakistan’s relations with Iran and Uzbekistan. The latter circumstance, essentially, brought about a virtually independent Turkmen factor. China is clearly losing interest in active involvement in the Afghan and Tajik peace process, increasingly focusing its attention in the direction of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and, to a lesser degree, Uzbekistan. As for the once acute military-political and territorial issues, a five-party agreement on mutual reduction of military presence in the border area, signed in Moscow in 1997, as well as a number of other multilateral and bilateral Russian-Chinese documents finalized Moscow-Beijing interaction, also recording Beijing’s de facto recognition of the priority of Russian interests in Central Asia. At the same time India is taking a higher profile in the region: consistent military-political support for the Rabbani government; intensification of contacts with Iran on different levels; and aspiration for maximum strategic coordination of efforts with Russia based on tactical anti-Americanism and traditional confrontation with Pakistan.

One of Uzbekistan’s first steps toward integration into the emerging macro-regional geopolitical area was Tashkent’s accession to the ECO (1992). Against the backdrop of its low-key participation in the Organization of the Islamic Conference or pan-Turkic summits, the republic places an increasingly pragmatic thrust in its foreign policy—toward predominantly economic, not political or ideological objectives. Meanwhile, the aspiration to reduce economic dependence of the Central Asian countries on Russia and their corresponding reorientation toward Turkish, Iranian, and Pakistani markets provided temporary meeting ground for both the founding states (above all Turkey and Iran) and such ECO member states as Uzbekistan. True, the ECO’s low efficacy as well as Turkey’s (partially, also Pakistan’s and Iran’s) claims to the role of “Big Brother” have in recent years been increasingly irking Tashkent. Criticism of attempts by “certain countries to dominate” within the ECO goes hand in hand with stern warnings from I. Karimov about the “illusory hopes of interfering in our internal life and controlling us.” Uzbekistan also keeps making its traditional calls for the ECO not to be extended beyond the framework of humanitarian contacts. It is committed to the idea of maximum diversification of its transport links with the outside market, which compels Tashkent to insist on the need to concentrate the efforts of ECO member states on putting in place a modern system of regional communications as a priority area in their cooperation.

On the whole, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy in the southern sector—rather inconsistent and unpredictable—has yet to take final shape. The absence of a coherent strategic course oftentimes results in a situation wherein national interests are sacrificed to various tactical considerations of expediency. True, at least in the mid-term, no drastic changes can be expected here not only owing to Tashkent’s limited resources but also for other reasons.

Iran and Turkey in Central Asia

For all the fundamental differences between Ankara’s and Tehran’s foreign policy courses and despite their years-long uncompromising rivalry, there is a certain measure of similarity in the way that Iranian and Turkish factors manifest themselves in the post-Soviet area as a whole and in Central Asia in particular. On the one hand, these two countries originally drew the most attention from Central Asia watchers; on the other, Iran and Turkey became unofficial leaders in the number of predictions that failed to come true.

First, even despite the obvious Russian inertia in the early 1990s and the fact that Moscow distanced itself somewhat from countries in the region, neither Ankara nor Tehran were able in the final analysis to play the role of a full-fledged alternative partner to Central Asian states. Moreover, both the Turks and Iranians, although belatedly, realized the necessity and inevitability of promoting close partnership with Russia in the region (as well as in the Transcaucasus). It is another question that Tehran displayed far more flexibility and efficiency in this respect.

Second, traditional Iranian-Turkish confrontation (in the Muslim world, in the Near and Middle East) in the post-Soviet area was effectively confined to the Transcaucasus: There was, basically, none of that intense rivalry in Central Asia. Whatever setbacks (or failures) occurred in the region they were isolated and not interrelated.

Third, judging by the orientation and results of the two countries’ foreign political activity, there was a kind of swap of forecast role-niches, when an Islamic state, obsessed with ideology, demonstrated far more sober and realistic approaches toward Central Asian partners than did a secular semi-European country with its much-touted traditions of Turkic pragmatism. As a result, Iran’s carefully dosed use of the idea of Islamic solidarity favorably contrasted with Ankara’s overblown pan-Turkism.

It seems that Tehran’s original self-reliance (even given its rather limited capabilities) also, contrary to predictions, ultimately gave Iran additional leverage. This is evident from, among other things, the dynamics of bilateral (both economic and political) relations with the Central Asian countries (in particular with Uzbekistan): in the worst-case scenario, periods of stagnation, alternating with a trend toward steady growth.

By contrast, Ankara’s Central Asian strategy was to a very large extent based on the assumption of an early arrival of Western (primarily U.S.) capital investment in both Turkish and Central Asian economy. Hence Ankara’s rash promises and, therefore, somewhat unrealistic expectations on the part of Tashkent, Almaty, Bishkek, and Ashghabad, resulting in both overly sharp fluctuations in Turkeys’ bilateral relations with countries in the region and a mood of mistrust and disappointment with respect to Turkey that gradually prevailed in Central Asia.

Given the trend toward more a sober and pragmatic assessment of their foreign-policy partners, common to all republics in the region, their perception of Iran has been getting increasingly positive while their perception of Turkey, rather negative. Nonetheless, ongoing projects with Turkish participation, promoted by the West (today, these are above all trans-Caspian pipeline projects) allow for the aforementioned sinusoidal dynamics to be preserved. Under the worst-case scenario for Turkey, U.S.-Iranian relations could normalize in the long term, if not in the middle term, which would not simply strengthen Tehran’s positions in the macro-region as a whole but could also eliminate Ankara from among priority regional players. True, both now and in the foreseeable future, Turkey will, at least, continue to wield indirect influence in Central Asia by virtue of its experience, even if somewhat controversial, in secular modernization, which is especially important for ruling regimes in the region that are still in quest for an appropriate sociopolitical and economic development model. It needs to be said that a certain measure of similarity between political traditions and the same kind of problems confronting society affected by a “post-colonial” syndrome, in the 1990s, to a large extent prompted countries of Central Asia, in particular Uzbekistan, to tap the experience of states in the “Southern Belt” in the process of selecting a new type of orientation and identity.

Essentially, it was a choice between four basic models: the secular Turkish model; the Islamic Iranian model—an Islamic republic led by Islamic clergy; a mixed, or transitional, Pakistani model—a secular regime within an Islamic state; and a statist authoritarian Chinese model. It has to be said that orientation toward this or that model could only indirectly mean orientation toward a respective state. Failure to understand that—in particular in the case of Turkey—brought about some extra difficulties in Turkish-Uzbek relations in 1993-1995. In practice, Tashkent mainly used elements of the Chinese and Turkish models. In the first instance it applied to economic reforms that not simply preceded political reforms but even unfolded against the background of authoritarian stagnation in the political sphere. The Turkish model was tapped above all for its idea of separation of state and religion—a concept by the father of the nation (Turkey under Ataturk)—and finally, an attempt to integrate a Muslim country into a non-Muslim geopolitical area.

The Status and Outlook for Uzbek-Iranian Relations

Relations between these two states throughout their existence can be described as strained and unfriendly. The tone has to a very large extent been set by repeated tough statements of Uzbek President Islam Karimov about the unacceptability of the Iranian model and the threat of Iranian interference in the internal affairs of a number of Central Asian countries.2 For its part, Iranian leadership hastened to include Uzbekistan in the list of Islamic states that, if only by virtue of prevailing cultural/religious tradition, were designed to be in the sphere of Iranian influence. In the end, irritation on the one side and disappointment on the other only deepened mutual alienation.

Evolution of bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and Iran coincided with a period wherein Iran abandoned an active policy of Islamic solidarity (partially replaced by a pan-Iranian policy). True, in the second half of the 1990s that policy began to give way to Iran’s aspiration to develop predominantly economic relations and put in place a regional security and cooperation system. The way Tehran saw it, such a system was called upon to ensure stability on the perimeter of Iranian borders, preventing a revival of Iraq’s military-industrial capability, and standing up to U.S. political and economic presence in the macro-region, including countries of the Middle East and southern republics of the former Soviet Union. Yet until recently Iran’s strategic line has been marked by internal inconsistency, thus only breeding fears in the region over the revival of the policy of export of the Islamic revolution.

True, before long strategic as well as tactical differences emerged between Iran and Uzbekistan. For well-known reasons, Iran, on the one hand, initially supported the trend toward Islamization and, therefore, the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan, and on the other, the Shi‘ite Khazar community and at the same time the Tajik Rabbani-Masoud government in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, quite the contrary, backed anti-Islamic forces in Tajikistan and at the same time the Uzbek community in both states. The subsequent rapprochement on the Tajik (in 1995-19963) and partially on the Afghan vector nonetheless failed to eliminate the deep mutual mistrust, which exists to date.

This results from, among other things, Uzbekistan’s repeatedly declared aspiration to secure, in the world public eye, a status as the main guarantor (with all the ensuing political and financial consequences) of regional stability and opposition to aggressive Islamic fundamentalism, with its source, according to the republic’s leadership, based in Tehran.

As a result, Uzbek foreign policy has been showing an increasing pro-U.S. tilt, finally antagonizing Tehran, which for its part, in search of regional and international counterweight to the United States, is increasingly betting on Russia, seeking to upgrade relations with it to the level of strategic partnership. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is looking to the United States as a temporary counterbalance to Russia and integration processes within the CIS.

Nonetheless, strategically, Uzbekistan does not intend—not even to please the Americans—to abandon cooperation with Iran in the transport sphere or give up a subtle game with the Iranians in the Afghan and Tajik sectors. On the other hand, although there is no direct evidence of Iranian interference in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs, Tashkent does not trust Iran.

That said, Uzbekistan’s position is, rather, inconsistent and contradictory. Thus, close Russian-Iranian cooperation, on the one hand, constantly provokes a kind of a jealous reaction from Tashkent, which insists on, at least, preliminary Russian-Uzbek consultations prior to any strategic decisions being made—in particular, on Russian-Iranian relations.4 On the other hand, with tactical pro-U.S. orientation in Uzbek foreign policy now firmly in place criticism by Uzbek leaders of aspects of Russian-Iranian cooperation that are unacceptable to the United States has in effect become a constant factor. One such issue is the agreement on delivery of Russian nuclear reactors.

Amid the extremely strained Uzbek-Iranian and Uzbek-Turkmenian relations, Iranian-Turkmenian rapprochement, emerging in the early 1990s, is becoming an additional negative factor impairing the status and evolution of bilateral relations between Tashkent and Tehran.

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The oft declared mutual interest in furthering economic links and the formal signing of trade and economic agreements,5 however, failed to boost bilateral trade, whose volume today is rather insignificant. In the 1990s, it was maintained at a level of $15 million to $30 million. It was only due to the increasing costs of transportation/transit services provided by Iran that corresponding indicators in 1999 reached about $130 million. Meanwhile, the actual volume of trade is ensured above all by small-time shuttle traders whose number has since the second half of the 1990s been at a level of 40,000 to 50,000 people a year.6 Iranian business in Uzbekistan is represented by 19 joint ventures and several firms with 100 percent Iranian capital. One of the major such firms is Bank Sadirat Iran handling export/import operations.

Iranian and Uzbek experts believe that further prospects for trade and economic cooperation are directly contingent on interaction in the transport communication sphere. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Iranian Meshed-Serakhs-Tejen and Serakhs-Bandar Abbas lines were put into operation in 1996-1997, there is no reason to talk about a substantial increase in trade or a substantial reorientation of Uzbek cargo flow to the southern (trans-Iranian) route. Meanwhile, at one time both countries counted on such reorientation. On average, in the past three to four years, overall international transit of Uzbek cargo was 13.5 million to 14 million tonnes. The breakdown was as follows: more than 13 million tonnes went along the northern, Kazakh-Russian route; between 300,000 and 500,000 tonnes, on the Tashkent-Almaty-Urumchi route; from 100,000 to 200,000 tonnes, along the trans-Caspian route through Turkmenistan (Tashkent-Turkmenbashi-Baku-Poti), and up to 250,000 tonnes, along the Tashkent-Tejen-Serakhs-Bandar Abbas route. Thus, Uzbekistan sends more than 95 percent of all international transit cargo along the northern route. The situation is not likely to be substantially changed either by the Andijan-Osh-Kashgar railway line, due to be put into operation in 2001-2002, or by prospects for increasing volume of shipment on the Turkmen-Caucasus and Turkmen-Iranian route.7

Even so, under certain conditions, bilateral economic relations could get an additional impetus not so much within the framework of traditional ECO plans to implement transport projects alternative to Russia as within the framework of a multilateral North-South project (Russia-India-Iran-Central Asia-Caucasus).

True, with any scenario it will take time for the Iranian side to overcome its rather critical perception of Uzbekistan (lack of convertibility, rampant corruption, absence of legal guarantees for foreign business, perennial unreliability of Uzbek partners, and so forth). Therefore, both at present and in the mid-term Tashkent is seen only as a secondary foreign trade partner. It is also important to take into account the rather limited economic capability of Iran itself, also requiring a very careful selection of priority partners within the CIS framework. Today these include only Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.

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The ethnic/religious factor plays a special role in bilateral relations. There is no large ethnic-Uzbek community in Iran. According to the latest census (conducted in 1989, still under the Soviet rule), the number of ethnic Persians (or Ironi) officially registered in Uzbekistan did not exceed 28,000. The largest ethnic Persian community, of 19,459 people, was registered in the Samarkand Region. At the same time, field studies by this author show that the Ironi community in the city of Samarkand is 100,000 and in the Bukhara Region, 70,000 to 80,000. Taking into account the Samarkand Region as well as small communities in other parts of Uzbekistan, there are 200,000 to 250,000 ethnic Persians living in the republic.8

The Iranian backgrounds of a number of political figures in Uzbekistan is a separate, and rather delicate, subject. Thus, Ismail Dzhurabekov, the second most influential figure in the republic (former first deputy prime minister, now a state counselor), comes from Samarkand Ironi. Throughout the 1990s, the Iranian side gave him close attention (including by virtue of his ethnic origin), which, it has to be said, was far from always justified.9

The Shi‘ite identity of the Uzbek Ironi, formalizing their autonomous status, is of special importance. Nonetheless, there are numerous ethnic/religious prejudices and grievances within this identity. Thus, Shi‘ite Persians complain that they do not have an opportunity to properly observe Imam Hussein (Ashur) remembrance days: They can only do that in their mosques since they are not allowed to conduct funeral processions on city streets.10 This apparently minor problem should nonetheless be taken into account as a potentially explosive factor that could manifest itself in the event of internal political destabilization in Uzbekistan with a simultaneous invigoration of external Islamic (Iranian) forces.

The dramatically increasing political role of mosques (especially Shi‘ite mosques) in the world Muslim community also compels the “mosque” factor to be reckoned with. Thus, in Samarkand, of the total 13 Friday mosques, three are Shi‘ite. In Bukhara, one of the city’s 11 Friday mosques is Shi‘ite. In the whole of the Bukhara Region there are five. In addition, ethnic Persians head both Sunni Friday mosques in Ferghana and one Sunni mosque in Margilan. All of this should be seen against the background of virtually complete political inertia among Uzbekistan’s Shi‘ite Persians. Yet it should not be forgotten that the 20th century knew a lot of examples of hitherto passive Muslim communities suddenly being galvanized into political action.

As far as direct Iranian influence is concerned, Tehran’s first tentative attempts to establish stable ethnic/cultural contacts with Uzbekistan’s Persian community were so expeditiously and effectively stopped by Uzbek authorities that today there is no cause to talk about any Iranian influence while the Iranian embassy here is not even aware of what is going on.

At one time “effective Iranian intervention” in the Ferghana Valley was seen as a viable proposition. In late 1991-early 1992, Iranian preachers indeed made attempts to send their missionaries to the region. Those attempts, however, came up against opposition not only from Uzbek power structures but also the reluctance of local Islamic followers to adopt alien Shi‘ite standards. Although Ferghana Valley fundamentalists (say, Tohir Yoldosh) maintain contacts with Iranians, even getting certain financial assistance from them, there is no reason to talk about substantial Iranian influence in Uzbekistan or even in the Ferghana Valley.

We could of course agree that the importance and viability of anti-Iranian elements in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy should not be overstated. It should probably be recognized that pragmatic elements in the foreign policy sphere are becoming increasingly pronounced. Following an exchange of visits by the countries’ foreign ministers (A. Kamilov in September 1998 and K. Harrazi in April 1999), the sides have been pointedly recording proximity or coincidence of their positions on Afghanistan, anti-terrorism, and drug trafficking problems. At the same time even the visible normalization of bilateral relations is proceeding rather slowly. In one instance it is affected by the inertia of anti-American (and pro-American) guidelines while in another, there is a whole array of irritants on the Islamic vector (Tashkent’s unjustifiably tough anti-Islamic internal political course, on one hand, and Tehran’s continuing de-facto interaction with Uzbek and Tajik Islamists, on the other).

The Status and Outlook for Uzbek-Turkish Relations

Both sides admit that an important distinguishing feature of Uzbek-Turkish relations in the 1990s was their rather unstable character. As mentioned earlier, at the first stage of its independence, Uzbekistan’s political leadership—both on the purely rhetorical and de-facto strategic level—betted on a simultaneous use of elements of Chinese and Turkish development models. It needs to be stressed that introduction of elements of a Turkish model, at least in 1991-1993, to a certain extent coincided with political orientation toward Ankara. True, that was contingent on high hopes for large-scale financial and economic assistance and investment expected both from Turkey itself and (through it) from Western countries. Endless statements to that effect by Western and Turkish politicians were initially very impressive, but added up to very little in practice, emerging as yet another irritant for Tashkent. Belated recognition of the fact by Ankara, which continued through inertia to talk about its intermediary mission between Europe and Central Asia, was yet another reason for alienation between Uzbekistan and Turkey in 1993-1995.11

As for the Uzbek leadership, it expected Turkey to have played the role of a more or less effective political/economic counterbalance to Russia. As is known, those expectations did not come true. Meanwhile, Ankara’s invariably didactic tone—moreover, amid its insufficient political and economic activism—was increasingly riling Tashkent. The long brewing elements of tension manifested themselves in 1994. A serious crisis in bilateral relations was to a very large extent a result of insufficient economic assistance, ongoing attempts—both direct and indirect—to recruit Uzbek military servicemen studying in Turkey, and finally public anti-Karimov statements on the part of opposition elements, above all Muhammad Salikh, leader of the Erk party, who arrived in Turkey back in June 1993. In May 1994, Uzbek Ambassador U. Abdurazzakov was accused of being in cahoots with Salikh and recalled to Tashkent. Tension was not in the least alleviated by a rather ambivalent statement of a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman: “Turkey will not put up with any activity directed against fraternal Uzbekistan. At the same time it is a state based on the rule of law and those who do not violate Turkish laws may remain on its territory for as long as they want to.” The situation normalized somewhat only after Salikh left Turkey for Germany (in the fall of 1994).

Alienation in bilateral relations was partially overcome in the course of the July 1995 visit to Uzbekistan by Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller. Furthermore, the May 1996 visit by President Suleyman Demirel even led some observers to talk about the sides’ intention to upgrade their relations to strategic partnership. That expectation was further strengthened by the signing of an unprecedented Treaty of Eternal Friendship and Cooperation. True, already in July of the same year the advent of a coalition government led by Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Welfare Party, in Turkey caused further disagreement between Tashkent and Ankara. Uzbek leadership seemed to be seriously concerned by some of Erbakan’s pan-Islamic slogans, seeing them as a threat of a possible Turkish intervention in the internal Islamic sphere, so painful to Tashkent. It is noteworthy that the thinly veiled suspiciousness on the Uzbek side is still very much in evidence today while bilateral political relations are gradually normalizing on Ankara’s initiative. By far the most important events in this respect were Karimov’s official visit to Turkey (November 1997) and a return visit by Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz (April 1998) as well as participation by the Uzbekistan president in the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic (29 October, 1998). It is also important that the main emphasis in the course of those meetings was placed on cooperation in the economic and cultural sphere. The political component of bilateral relations has until recently either been non-existent or has not gone much beyond pure rhetoric. A signal marking a turn away from protracted discord was sent by two meetings between Presidents Islam Karimov and Ahmet Sezer (September-October 2000)12 which mostly centered around interaction in combating terrorism. True, Karimov’s conspicuous absence at the Seventh Summit of Turkic Countries (26-27 April, 2001) only accentuated the transience of the latest thaw in bilateral relations.

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Uzbek-Turkish trade and economic relations went off to a good start in 1992. Eximbank granted Tashkent a $250 million credit ($125 million to buy Turkish goods and $125 million for long-term projects: building a sugar plant in Khorezm, a refrigerator plant in Samarkand, and a retail center in Tashkent). At the time it was Eximbank’s second largest credit line to Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union ($280 million was provided to Azerbaijan). Uzbekistan’s positions strengthened further in 1993, when of the overall $960 million worth of assistance that Ankara provided to the Turkic republics, Tashkent received $595 million (or 62 percent). Compared to 1992, trade turnover between the two countries grew nearly three and a half times, reaching $245.5 million. A substantial decline in trade in 1994 ($142 million) was brought about by deep political disagreements and an ineffectual use of the credit by the end of the same year.

Then trade began to revive: in 1995 growing to $199 million, in 1996 to $286 million, and in 1997 to $400 million. The cooling-off period in political relations between Tashkent and Ankara that began in late 1997 again resulted in a substantial fall in trade—down to $285 million in 1998 and to $150 million in 1999. Of course, a protracted economic crisis affecting both countries also had a part to play.

It should be stressed that in recent years only Turkish import has been growing (today it accounts for more than 85 percent of all trade) while the volume of Uzbek export does not exceed $40 million to $60 million. This is above all to do with shrinking cotton production in Uzbekistan, cotton fiber or raw cotton constituting more than 90 percent of Uzbek export. All the indications are that the obvious non-viability of the task of ensuring self-sufficiency in food and consumer goods will keep the republic’s leadership interested in delivery of cheap Turkish foodstuffs (more than 35 percent of Turkish import) and consumer goods (approximately 30 percent).

Convertibility problems and the general worsening of the economic situation in Uzbekistan do not seem to have undermined the positions of Turkish business with its core being the construction industry which is thoroughly backed and encouraged by Uzbek authorities. Having re-enlisted Karimov’s personal support, the Koç holding, an industrial/financial company that in 1998 built a mini-bus and mini-truck assembly plant in Samarkand, substantially consolidated its position.13

No matter what, both sides on the whole positively assess the results of their trade and economic cooperation in the 1990s. It is also indicative that unlike other states of the “Southern Belt” (or Western states), Turkey seems to still regard Uzbekistan as a priority partner in Central Asia, stressing its special geographic location, relatively developed infrastructure, and a good outlook for mutually beneficial relations in textile and food industries—Turkey’s core industries.

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In the first half of the 1990s, a special emphasis within the framework of bilateral relations was placed on education and culture. In the summer of 1992, a meeting of culture ministers of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus took place in Istanbul. The main point on the agenda was creation of a unified language and cultural area. The meeting made an important decision to provide stipends to representatives of “Turkic states” at Turkish educational, including military training, institutions. In 1992-1993, about 2,000 Uzbek students went to Turkey, a large part of whom either returned two or three months later or went into business; many took an incomplete course of training, on short-term exchange programs. The Uzbek side was also disappointed with the low standards of teaching, hostility toward Uzbeks, and especially the growing influence of the Uzbek opposition among them and instances of recruitment. In addition, prior to 1995 there was virtually no preliminary selection of students. In July 1995, 148 prospective students were selected on the basis of a preliminary test while in 1996 their number fell to 100. Yet, following a strengthening of Islamist positions in Turkey, Uzbek authorities instantly banned even that small group from going to Turkey. Subsequently, exchange programs were scaled down and despite the persistence of the Turkish side, they have not as yet been resumed.

One important area of Turkish activity in the education sphere is establishment of Turkish, or rather Uzbek-Turkish schools in Uzbekistan and ensuring their smooth operation. In recent years, however, their number has declined somewhat, resulting from, on the one hand, Tashkent’s discontent with the schools’ implicit politicization and on the other, a drop in Turkish funding for the sphere. Whereas in early 1994 there were 27 such schools in the republic, today there are only 22. Moreover, only six Uzbek-Turkish schools are relatively large and independent educational establishments (in Tashkent, Namangan, Andijan, Samarkand, Navoi, and Karshi).

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Neither did military cooperation score any success stories. From 1992 until 1994, 50 cadets from Uzbekistan received training at Turkish military schools; another 20 Interior Ministry officers took an advanced course at the Ankara police academy. After 1994, no military servicemen from Uzbekistan have been sent to Turkey for training.

Furthermore, Ankara has repeatedly raised the subject of supplies of some (mostly obsolete) models of Turkish armor. Thus, during Suleyman Demirel’s May 1996 visit, the chief of the Turkish General Staff, who was part of his delegation, in the course of negotiations even offered setting up production of Turkish armored personnel carriers in Uzbekistan—in particular for the Central Asian Battalion (Tsentrazbat). Just as in all previous cases, the Uzbek side diplomatically turned down all Turkish proposals on military cooperation. This position arises not so much from the aforementioned political reasons (including the not entirely groundless fears of possible recruitment of Uzbek nationals) as the low quality of Turkish military hardware, which is inferior to Western and Russian models. It has to be admitted that Turkey’s plans were initially not so much of a military-economic as promotional and propaganda character, although even this is, rather, an uphill task for Turkey. In January 1998, it effectively reanimated inter-departmental contacts between defense ministries, signing with Tashkent a purely formal plan for bilateral cooperation for the current year. True, in the same year Uzbekistan refused to acquire Turkish military hardware (Cobra APCs), even though that was provided under the plan, or to send its officers for an advance training course to Turkey. Thus, the Turkish military only managed twice to mark its presence in Uzbekistan with a Turkish army platoon taking part in a multinational training exercise, Tsentrazbat-97 and Tsentrazbat-98. In 2000, the sides signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the military and the military-technical sphere.14 In the course of negotiations between the countries’ interior ministries and general staffs15 the sides discussed prospects for Turkish assistance in fighting international terrorism as well as the training in Turkey of an Uzbek special task force. Nonetheless, to all appearances these agreements will remain mostly on paper.

* * *

To sum up, first of all, the promising start of Uzbek-Turkish relations in 1991-1993 gave way to two periods of alienation (in 1994-1995 and 1996-1997), which has yet to be overcome completely. As is known, the Turkish leadership hastened to include Uzbekistan in the list of Turkic states which by virtue of prevailing ethnic, cultural, and religious traditions are supposed to be in the sphere of Turkish influence. That objective obscured the temporary and conditional character of Uzbekistan’s pro-Turkish orientation, failing to avert Tashkent’s irritation. Pragmatic approaches did not begin to prevail in either side’s positions until just recently.

Second, bilateral Uzbek-Turkish relations in the first half of the 1990s were marked by a balance of economic, cultural and political components. Yet over time political contacts per se to a large extent lost their former credibility and effectiveness. Contacts in the humanitarian sphere also declined considerably with trade and economic relations taking center stage.

Third, in the 1990s, Turkey remained one of Uzbekistan’s main trading partners. As for Ankara, there was no reason to say that Uzbekistan was its economic priority. Rather, Turkish leadership is interested to retain the Central Asian economic base as a whole for a long term, which is difficult to do without securing positions in Uzbekistan.

Fourth, whereas in 1992-1994 Uzbekistan was wooing Turkey, whose leaders from time to time appeared to take a tough line with respect to Tashkent, subsequently the situation turned around with Ankara (say, in 1996) trying to play up to the anti-Russian and anti-integration mood of the Uzbek leadership, supporting its regional ambitions or international initiatives (such as, e.g., introduction of an embargo on arms supplies to Afghanistan). This adjustment in Turkey’s position could apparently be put down to its belated realization that it did not have sufficient economic and political resources. Today, Tashkent’s pointed passivity is very conspicuous and so Ankara has to constantly and persistently persuade it to maintain regular bilateral contacts.

And finally, fifth, there is reason to talk about a measure of correlation between the two countries’ initial regional strategies—i.e., a strategy of Central Asian leadership in the case of Uzbekistan, and leadership in the Turkic world in the case of Turkey. Ankara is increasingly demonstrating its readiness to support Tashkent’s regional ambitions in exchange for a softening of its position on pan-Turkic affairs. The Uzbek leadership, for its part, is looking for a new place for Turkey in the complex multilateral equation between Russia, the United States, India, China, and Muslim countries of the “Southern Belt.”


1 The term “Southern Belt” refers to a group of countries in the Near and Middle East, South Asia, and partly the Far East (Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China).

2 This can be accounted for by partially sincere and partially affected fears of fundamentalist influence from the outside, compounded by the “Muslim inferiority complex,” typical of all post-Communist elites in Central Asia.

3 The reference is to Tashkent’s rather active contacts with the United Tajik Opposition. Corresponding meetings were arranged by the Uzbek embassy in Tehran, which of course would have been inconceivable without close coordination with Iranian leadership.

4 Consider, e.g., Islam Karimov’s sharp reaction in the course of a January 1996 meeting with Boris Yeltsin (within the framework of the CIS heads of state conference) to an interview with the Russian ambassador to Tehran, which was published in the Ettelaat newspaper under the headline Strategic Partnership.

5 It is indicative in this respect that trade and economic relations are covered by 17 of the 19 existing bilateral Uzbek-Iranian official documents.

6 Given that one such shuttle trader buys on average $2,000 worth of Iranian goods, we get a total of $80 million to $90 million.

7 The Tashkent-Tejen-Serakhs-Bandar Abbas rail line has a potential capacity of up to 3 million tonnes of cargo a year; according to most optimistic forecasts, up to 7 million tonnes a year. The latter, however, is unlikely, at least in the next three to five years, both for economic and political reasons.

8 Discrepancy between this and official statistics comes from the years-long tradition of voluntary/forced assimilation (and corresponding registration) of the Persian, Tajik, and other communities in Uzbekistan.

9 Even more indicative in this respect is Islam Karimov himself, whose Tajik descent (through his mother) does not in the least prevent him from taking an extremely tough line on neighboring Tajikistan.

10 This is to a very large extent related to 1916 events, when a similar march in Bukhara led to bloody clashes between Shi‘ites and Sunnis.

11 Turkey’s aspiration to play a role as a kind of a bridge between the European community and CIS Turkic states meets with strong rebuff from Uzbekistan both on the political and the purely emotional level. Indicative in this respect is Islam Karimov’s very sharp response to a question put to him in February 1996 by a Turkish reporter in Davos concerning prospects for setting up joint ventures with Turkish and European participation in the republic: “If I get it right, Uzbekistan is supposed to build its relations with Europe through Turkey; we can do without intermediaries.”

12 In September 2000, Islam Karimov and Ahmet Sezer met in New York on the fringes of the Millennium Summit; on 16-17 October, 2000, Sezer came to Uzbekistan on an official visit.

13 First vehicles rolled off the line in April 1999. The plant will not reach rated capacity (3,000 mini-cars and 1,000 mini-trucks) before 2003, by which time supplies of spare parts from Turkey would be reduced from 80 percent to 30 percent.

14 Signed in the course of Turkish President Ahmet Sezer’s official visit to Uzbekistan (16-17 October, 2000).

15 The working visit by a corresponding Turkish delegation took place on 17-20 October, 2000.


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