Uzbekistan’s policy toward Russia in the past few months has been confusing, to say the least. With Tashkent seeming to toggle between harsh criticism and enthusiastic cooperation, analysts have begun to discuss what might be behind President Karimov’s inconsistencies.
On November 30 Uzbekistan recalled its ambassador in Moscow, leaving the post vacant. Just a few days later on December 3, a senior official from the Russian Foreign Ministry arrived in Tashkent for consultations. Russia remains the main trade partner of Uzbekistan with a trade turnover of US $6.1 billion and employs more than 2 million Uzbek citizens (according to Russian Federal Migration Service statistics).
Nevertheless, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has recently offered harsh criticism of the integration ideas voiced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Uzbekistan will never enter into associations such as the former Soviet Union … today some countries attempt to return to the system of the union state,” he said in November at a meeting of the Parliament, clearly hinting at the Customs Union adopted by neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
In December, Karimov clearly expressed dissatisfaction with Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. “Some countries think that they are making the right actions. But before you enter somewhere, you have to think how to get out. And do not be proud of using modern weapons, it is dangerous,” he said at government meeting in Tashkent.
On the other hand, Uzbekistan recently agreed to supply undergarments for the Russian army. The Amin Invest International factory, which is based in Samarkand, began to supply several types of clothing for the Russian soldiers in late November.
“We have sent the first batch – 500,000 t-shirts, and we are ready to send another 200,000 sets of underwear,” states a press release from the company.
The Uzbek register of entrepreneurs says that Amin Invest International is a joint Uzbek-Russian-British company founded in 1994. International NGO “Cotton Campaign” which is fighting against the use of slave labor in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, included Amin Invest International in the list of Uzbek textile companies subject to a boycott.
Meanwhile, on November 10 Karimov welcomed at his residence Vagit Alekperov, president of the largest Russian oil and gas company, LUKOIL. Following the meeting, it was announced that LUKOIL received a license from the Uzbek government to conduct exploration work at the Kungrad field in Karakalpakstan.
“Islam Karimov very rarely meets with businessmen. So I think the real reason could be different, and they had to use a sensitive approach. Perhaps, the authorities decided to transfer oil deposits to another company of another country,” says Maksim Tarasenko, an analyst at Uzbek magazine Economic Bulletin.
Uzbek official media widely covered the meeting with Alekperov, but no outlets reported on another important oil deal with Russian Gazprom. The news became public only when Gazprom published its annual report on November 24.
“Since the beginning of this year, the supply of oil to the CIS countries increased by 68% due to the beginning of oil sales to Uzbekistan and increase of sales in Belarus,” says the Gazprom report.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries have recently also been unpredictable. On November 30, Uzbek Ambassador to Russia Akmal Kamalov was dismissed after holding the position for only one year. The official reason was stated as a transfer to the post of director of a new state cotton export company. Three days later, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin arrived in Tashkent, but no official statement has been given as to the reasons for the visit.
Uzbek political scientist Azam Karimov says that Uzbekistan is walking a difficult line with Russia.
“On one hand, between the West and Russia, Uzbekistan of course prefers Russia. But, after Crimea and Ukraine, states like Uzbekistan are worried about Russia’s behavior. And now with everything between Russia and Syria and Turkey, building a relationship with Russia is even harder for Uzbekistan. Our government feels threatened by Russians,” he affirms.