According to itypeusa, Uzbekistan, already part of the Russian Empire since the nineteenth century and Soviet Socialist Republic since 1924, is one of the five Central Asian republics born in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Independence did not entail in Uzbekistan, as in many other regional realities, a break with the previous practice of authoritarian government, nor with the nomenclature that had held the country up until then. The architect of Uzbek independence was Islom Karimov, current president and former general secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party between 1989 and 1991. Karimov led the republican transition by controlling the levers of political, institutional and economic power. Relying on a system of division of institutional offices based on clan logic and on the influential and pervasive national secret services, the president has suppressed all forms of dissent, maintained a strong control over the media and limited external influences, allowing only a small number of international and non-governmental organizations to operate. His authoritarian approach led Freedom House to judge the country as ‘not free’, assigning it the worst score, both politically and socially. In addition, the perceived corruption in the country increased to take it in 2014 to 168th place out of 177 countries monitored.
According to the Constitution, approved in 1995, the president is elected by universal suffrage and appoints the prime minister. In fact, the executive power is concentrated in the hands of the president and the figure of the premier is emptied of real functions. Political parties have only been allowed to organize themselves into majority and opposition groups since 2007. In reality, the Assembly limits itself to affixing its own seal to presidential decisions. In 2002, with a plebiscite referendum, the Uzbek electorate extended the presidential term from five to seven years. Although according to the Constitution the president cannot remain in office for more than two terms, in 2007 and most recently in 2015 Karimov was re-elected for the third and fourth time, collecting respectively 91% and 90.3% of the votes cast. Despite this, doubts and speculations about the president’s poor health have opened the debate on a possible transition to the top. Until 2014, Karimov’s eldest daughter Gulnara Karimova, as well as the head of the internal secret services, was among the favorites to the succession. In 2014, however, a criminal trial for corruption was initiated in Uzbekistan against Karimova which, in addition to signaling a cooling in relations with her father, could decrease the chances of her future candidacy. The approval in 2014 by the president of a constitutional reform that transfers some of the presidential powers to the legislative and executive, seems in any case to indicate the will to prepare the transition in such a way as not to centralize excessive power in the hands of the successor.
In terms of international relations, since independence Uzbekistan has nurtured the ambition to become the regional hegemonic power, based on historical-cultural, demographic and geographical considerations, as well as on geopolitical arguments. Heir to the tradition of the Tamerlane kingdom, the country is the most populous in the Central Asian region, hosts important ethnic minorities and is the only one to border, as well as with Afghanistan, with each of the states in the region. At the eastern end, Uzbekistan exercises its sovereignty over the flat part of the Fergana Valley, the most fertile region of Central Asia, while sharing control of secondary mountains and valleys with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in a sort of complex mosaic of borders that, legacy of the Soviet period,
Uzbek hegemonic aspirations are reflected in the fluctuating relations with the main state and supranational players of the Central Asian chessboard, characterized by an alternation of alignments which, aimed at avoiding subjection to the regional policies of Russia, China and the United States, has conferred to the country a connotation of unreliability in the eyes of foreign interlocutors. Uzbekistan joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 1991 and was among the founders of its Collective Security Treaty (Cst) in 1992. Despite having supported the mechanisms of political cooperation and security inaugurated by Moscow in the post-Soviet space, the country gradually distanced itself from them in the second half of the 1990s: after starting a timid cooperation with NATO in 1995, in 1999 Uzbekistan decided not to renew its participation in the Cst and instead to enter Guam, a cooperation mechanism composed of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova (since then renamed G uuamprecisely for Uzbek accession), aimed at deepening relations with Euro-Atlantic partners, in a substantially anti-Russian perspective. This choice was reversed as early as 2001, when Uzbekistan froze its participation in the organization (from which it would formally exit in 2005) to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Sco), a Russian-Chinese-led Central Asian Cooperation Mechanism. On the other hand, in the more cooperative regional climate after 11 September 2001, Toškent also deepened security cooperation with the United States, to which it granted the use of an air base for the conduct of military operations in Afghanistan. However, against the backdrop of US guaranteed support for the ‘color revolutions’ that occurred in the post-Soviet space between 2003 and 2005, and following the harsh condemnation of the international community and the White House to the brutal repression of street demonstrations in 2005, Karimov made a new shift in his country’s foreign policy. He expelled the US forces and returned to the Cst in 2006, in the meantime institutionalized in an international organization (Csto). Finally, the situation determined by the prospect of withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan and the growing interest of the EU in Central Asian energy resources has more recently determined a new phase of rapprochement with the Euro-Atlantic interlocutors, culminating in the suspension of the participation in the CSTO, made official in December 2012.
In these continuous changes in the face, the strategic and economic agreement with China is growing, elevated to the level of partnership in the summer of 2012. Consistent with what happens in the other Central Asian republics, to drive Uzbekistan’s relations with China is the growing economic interchange. In 2012, China became the first Uzbek export partner, signaling Toškent’s willingness to differentiate its options so as not to be excessively dependent on Moscow. The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2013 was a clear testimony of the two countries’ willingness to forge closer economic relations, to the detriment of Russia.
The distance between Moscow and Toškent widened further in 2014, following the greater Russian projection in its ‘near abroad’. In March, the Uzbek foreign minister vehemently criticized the Russian annexation of Crimea, while in September Karimov himself criticized the ‘colonial’ legacy of the Soviet era in a public speech.