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Outside Interest in Uzbekistan: Part 3

By  Stratfor
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With clan struggles continuing to define the power players and sectors in Uzbekistan, powers outside of the country will try to take advantage of the divisions, as they have in the past. Uzbekistan has a propensity for remaining relatively independent from any other power, unlike many of its neighbors. However, if outsiders can exploit Uzbekistan's internal divisions effectively, they could increase their influence in the important Central Asian state when Islam Karimov's presidency ends.

Two major players are interested in shaping Uzbek politics (and thus the rest of the country): Russia and China. Both see Uzbekistan as the key to influencing Central Asia as a whole. As mentioned in Part 1, Uzbekistan holds nearly half of Central Asia's population, borders all the other Central Asian states and contains the region's heartland of the Fergana Valley, which overlaps into southern Kyrgyzstan, western Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan. The other Central Asian countries would also like to influence Uzbekistan more in the future for their own benefit, to prevent hostilities and keep the region's already tenuous security situation in check.

Moscow has long wanted to influence Uzbekistan. The country is reluctant to participate in Russian-led blocs but is still very reliant on Russia for trade, remittances and weapons. Approximately 26 percent of all Uzbek exports go to Russia, including more than half of Uzbekistan's natural gas exports.

Russia sees securing its influence in Central Asia as imperative to securing its southern flank from Asia and the Islamic world that was not part of the Soviet Union. Russian influence is prevalent in other Central Asian countries, including in the energy sectors of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and Moscow has military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Russia's influence in Uzbekistan's neighbors keeps pressure on the country, as seen in the Kyrgyz revolution in 2010.

As Russia's presence in Central Asia has grown in recent years, Uzbekistan has attempted to rebuff Moscow's pressures, for example by pulling out of Moscow's Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance in 2012. However, Russia holds many levers in Uzbekistan, the most important of which is the population of Uzbek migrant laborers working in Russia.

According to Russia's Federal Migration Services, approximately 2.52 million Uzbeks -- 8 percent of the Uzbek population -- work in Russia. In 2012, remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan from that population totaled $5.7 billion, or more than 11 percent of Uzbekistan's gross domestic product. With Uzbekistan concerned about an insufficient number of jobs for its growing population at home, the country needs continued access to Russia for its workers.

Russia also has connections with Uzbekistan's military and security apparatus and regional elites, particularly in the Fergana clan and via wealthy businessman Alisher Usmanov. Usmanov is one of Russia's richest men, with a fortune of nearly $20 billion. He also has close ties with the Kremlin. Usmanov is from the Namangan province and has close ties with the currently leaderless Fergana clan.

Should a power struggle erupt between the clans following Karimov's rule, Russia's position could be strengthened via Usmanov and the Fergana clan. It seems that Usmanov and the Kremlin had been strengthening the Fergana clan over the past few years before the Tashkent clan cracked down on the Fergana clan and its leaders. It is currently unclear whom Russia will support next.

Like Russia, China sees increasing its influence in Central Asia as critical to its strategic imperatives. China wants several things from Central Asia: to secure its western flank, to secure resources from the region and to use the region as a land-based transit corridor. China historically has sought to push its boundaries northward and westward and use Central Asia as a buffer zone.

Now, Beijing would like to increase its influence in Central Asia to ensure security on its western border and in its territory of Xinjiang. Central Asia is also home to large Uighur populations, which have ties to Xinjiang. China would also like to secure Central Asian resources, as the country is increasingly hungry for energy and other commodities. Uzbekistan holds natural gas, gold, uranium and copper supplies -- all of which are of interest to Beijing.

Lastly, Uzbekistan -- being the center of the region -- is an important piece of the trade corridor from China through Central Asia to the Middle East and South Asia, as it was during the days of the Silk Road. China has been interested in diversifying its supply routes, coupling its ongoing reliance on sea-based transit with new or improved land routes, and this includes reviving the former Silk Road connections for trade.

Already China is in talks with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on rail and road transit, and Uzbekistan could be next. China could also use the possibility of warmer relations with Uzbekistan as leverage in its other relationships in the region.

Though Chinese influence in Uzbekistan is relatively low at this time, Beijing does have some things to offer the country. China has shown it is willing to invest in Central Asia, as it has done in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan is still relatively isolated from large foreign investment, though this could change in the future if Uzbekistan does not want to fall behind its neighbors.

Specifically, China could offer investment in Uzbekistan's energy sector as the country lags behind its production goals. China is already investing in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which send oil and natural gas to China. Beijing and Tashkent have attempted to strike deals in the past few years for natural gas supplies, but Uzbekistan's natural gas sector is still too far behind in production to fill the contracts with China. In 2012, Uzbekistan produced 57 billion cubic meters and only exported 0.2 billion cubic meters to China, though it was contracted to export 10 billion cubic meters.

China could also offer Uzbekistan a security relationship. After Uzbekistan withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, it began exploring other security relationships. In the months that followed the withdrawal, there was an uptick in Sino-Uzbek defense talks. Uzbekistan could be interested in receiving arms from a non-Russian player, particularly as Russia increases its influence in Central Asia.

However, China has not shown where its loyalties lie regarding the clan struggles inside Uzbekistan. Currently Beijing has no strong relationships with Uzbekistan or its clans. As in many other Central Asian states, there is an inherent bias against the Chinese that stems from Soviet propaganda.

Uzbekistan has yet to overcome this bias, as Kazakhstan mostly has, so the formation of strong ties between Tashkent and Beijing will take time. Moreover, China has not shown an aptitude for dabbling in Uzbek clan politics -- unlike Russia, which knows the clans intimately.

Other Central Asian States
The other Central Asian states would like increased influence in Uzbekistan's security from whatever changes take place after Karimov. This is more for their own stability than a part of the great power game China and Russia are playing.

The first reason the other Central Asian states are concerned about the future of Uzbekistan is that since the country borders all the other Central Asian states, should Uzbekistan destabilize, it could have repercussions throughout the region. When the Andijan crisis took place, thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Uzbeks tried to flee into southern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Tensions along the Uzbek borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan can range from ethnic violence to petty crime, and these incidents can easily grow into larger violent episodes. Should an internal power struggle erupt in Uzbekistan, the borderlands could certainly be affected.  

The other Central Asian states are also concerned that instability in Uzbekistan could disrupt the region economically, including Uzbek exports of electricity, food, minerals and more. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- which traditionally do not get along with Uzbekistan anyway -- are already in several trade spats with Uzbekistan. Any instability within Uzbekistan could further complicate the situation if Uzbekistan grows more nationalist as a result of its own internal problems.

In addition, there are large Uzbek diasporas located in each of the other four Central Asian countries, especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Each diaspora's elites are also politically aligned with a certain Uzbek clan, while the lower levels of the diasporas are tied to specific clans via historic and familial ties. Thus, clan infighting could reach into the diasporas in the other Central Asian states.  

Lastly, competition is growing among the Central Asian energy-rich states over outside markets (particularly China). Should Uzbekistan be able to remain stable and beef up its energy sector, it could erode Turkmenistan's dominance in sending natural gas to China and could compete with Kazakhstan's future exports. In addition, Uzbekistan could be a competing route for Tajikistan, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan along the Silk Road route China seeks to re-establish.

Though China will not choose just one Central Asian country, it could choose a Kyrgyz-Uzbek route going westward instead of a Tajik or Kyrgyz-Tajik route, which would alter the balance of energy exports in the region. However, this would depend on China and Uzbekistan deepening their relationship in the future.

The future of Uzbekistan is not only important to those clans inside the country, but also to the Central Asian region and to the greater balance of power in Eurasia. Thus, numerous players in the region are interested in the ongoing clan rivalries within the country and how they will eventually play out.

Editor's Note: This is the third of a three-part series on the clans of Uzbekistan. Part 1 examined the history of the clans and of Uzbekistan through the Soviet period. Part 2 looked at the current relationships and tensions among the clans and how they affect the Uzbek political landscape. Part 3 examines outside players' interests in Uzbekistan and the potential exploitation of the clans' power struggle.

Courtesy : Stratfor (

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