It wasn't exactly a surprise when Uzbekistan pulled out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow’s alternative to NATO, this week. But while many Russian commentators appear offended, some are asking if a new CSTO rule on hosting foreign bases was just too much for Tashkent to stomach.
Tashkent has long been the nebulous body’s sulking brat, refusing to participate in joint military exercises and antagonizing fellow members such as neighboring Tajikistan. At the same time, Uzbekistan has become critical to the NATO war effort in Afghanistan. So the withdrawal, for those who see the CSTO in direct competition with NATO, stings.
Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the CIS Institute in Moscow, told RIA Novosti that Uzbekistan’s choice displays "a clear desire of President [Islam] Karimov to flirt with the United States."
The Voice of Russia calls the move “risky.” Andrei Grozin, the head of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute, told the outlet that “Tashkent’s foreign policy is zigzagging” while it tries to “win the love of NATO.”
But the decision to withdraw (Tashkent calls it a “suspension”) might be less about love and more about cash. Under CSTO regulations adopted last winter, no member can invite a foreign military to open a base without the consensus of the others – i.e. Russia gets a veto. That stipulation must have been especially vexing to Tashkent, which is earning a fortune cooperating with NATO. Uzbekistan already hosts a German base in the border town of Termez, and hosted an American base, K2, until Washington criticized Karimov for massacring hundreds of his own civilians in Andijan in 2005.
Analysts have been speculating for years that the Americans were angling to return, or at least open some sort of transit facility. Has that time come?
“Uzbekistan seems to have agreements with the United States…on opening a military base on its territory," Central Asia-specialist Vadim Kozyulin of the PIR Center, a think tank, told Kommersant. "This issue would have had to be discussed with other CSTO members. Now Tashkent may open a base without consultations.”
Kazakh analyst Maxim Kaznacheyev told Interfax Kazakhstan on June 29 that "In order to avoid the need for harmonizing procedures [on those foreign bases], Uzbekistan must now suspend its membership in the organization. By and large, this is the whole reason.”
While we wait and see if Karimov has a special announcement to make, the notoriously unpredictable president isn’t keeping anyone up at night; most expect he’ll be back. (By the way, Uzbekistan did withdraw once before, in 1999, but returned in 2006.)
The Kremlin-controlled Voice of Russia’s forecast even taunts Karimov a little, arguing that he is foolish to think the West will offer him security guarantees: “Tashkent has time to think everything over. Taking into account the choices the Uzbek authorities make from time to time, Uzbekistan may soon again find itself on the list of CSTO members”