Regional security and domestic politics featured high on the agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted into Tashkent on December 10 for a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov.
Putin appeared both to be wooing Karimov for backing in his confrontation with Ukraine, and offering a show of support for the incumbent ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan.
It “goes without saying” that Tashkent is “one of [Russia’s] priority partners in the region,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. That he bypassed other Central Asian allies like Kazakhstan to pay a visit to Uzbekistan lent weight to his remarks.
Karimov responded with boilerplate compliments about how Moscow has “always been present in Central Asia, and that position has always been a stabilizing factor.” Notwithstanding isolationist Tashkent’s habit of holding Moscow at arm’s length, he added that “Uzbekistan has always been open to Russia and is open today.”
Karimov repeated his oft-voiced concerns about regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops this year, but the Ukraine conflict was the elephant in the room. In the Kremlin transcript, neither side mentioned it by name, but Karimov referred obliquely to the need to respond to “challenges” in the face of a “known confrontation,” while Putin noted laconically that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan was “indifferent to how the situation in the region as a whole develops.”
Putin took more interest in upcoming elections in Uzbekistan—the vote to the rubberstamp parliament on December 21, and the far more significant presidential election due in spring (in which Karimov has not stated if he intends to stand).
Putin only noted that an “election cycle is starting” and wished Karimov “success” in conducting the votes, but his public mention of the elections suggests that – like many observers – the Russian president is closely observing how the political scene shapes up in Uzbekistan after a year of upheaval involving the once powerful Gulnara Karimova, the president’s daughter (she is under house arrest, investigated on corruption charges that she denies).
Backing up what appeared to be a show of moral support for Karimov with some financial largesse, Putin agreed to write off all but a fraction of Uzbekistan’s $890-million debt to Russia. Moscow will forgive $865 million of the sum, leaving Tashkent paying just $25 million and paving the way for new loans from Moscow, including to buy arms, Russian officials said.