Ex-Russian Satellite Enjoys Setting Its Own Agenda
Uzbekistan looks to the West for new ideas and trade; Moscow holds only 'the achievements of yesterday'
TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN — Sitting confidently astride his bronze charger, pointing the way to further conquests, a statue of Amir Timur, the fabled warrior Tamerlane, dominates the main square of this Central Asian capital.
A few years ago, the spot was marked by a bust of Karl Marx. Earlier, a statue of Josef Stalin stood here. When the city was built 100 years ago, the square boasted a memorial to Gen. Konstantin Kaufmann, the Russian soldier who had just subdued the region's Muslim rulers.
Tamerlane, the medieval warlord whose sway extended from Egypt to China, and from the Volga to Delhi, was responsible for the deaths of as many as 20 million people, which might be thought of as a drawback in a national hero.
But he was nevertheless a native son of Uzbek soil, and for a new republic reveling in its independence from Moscow after more than 100 years of subjugation, that is all that counts.
Uzbekistan is asserting its independence in more than symbolic ways. Uncertain of Russian intentions and worried that Moscow's old imperial ambitions may be merely in temporary abeyance, Tashkent is doing more than any other member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to bolster its defenses against possible encroachment.
"The Uzbeks are jealous of their independence, and they believe that substantial elements in Russia would like to reestablish sufficient control to ensure their economic interests - to set up a satellite [state]," says one Western diplomat here. "The Uzbeks do not intend to play that role."
For a country that played the classic third-world role of raw-materials supplier to its colonial master, forging a new identity is no mean task. In the eyes of Soviet planners, Uzbekistan existed merely to provide Russian textile mills with cotton and to fill the Kremlin's treasury with gold mined from the world's seventh-largest reserves. For everything else, from food to machinery, the republic relied on Russia and Ukraine. Today, says a senior official at an Uzbek government think tank, "the leadership's main goal is economic self sufficiency."
Uzbekistan is better off than most of its fellow former Soviet republics: It possesses many of the natural resources it needs to achieve economic independence from "Big Brother."
Last year, for example, the country became self-sufficient in oil and gas, thus wriggling free of dependence on Russia's vast energy reserves.
Government planners are cutting back on cotton fields in order to grow more wheat so that they won't have to buy so much food from Russia in the future. Uzbekistan is currently the second-largest cotton exporter in the world, after the United States.
In the meantime, the cotton that Uzbek farmers do grow is no longer going to Russia, where 100 percent of the crop used to be bartered in Soviet times. Instead, the government is selling its "white gold" to international cotton merchants for hard currency at world prices.
And when factories or farms need machinery, they are looking to the West or to Japan, instead of calling their old suppliers in the former Soviet Union. "We are trying to bring modern technology into Uzbekistan," President Islam Karimov explained recently. "This technology can only come from the West. From Russia, we can only get the achievements of yesterday."
This approach has made the Uzbek government extremely wary about Moscow's insistent calls for deeper economic integration among commonwealth countries.
"Integration," in the jaundiced view of most officials here, is simply code for Moscow's domination, which is one reason that Tashkent refused to join the Customs Union that Russia, Belarus, Kazakstan, and Kyrgyzstan set up last year.
The effects of this attitude are clear in Uzbekistan's export and import figures. Trade with CIS partners fell by 27 percent in the first half of last year from the same period in 1995, while trade with non-CIS countries grew by 80 percent.
Only 8 percent of Uzbekistan's exports are sold to Russia now; five years ago that figure was close to 100 percent.
During negotiations about membership of the Customs Union, "Russia always attached political and military conditions," such as stationing Russian troops on Uzbek territory, complains the think tank official. "This is unacceptable. Uzbekistan does everything according to its own interests, and of course that position does not win much applause in Moscow."
If Moscow were to exert serious pressure, though, "the United States is the only balance to Russia's influence," the official adds. "Our dream is that Washington will recognize Uzbekistan as a strategic partner."
The chances of that seem slim. "Central Asia is a long way away," the Western diplomat says. "America and Europe will provide moral support to Uzbekistan, but there is a real limit."
Beyond joining the Partnership for Peace with NATO, planning joint maneuvers with American troops, and dreaming of strategic alliances with the West, Uzbekistan is taking practical steps to reduce its reliance on Russian rail links to get its exports out to the world.
Doubly landlocked - surrounded on all sides by countries that are themselves landlocked - Uzbekistan has major communications problems. Once upon a time, Russia could have throttled the country's exports at will.
Moscow is still in a strong position to apply pressure. The bulk of Uzbek exports travel by rail through Russia to ports on the Black Sea, the Baltic, or the Pacific.
But locomotives traveling a new rail route through Turkmenistan, across the Caspian Sea, into Azerbaijan, and on to the Black Sea port of Poti in Georgia are now hauling Uzbek cotton toward Europe.
Trucks and railway cars are expected to carry one quarter of the country's cotton exports this year down to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. The Uzbek government also has high hopes for an American company's plan to build a gas pipeline from neighboring Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean, which would also involve a road alongside the pipe.
"The [Uzbek] state shipping company is offering wild destinations via nontraditional routes," says Marc Sadler, local representative of Meredith Jones, a British cotton-trading firm. "They are not stuck with the Russians for transport any more."
In the end, of course, despite efforts to tie their future to the West, Uzbekistan and all of Central Asia is not an area of vital strategic importance to the United States and Europe in the same way it is to Russia.
"The Russians can be as successful as they have the capacity to be here" should they turn aggressive, says the Western diplomat.
Uzbekistan is careful to do nothing to provoke Moscow. After all, it was the trade in Russian slaves that gave the czar a pretext to capture Uzbekistan for the empire in 1873.
But the hope, says the diplomat, "is that the Russians can be convinced that a region of friendly and stable states suits them best as a buffer zone" to the south. In that case, "they may very well adjust to this, and accept it."