Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan: the shapers of Central Asia
Central Asia has always been considered a fragmented territory, where tribal clans hold power to the detriment of central bureaucracies. The main powers interested in penetrating the region are China, Russia, Turkey and Pakistan
Relations between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan represent the backbone of Central Asia. Without these two countries, economically and demographically too large to be considered mere client states, the region would be much more influenced by external players. China, Russia, Turkey and Pakistan are the main powers interested in penetrating Central Asia. The policy of safeguarding independence taken by Nur-Sultan and Tashkent has allowed them to avoid being incorporated into other countries’ spheres of influence.
Two opposite, yet equal strategies
Central Asia has always been considered a fragmented territory, where tribal clans hold power to the detriment of central bureaucracies. In this situation, two states emerge positively for their stability: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan benefited from its proximity to Russia, which made it one of Moscow's most loyal allies and strengthened its military structures. Natural resources, especially coal, natural gas and oil, have facilitated the enrichment of the country. A relatively small population compared to the size of the state and the presence of a solid minority of ethnic Russians near the Russian border and in the main cities have, however, weakened Nur-Sultan action, with an internal competition between Kazakhs and Russians.
The desire to participate in the main Russian and Chinese-led Eurasian integration organizations, as well as the rapprochement with the West, has favored the affirmation of a multivectoral policy. It sees constant dialogue with major Eurasian powers as the basis for stability of the Kazakh system, which cannot afford either international isolation or an alignment with a single geopolitical side. Its heavily export-oriented economy could not stand it.
Uzbekistan is located in the heart of Central Asia. Its population is double that of Kazakhstan and is constantly growing while economically it is the second power in the region. Agriculture, especially vegetables, fruit, cereals and cotton, and mining constitute the basis of its economy, with a strong development of industry in recent years, while energy resources represent only a limited share of the national GDP. The production model appears to be oriented mainly for the domestic market, except for some specific products such as cotton and gas which have always been exported.
Tashkent has maintained a situation of isolation for about twenty-five years. Its policy of strategic autonomy was linked to the desire to preserve the productive and social structure from any shock related to the liberalization of the system, as well as a desire to keep Russia out of Uzbek issues. With the election of Mirziyoyev, however, there has been a gradual detente with the other states, and the neighboring states have particularly benefited from this.
Thirty years of relations
Although former Kazakh President Nazarbayev pursued a Eurasianist policy and favored friendly relations with all neighbors, former Uzbek President Karimov preferred to maintain a defensive and suspicious attitude. This has made Tashkent an unreliable partner both in bilateral relations and in regional organizations, as in the case of the CSTO, which it has abandoned and rejoined several times.
However, relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have strengthened considerably after 2016. The new Uzbek president has pursued a regionalist policy, immediately finding the availability of Nur-Sultan. The Kazakh-Uzbek axis developed in the wake of a complementarity between the economies of the two countries. Kazakhstan, in fact, has an economy capable of absorbing immigrant labor, while Uzbekistan has an important share of unemployed and cross-border workers that its neighbor could partially attract. Furthermore, due to the particular administrative geography of Central Asia, the two states are developing a highly interconnected logistic and commercial system.
The desire to increase cooperation between Tashkent and Nur-Sultan is motivated by reasons that go well beyond the good neighborhood policy. To prevent Central Asia from being (re)-absorbed into the sphere of influence of external powers, it is essential that the two main countries of the region join forces to preserve and extend their policies of strategic autonomy and multivectoralism. The risks stemming from Afghan instability and China's predatory actions, coupled with the Russian willingness to maintain a stable presence in the region, could in fact subjugate Tashkent and Nur-Sultan. Neither Kazakhstan nor Uzbekistan can allow this.