When the Soviet government in Moscow imploded and the nationalist movements shook the political foundations on the western and southern edges of the Union, the two most important Soviet republics in Central Asia—Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—were propelled into independent statehood. The communist party chiefs turned presidents, Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan gradually consolidated their grips on power to build authoritarian, super-presidential political systems.
Although superficially similar from the offset, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have pursued divergent foreign policy agendas as independent states. Astana has prioritized building friendly relations with all of its neighbors, reached out to outside partners, maintained close relations with Russia, emphasized multilateral diplomacy, and advocated for deeper integration in the post-Soviet space. In contrast, Tashkent has sought self-reliance and stressed its sovereignty. It has mostly dealt with its neighbors bilaterally and rejected any supranational integration projects like the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Uzbekistan has nimbly joined and withdrawn from different regional organizations, fluctuated in its policy toward Russia from alliance to antagonism, and pursued bullyish policies towards its smaller Central Asian neighbors, namely Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In this article, SSU assesses the geographic, demographic and economic factors that set Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan apart, and how those differences drive their unique approaches to foreign policy. Astana and Tashkent advance their interests in markedly different contexts: Kazakhstan, despite being the mini-hegemon of the small region, is tied to Russia and cannot afford to antagonize Moscow, whereas Uzbekistan, despite being second most powerful, can confidently pursue its interests without appeasement.
Kazakhstan: Russia’s closest and most consistent ally in the region
“More than any other country, Kazakhstan has been a consistent and ambitious advocate of institutionalized links within the post-Soviet space,” Robert Legvold, a leading expert on Russian foreign policy, wrote in early 2000s. Already in 1994, president Nazarbayev was calling for a Eurasian Union, which would have deepened the political and economic integration in the post-Soviet space well beyond anything proposed by the Kremlin at any point after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev’s vision of a Eurasian Union would have mimicked the European Union, having a consultative parliament, a common currency, supranational decision-making bodies and a capital. At the time, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia showed little interest in the project. Moscow’s priority was domestic modernization and integration with the West, while Yeltsin’s foreign policy team saw little to gain by getting hung up on the underdeveloped peripheries of the old empire.
Putin changed the course of Russia’s foreign policy, but Nazarbayev has remained a consistent advocate of re-establishing a common economic space in the post-Soviet region. The Kazakh leadership has heralded the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 as a major foreign policy achievement. It is also a founding member in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is led by Russia and offers its members NATO-style security guarantees. At the same time, Kazakhstan has been eager to build close ties with all of its neighbors and outside powers: Kazakhstan has participated in the Steppe Eagle peacekeeping military exercises with the United States military since the early 1990s, China’s Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative in Astana, and recently Astana has hosted major peace negotiations for the war in Syria.
Uzbekistan: Sovereignty and self-sufficiency above everything
Uzbekistan’s many foreign policy fluctuations are too numerous to go into detail here: along Kazakhstan in 1994, it signed the Collective Security Treaty, the forerunner to CSTO, but withdrew five years later in 1999 because of disagreements with Russia over how to respond to the expanding Taliban influence in Afghanistan. In the early 2000s, it pursued close relations with Washington, granting the United States an airbase to support the war on terror. The strategic partnership went cold quickly and fell apart completely in 2005 after hundreds of people died to the gunshots of Uzbek security forces in Andijan. Russia was quick to pursue rapprochement with Tashkent, and Uzbekistan re-joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2006 to withdraw again in 2012. Even more short-lived was Uzbekistan membership to the Eurasian Economic Community which only lasted for two years from 2006 until 2008. It has stayed outside of the Eurasian Economic Union.
The pendulum of the Uzbek foreign policy has flung between great powers, from isolationism to outreaches. Islam Karimov’s right-hand man, prime minister for 13 years, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, succeeded him to lead the country in 2016. He started the modernization of Uzbek economy, reached out to Uzbekistan’s neighbors, opened multiple previously closed border crossings, made overtures to Moscow, and welcomed foreign visitors on a simplified electronic visa.
Since the 1990s, arguably the worst bilateral relationship between Central Asian countries was between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Since 1998, no flights flew between Dushanbe and Tashkent, most border crossings were closed and visa regime remained tight because of animosity between the two countries’ leadership. Now relations are warm, the presidents – Mirziyoyev and Emomali Rahmon – have praised the eternal brotherhood between the two nations, and old disputes about water resources are settled without threats of military interventions.
Same region, different worlds
The different foreign policy trajectories of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan cannot be separated from the context in which their leadership make decisions about how to engage with the outside world. As the world’s 9th largest country and one of the most sparsely populated, Kazakhstan shares the longest land border in the world with Russia and a long border with China as well. Kazakhstan is Russia’s access point to the broader region as the only Central Asian country to share a border with the former imperial overload. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is one of the only two double-landlocked countries in the world. It is detached from both Russia and China by its neighbors which include all of the Central Asian countries and also Afghanistan, enabling it to position itself as the core state of the region but at the same time leaving it vulnerable to the spillover of violence from its war-torn neighbor.
Similarly, in the economic sphere, Kazakhstan is much more closely knit to Russia than Uzbekistan. During the Soviet period, Tashkent was the major urban center of Central Asia, and Uzbekistan was the economically most developed of the Central Asian republics. It has retained a relatively diversified economic structure with a mix of agriculture, industry, and natural resource extraction. World’s largest gold mine is located in Uzbekistan, and the gold exports account for 40% of Uzbekistan’s exports. This leaves Uzbekistan vulnerable to changes in global commodity prices, but unlike Kazakhstan, it doesn’t have to worry as much about pipeline politics.
Kazakhstan’s economy is completely dependent on oil exports, and its main non-oil sector is natural gas. It is dependent on a network of oil pipelines that until the mid-2000s went exclusively to Russia. The completion of the Kazakhstan-China pipeline in 2005 opened an alternative route, but most of the oil and gas continues to flow through Russia. Kazakhstan is also a major producer of uranium, which is exported to Russia from facilities in Kazakhstan that are managed by Russia’s Rosatom.
Finally, the demographic composition of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan vary markedly. When the Soviet Union collapsed, ethnic Kazakhs were a minority in their own country, outnumbered by ethnic Russians. Many of the Russians have since emigrated, and now the Russian minority is only a bit over 20% of the total population. The minority is largely concentrated in northern Kazakhstan, in the areas adjunct to the Russian border, leaving many to speculate after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine that a similar scenario could unfold there if Russia so chose. In comparison, Uzbekistan is ethnically a relatively homogenous country, where the most notable ethnic minorities (Tajiks, Turkmen) don’t have a foreign backer that could threaten the sovereignty of Tashkent.
Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has swung from friendly ties with Moscow to partnership with Washington. Uzbekistan remains well-shielded from outside powers and their influence regardless who is in power in Tashkent. Therefore the Uzbek leadership has and probably will continue to make quick turnarounds to advance its interests without caring much about which capital they upset in the process. Kazakhstan cannot afford such luxury. President Nazarbayev has skillfully built Kazakhstan into the region’s most prosperous country despite its geographic, demographic, and economic vulnerabilities. Anything but a careful balancing act would not only risk the prosperity but the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Kazakh republic.