Putin's Gesture Will Win the Uzbek Heart

Somehow, Washington still hasn’t understood after a quarter century of acquaintance with Inner Asia that in the steppes, relationships are never to be treated as brusque, transactional or episodic

The late Uzbek President Islam Karimov had a tradition of inviting foreign envoys living in Tashkent to his state banquets for visiting dignitaries. The lavish banquets with live concert invariably ended with My Way by Frank Sinatra, which was apparently Karimov’s favourite number.

It was in December 1997, after one such dinner, while in the cloak room to collect the ‘great coat’ before stepping out into the snow and the howling Siberian winds that my Russian colleague (and a very dear friend) Ambassador Phillip Phillippovich Sidorsky – an ace ‘Afghan hand’ whose last stint in Kabul was as deputy to the famous Soviet diplomat Ambassador Yuli Vorontsev on a focused mission to oversee the withdrawal of Red Army from Afghanistan in 1989 – propositioned quietly if I were up to a night cap at the Russian chancery.

He whispered that the ‘visiting dignitary’, then Russian prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin, and host Karimov were retiring to a ‘sauna’ with a bottle of cognac, and had dismissed the retinue, which left him free. Later I learnt from Phillip Phillippovich that the sauna lasted till 3 a.m.

Those were rare occasions that I got to take a peep into the complicated mind of Karimov — and the roller-coaster ties between Moscow and Tashkent. A visit by a Kremlin leader was always a special occasion for Karimov, complexities of Russian-Uzbek relationship notwithstanding. Our western colleagues in Tashkent had no clue (and one part of the Great Game was most certainly about keeping them guessing.)

Thus, earlier today when President Vladimir Putin had a stopover in Samarkand, en route to Moscow from the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, to pay homage to the departed Uzbek leader and to commiserate privately with Karimov’s widow and daughter, it had a profound backdrop that is not visible to outsiders. (TASS)

Of course, it was also a highly symbolic gesture. (Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had represented Russia at Karimov’s funeral at Samarkand.) Somehow, Washington still hasn’t understood after a quarter century of acquaintance with Inner Asia that in the steppes, relationships are never to be treated as brusque, transactional or episodic.

While President Xi Jinping deputed a special envoy from Beijing to attend Karimov’s funeral, US was apparently represented by the ambassador in Tashkent. (PM Narendra Modi should have deputed MOS MJ Akbar to travel to Samarkand.) The Uzbeks are deeply immersed in Oriental civilization.

Inevitably, this single gesture by Putin will go a long way to consolidate Russia-Uzbek ties at a critical time of political transition in Tashkent. The remarks by Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev (who may well be the next president) amply bear this out. (Kremlin readout)

Isn’t there politics in the state funeral in Samarkand? Of course, there is. Putin certainly factored in that it is in Russia’s core interests that there is a friendly leader and an ally in Tashkent – especially, with the gathering storms in the Hindu Kush. To be sure, he went the extra league to reach out. And he probably fulfilled his mission, too.

Even in the Soviet era dating back to Josef Stalin, Moscow regarded Uzbekistan as the key country in Central Asia. This is reflected in the manner in which Stalin resolved the so-called nationality question in Soviet Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is the only country that has a border with all other Central Asian states; it accounts for nearly 40 percent of the entire population of Central Asian region; Fergana Valley and the great (Tajik) cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva form part of it; there is an Uzbek minority population in all Central Asian countries; Tashkent was also the headquarters of the Turkestan Military District (of both the Imperial Russian Army and the Soviet Armed Forces.)

In the post-Soviet era, arguably, Kremlin came to rely more on Kazakh leader Nurusultan Nazarbayev as its ever-green ally in regional politics. (Nazarbayev even played a mediatory role in the Russian-Turkish rapprochement.) Nonetheless, Karimov still remained the one leader in the ‘near abroad’ toward whom Moscow used to be most deferential — although he kept a calibrated distance from the Moscow-led integration processes. The point is, if push comes to shove, Uzbekistan is the only former Soviet republic in Central Asia which has a highly trained professional standing army that can truly partner Russia’s.

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