Uzbekistan’s Endless Lost Decade

Uzbekistan is having one of those decades.

The Central Asian former Soviet Republic is not precisely flourishing, nor is it (as its critics would hope) failing. It continues in a twilight phase, beset by the usual mix of corruption, incompetence, kleptocracy, and geopolitical ineptness. Its dynastic succession is unsettled (Islam Karimov cannot live forever, rumors of a frantic search for a cure for death notwithstanding) and its political future is mired in Tashkent’s unique talent for alienating more or less everyone.

Which leads to Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union. News out of Tashkent this week initially suggested that Karimov was flirting with the Customs Union after a decade of opting out of Russian-dominated attempts to rebuild the USSR. Someone realized that this news might embolden Putin’s proclivity for coercing his neighbors into the Union, and so a rapid walkback made clear that this was not on the table in any way, nor is rejoining Russia’s common defense pact, please don’t send in tanks.

The source of this lead trial balloon – the head of the country’s sinecure Senate, who is nevertheless one of the more powerful warlords in the wretched hellhole – makes the entire episode not so much more mysterious as more proof that Uzbekistan is very bad at the game of thrones. In the last decade, it has managed to alienate Russia at least three times, the United States twice, the European Union times without count, and China at least once, all with blundering diplomacy, fits of pique and wounded pride, and a disproportionate sense of its own importance.

There is a tragedy here, one that goes even beyond the enormous number of Uzbeks working abroad in substandard conditions to send remittances to home, beyond the absurd poverty that permeates this historic crossroads region, beyond the thousand and one failures of governance that marks this as perhaps the very worst run of the former Soviet Republics. Uzbekistan’s story has been since at least the Soviet breakup one of almost impossibly unmet potential, a gap that has cost untold sums in human misery, wasted natural and human resource potential, and a loss to the wider world, who would benefit from ties to this nation, once the center of the world, and now a forgotten wasteland.

Islam Karimov should be tried for crimes against humanity without number. In the final reckoning, though, his greatest crime is not against so many individuals or even groups inside his desolate satrapy, but against the world itself.

Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons