Uzbekistan Expands Its Sphere of Influence

Islam Karimov plays a long game for a man whose time is almost up.

Uzbekistan is looking to expand its influence in the region, and so is opting into the Commonwealth of Independent States’ free trade zone while seeking to nurture its own oil and gas industry at the cost of experienced majors. It’s the sort of ambitious and absolutely stupid series of moves for which Karimov is famous; for his successor’s sake, and for his country’s, we should hope he’ll stop soon.

Free trade is usually a good idea, but CIS free trade is frequently a precursor to Russian influence and headaches. Karimov needs to be part of the scheme to move Uzbekistan’s economy from a remittance-based kleptocracy into a market-based kleptocracy, a key element to competing with Turkmenistan for hearts, minds, and wallets in the region. As he won’t be in power for many more decades, the threat of a Russian move on Uzbekistan’s questionable independence is academic to him. (Most of those remittances come from Uzbeks working in Russia as miners, petty laborers, and prostitutes, all under Russian security’s observation.)

The news that Karimov has asked Tethys Petroleum to depart the country is doubtless something of a surprise to most observers, but Tashkent has long nurtured ridiculous dreams of a competent domestic petroleum industry, and Karimov is either moving to effect this or is one or two steps removed from that event. Karimov, known to believe he’s the expert at everything, in all likelihood has no idea why the integrated majors are so good at what they do, and why there are so few of them. Expect Uzbekistan’s natural resource industry to crater within the decade.

Lest it be thought that Karimov and his corrupt regime have no value, they are instead providing a lesson to anyone who will pay attention: the Soviet Union left a great many idiots behind in its wake, and those idiots are absolutely unconcerned with anything but their own enrichment. Some of the republics are governed well, even in trying circumstances; some are governed unevenly, usually in trying circumstances; the Central Asian -stans are governed as personal bank accounts, and the world could care less.

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