In part one of this article series on Uzbekistan, I explored the changing security dynamic of Central Asia and the impact that the adjustments have had on both United States policy towards Uzbekistan and military modernization in the former Soviet republic. Uzbekistan’s recent policy pivots, to include an agreement on acquiring military weapons systems from the U.S. and China, have altered the security landscape of Central Asia, potentially having great effect upon Russian capacity to project power throughout the post-Soviet space and influence national policy throughout the states of a region rich in natural resources and contested by several powerful state actors: Russia, China, the European Union, and the U.S.

Historically, Russian leaders have pursued dominance over Central Asia to ensure buffer space between a vulnerable Moscow and potential invasion forces. The mountainous regions along the limits of the former Soviet Union at the edges of the southwestern and southern borders acted as buffer zones against invasion and ensured lines of communication and supply to growing population centers where Soviet military personnel were garrisoned and equipment was housed.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, authoritarian rulers have dominated the governing power structures of the former Soviet republics, rendering democracy movements ineffective even as similar uprisings in Ukraine (the Orange Revolution, 2004-2005 and Euromaidan in 2014) and Georgia (Rose Revolution, 2003) achieved significant effects upon popularly supported campaigns to achieve democratic and representative governance.

United States (public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In effect, the security landscape adaptations now beginning to reverberate throughout Central Asia foretell an impactful re-alignment of security interests and inter-state relationships, especially those between the former Soviet republics and Russia. The security threats now recognized by the government of longtime Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov have catalyzed a fundamental shift in national security priorities.

An effort to modernize the country’s military signals an intent to rely less on the security umbrella of Russia and a shift towards an autonomous capacity to defend its own borders against external attack by any aggressive foreign power. It also reflects the country’s prioritization of the capability to wage effective counterinsurgency operations to quell insurrection such as that which could arise out of the separatist movement growing in Karakalpakstan, security operations to combat internationally supported Islamist movement such as the one perpetuated by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), or to offset an escalation in recruitment of Uzbeks and other Central Asians by the Islamic State. In this piece, I will explore the catalysts for change in Uzbekistan: human rights abuses, government suppression of dissent, separatism, and the inevitable transfer of power from President Karimov to a successor.

A history of human rights abuses

Uzbekistan’s reputation as a state in which nearly the entire economy relies on forced labor is well-earned. Throughout the comparatively short history of Uzbekistan’s independence following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, Uzbekistan has been ruled by an authoritarian regime led by President Islam Karimov. Since winning the first election in the then-newly independent nation in December of 1991, Karimov has remained firmly entrenched in the country’s leadership role. Opposition to his rule has been met with iron-fisted crackdowns, and security force killings of dissenting citizens protesting his rule dot the landscape of his tenure as president. In particular, child labor has been an underpinning aspect of cost-limiting measures of the Tashkent regime:

Uzbekistan is notorious for human rights violations and state-orchestrated use of child labor, as well as forced labor of adults. According to Cotton Campaign, a coalition of NGOs and human rights activists dedicated to eradicating child labor in Uzbekistan, in 2013 at least 11 people died during cotton picking season. Victims’ age range from 6 to 63. (Dillorum Abdulloeva, Registan, June 8, 2014)