Meeting report, Vol. 2, No. 8, November 3, 2000

On October 31, 2000, Dr. Kodir Gulomov, Minister of Defense for the Republic of Uzbekistan, spoke at the Endowment about security challenges in Central Asia. Dr. Gulomov, who was appointed to his position in September, is the first civilian Minister of Defense in the history of independent Uzbekistan. His presentation was accompanied by commentary from Dr. Jeffrey Starr, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, and H.E. Sodiq Safaev, Ambassador to the U.S. from Uzbekistan. Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate for the Endowment's Russian and Eurasian Program, moderated the discussion. We provide below a summary of the presentation, commentary, and the discussion period.

Uzbekistan today must deal with the legacies of its Soviet past and the pressing security issues that threaten its existence as a newly independent state. Dr. Kodir Gulomov began his presentation by detailing the complexity of security factors in the region.

The ongoing civil war in Afghanistan remains a major force of destabilization in Central Asia. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan created what Gulomov described as a "permanent crisis in the relationship between the different components of the country's society," and destroyed the nation's economy. During the past two decades, a new generation has grown up in conflict-torn Afghanistan that believes that "a man with a machine gun is a real master of the world." Because of the destabilization of Afghan society, the country has become a training ground for terrorist groups, as well as a center for drug trafficking.

The civil war in Tajikistan further complicated the security environment in Central Asia. Tajikistan's eastern provinces have served as a refuge for opposition forces and terrorist groups to train and receive logistical support.

The economic and social difficulties of transition further complicate the security equation. Uzbekistan is a newly independent country that must deal with a legacy of Russian and Soviet rule in the region. Part of this legacy is environmental--the ecological situation around the Aral Sea and related shortage of water resources.

Gulomov described Uzbekistan's extensive military reforms, which are designed to "create a more mobile, well-armed, and competent force capable of protecting the nation's independence and peaceful life of its citizens." To organize an efficient command system, five military districts have been created in Uzbekistan, headed by a commander-in-chief. In addition, a state committee on border guards has been established to help cope with the infiltration of terrorists from neighboring countries into Uzbekistan, an issue that Uzbekistan's new defense doctrine identifies as a significant short-term threat. Dr. Gulomov, as Minister of Defense, is responsible for implementing the state-sponsored reform process.

The next phase of military reforms will involve the refining of military service and an overhaul of military training programs, particularly officer training. "The officers corps is the key element of the new armed forces," stated Gulomov. "During Soviet times, military service was not popular among the Uzbek people, so now we have a shortage of officers," he explained. Accordingly, the curriculum of military academies needs to be updated to meet the needs of a post-Soviet independent state. The Academy of Armed Forces was organized in 1995 to provide education for senior officers, who can enroll in the advanced Military Sciences program offered at the Academy. Uzbekistan is striving to create a professional corps of non-commissioned officers who are both "well-qualified and dedicated to the independence of the country" and "open to ideas about approaches to the development of the country." Uzbekistan is open to military contacts and cooperation with all countries, and sends its officers abroad for specialized training.

Commenting on the situation in Uzbekistan, Dr. Jeffrey Starr explained why the U.S. is interested in pursuing an active partnership with Uzbekistan. The creation of a professional military under the command of the Ministry of Defense is one of the major challenges facing newly independent states like Uzbekistan. Upon gaining independence, these nations lacked the necessary infrastructure for domestic military command, since all military decisions in the Soviet era were made in Moscow. According to Dr. Starr, the support of Uzbekistan's military reforms is an important part of the U.S. policy of promoting the sovereignty of post-Soviet states. Since beginning its partnership with Uzbekistan, the U.S. helped establish CENTRASBAT, the Central Asian Battalion, with members from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan who together compose a peace-keeping unit that serves out of the region. Since 1998, the U.S. has tried to move towards "a relationship with Uzbekistan that is more bilateral in character," said Starr. The State Department's Central Asia Security Initiative works with Uzbekistan to prevent the cross-border proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region, and to "protect their borders in a fashion that still promotes and permits open borders between them and their neighbors." In the long-term, the U.S. hopes to assist Uzbekistan in its efforts to build important military infrastructure, like the new Ministry of Defense, which is crucial for Uzbekistan's successful transition from a Soviet republic to an independent state.

Asked about the issues Uzbekistan will face during its transition, Gulomov spoke of the many challenges of creating a national military out of the military structures Uzbekistan inherited from the Soviet Union. These include the challenge of re-educating senior officers, and the shift from Russian to Uzbek as the language of command and control. Gulomov stressed the importance of education for creating a new military led by Uzbek citizens who have, in addition to the mastery of several languages, a broad understanding of global issues and information technology, and a greater sense of humanism. Describing the relationship between patriotism and military education, Gulomov explained that the Uzbeks can look to their rich history, and to "general human world views" to find heroes for young Uzbeks, and to create a new understanding of what it means to be an Uzbek soldier. The Uzbeks who sacrificed their lives fighting armed incursions in the mountains this summer are certaintly heroic examples for the Uzbek youth, he concluded.

The military also seeks to improve its civilian contacts through a defense planning exchange with the Uzbek parliament. Overall, this is part of the plan to create a military structure under civilian control, capable of making decisions and working with other branches of government, including parliament, the customs agency, and other government ministries.

Uzbekistan's military reform is made more difficult because of the financial limitations the nation faces, and because of the urgent security threats in the region that must be dealt with as reform proceeds. Asked about the placement of mines along the Uzbek border, Gulomov said that this is a necessary procedure given security hazards and the budget limitations of the Uzbek government. He noted that mines are only placed on Uzbek territory where people would not normally walk to stem the threat of militant incursions. According to Gulomov, the radical militants who threaten Uzbek security want to create chaos in the region, but have no interest in coming to power. Chaos and instability suit the purposes of the militants, who often have ties to the regional drug trade.

When questioned about the use of social, political and economic methods that might be used to stop terrorist incursions, Gulomov stated that "security has many aspects." He described Uzbekistan's efforts to promote regional cooperation in the use of energy and water resources as a means of reducing tension in the area.

Uzbekistan is interested in pursuing good relations with all of the great powers, including the United States and Russia, as well as with its neighbors. Asked about international relations, Gulomov explained that Uzbekistan seeks bilateral rather than multilateral agreements.

In his closing remarks, H.E. Sodiq Safaev noted that it is significant that Gulomov chose to go to the United States on his first trip abroad as Minister of Defense for Uzbekistan. "Normally military institutions are the most conservative…but in the case of Uzbekistan we see in the personality of Minister Gulomov that [the military] is the source of new elements and change," said Safaev. This is appropriate, explained Safaev, considering that Uzbekistan and Central Asia face new challenges. Because of growing tension in the region, Safaev believes that the center of terrorism has shifted from the Middle East to South Asia. Uzbekistan needs a new security infrastructure to deal with the new threats that have emerged. This will be created through military reform and education. Although the challenges Uzbekistan faces are great, Safaev noted that the high morale of the nation's soldiers is a promising sign that the security issues in the region can be dealt with successfully.

Summary by Erik Scott, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program.