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  • Writer's pictureRed Line Producer

Episode 44. The Geopolitics of Uzbekistan (and the Island of Anthrax)

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Uzbekistan is utterly unique in Central Asia and serves as the geographic key to the region. The only nation to border all its Central Asian neighbours, it served as the Soviet's path into Afghanistan in 1979, the Mongol's path into the Middle East in the 1200s, and the path from ancient China to ancient Europe. And although recently it has thrown off the weight of its 27-year dictator, many remnants of Uzbekistan's past still haunts it. Among those is an entire island in the Aral Sea rotting with the remains of a Soviet biological warfare program.



Joanna Lillis

  • Journalist covering central Asia for The Economist, The Guardian, and Eurasianet

  • Author of the book Dark Shadow: Inside the secret world of Kazakhstan

Nikita Makarenko

  • Journalist and defence writer based in Uzbekistan

  • Reporting from the ground in the region for years

Kristaps Andrejsons

  • Investigative Journalist in the former Soviet States for many years

  • Host of the show The Eastern Border

Bruce Pannier

  • Written for dozens of renowned publications from Radio Free Liberty to the Foreign Policy Research Institute to The Diplomat.

  • One of the most recognised and respected names in reporting on Central Asia.


Part 1: Nowhere to Go (02:07)

  • Joanna Lillis takes us through the fundamentals of Uzbekistan. We look at the painful but not bloody transition from to independence from the Soviet Union, comparing the Uzbek experience to that of its neighbours. We look at how for much of Central Asia, independence was not a choice, but thrust upon them by geopolitical circumstance.

  • We tackle the country's surprisingly well-performing economy, which was one of the few to post growth figures during the COVID-19 Pandemic. While accurately known as a gas, gold and cotton rich country, its large population, diversified economy, other natural resources, and relatively lower reliance on remittances from citizens working overeseas, have kept it economically strong.

  • We look at why Uzbekistan's relationships with its Central Asian neighbours was so bad in the post-Soviet world order, and the extent to which is was uniquely due to diplomacy and policies of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistna's ruler of 27 years.

  • The domestic situation under Karimov was fairly dire in terms of liberal values, with the state consistently ranking among the lowest in the world for press freedom and human rights. And while there has been liberalisation since Karimov's death in 2016, the deeply entrenched systems of a corrupt police state are hard to overcome.

  • Finally we take a brief overview of the international arena for Uzebekistan, including the period in which the United States was pursuing closer relations with Uzbekistan in relation to the War on Terror. We examine the changes in relationships following Karimov's death, where we have seen Uzbekistan become much less isolationist, cooperating with its neighbours instead of acting as a spoiler for united regional action, for instance in regard to developing hydropower generation.


Part 2: The Weight of Tradition (21:51)

  • Nikita Makarenko takes us further into life under Karimov and the history of Great Power involvement in the state. Additionally we get an on-the-ground perspective of life under Karimov as compared to today.

  • We look at the Great Power competition in Uzbekistan, concluding that while there are narratives of competing US and Chinese influence, really Russia continues to dominate in influence, though the winds may be changing in favour of China.

  • Under Karimov, Uzbekistan was "sterile safe" - proud to the among the safest in the region but lacking in any freedom of press or speech. Makarenko helps us understand the drastic changes that came about in 2016 with the transition of power, including positives like greater freedom of speech and movement, but also the issues that have remained - particularly the massive, widespread corruption that permeates political and economic life in Uzbekistan.

  • We round out with a look at the economic situation, analysing the consequences of the government having ownership over all land, lack of diversity in crops that can be farmed, and current efforts to continue diversifying the economy. Makarenko provides a deeper analysis of the comparison between Uzbekistan and its neighbours, and the economic liberalisation and justice system reforms required to fully enable Uzbekistan's growth potential.


Part 3: Death by the Sands (37:42)

  • An Uzbek island in the Aral Sea contains the remnants of some of the most powerful Soviet biological warfare development. In this part, Kristaps Andrejsons helps us understand the rotting stores of smallpox, anthrax, nerve gas and many other deeply dangerous weapons, and the effect they are already having in the region.

  • We trace the history of this Soviet biological weapons program and the lack of interest in protection of local people or the local environment around these facilities.

  • Currently, this island is contaminating an area the size of metropolitan France due to the region's frequest dust storms. Cancer rates in Kazakh cities located close to this island are dramatically higher than anywhere else in the region.

  • While local farmers have reported livestock dying of unknown causes, and local people have tried to protest and raise the issues with the government, there continues to be no domestic or international response to it.

  • Additionally, with both Russia and Uzbekistan refusing to clean it up, and the land bridge that has emerged due to the Aral Sea shrinking, there have been reports of scavengers taking anything they can from the island and selling them on. This presents many dangers for future conflicts both within the region as well internationally.


Part 4: Last Man Standing (46:10)

  • Bruce Pannier rounds out our piece with an outlook for the future of Uzbekistan, and the ways in which its past continues to limit it.

  • At the time of independence, Uzbekistan was in a unique position not only of regional centrality, but also the accompanying Soviet investment from decades prior. We analyse how Karimov's policies squandered the many advantages Uzbekistan had and their continuing costs to Uzbeks.

  • We examine the ongoing consequences of purposely divisive Soviet border drawing in Central Asia, and why it is that despite their relatively much stronger military and economy, Uzbekistan has not engaged in any attempts to assert control over territory in the region.

  • With the state being double landlocked, we track how Uzbek goods are exported; the states they are reliant on for trade. Relationships with its neighbours are absolutely key, and with new leadership in place the prospects for these trade routes are better than ever.

  • Uzbekistan remains internationally relevant for the US, China, and Russia. We look at the outlook for their future, and the trajectory they are on with these great powers. With the US looking to establish some military presence as they plan for their pulling out of Afghanistan, China's existing and ongoing BRI relationships and the trade limitations that come along with that, and the debt of Uzbekistan and its neighbours.


The Red Line's Uzbekistan Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Uzbekistan.


Dark Shadow: Inside the secret world of Kazakhstan

Joanna Lillis

The Silk Road: A New History of the World

Peter Frankopan

Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia

Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw

Central Asia: A History from Imperial Conquests to the Present

Adeeb Khalid



For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Jason Hutchinson.


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