Sharaf Rashidov – The Diplomat

From the Cuban Missile Crisis to the India Pakistan Peace Treaty


Sharaf Rashidov is perhaps best known as the First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party from 1959 until 1983. A graduate in philology, he started as a journalist. During his leadership of Uzbekistan, Rashidov was also involved in a remarkable amount of international activity that is not quite so well remembered. His communication skills and broadbased worldview helped Rashidov to become a skilled negotiator, who took part in a number of important international agreements on behalf of the Soviet Union.

Two diplomatic experiences of Rashidov deserve particular highlight due to the historical importance of related events. The first one was his involvement in talks between the USSR and Cuba following the Cuban revolution. The second was Rashidov’s cooperation with the Indian establishment and his active role in mediation that ended the second
Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir.

The Cuban episodes of Rashidov’s life occur when Nikita Khruschev, the leader of USSR, cherry picked Sharaf Rashidov to head one of the most important diplomatic missions. In early 1960s, worried about the US deployment of military bases in Italy and Turkey, Khruschev was desperately looking for a counter balance against Washington. Khrushchev eventually decided on Cuba, torn between the pro-US Batista forces and the revolutionaries – Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. At the time, the USSR had not established any level of trust or co-operation with Cuba. Following the economic blockade of the Cubans, Khruschev had to convince Castro to accept the USSR’s protection and benefits in exchange for permission to establish Soviet military bases on the island.

Nobody was sure Fidel Castro would agree to such a risk and inflict the wrath of Washington. Khrushchev needed a careful, smart and experienced negotiator who would convince the Cuban leader to take such a risk. Khruschev had been long observing Rashidov’s importance in the USSR’s development of Asian and African ties. Together with Anastas Mikoyan, a senior Soviet diplomat, Rashidov had been preparing the setting for the visit of the highest ranking USSR officials in Asia and Africa. He co-led numerous Soviet delegations to Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Birma, Vietnam, China and Mongolia. In 1955, Rashidov’s delegation took part in the Bangdung conference, the first ever large-scale Asian–African Conference. In 1958, Rashidov organised Asia and Africa Writers’ Conference with a participation of over 50 countries in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Rashidov’s excellent communication abilities and tact convinced Khrushchev that he was the man for the job.

According to Valentin Falin, a Soviet diplomat, the Cuban operation was highly confidential and only a few in Politbiuro knew about it. In May 1962, the USSR delegation led by Rashidov was described in the media as a visit of “irrigators and meliorators led by the head of an agricultural, cotton-producing republic”. This was a cover up for the Western intelligence which was not supposed to know that the head of the cotton producing republic was secretly entrusted to speak with Castro and deliver the Soviet proposal to deploy missiles on Cuba in order to deter a possible US strike. The missiles and the personnel were supposed to be shipped on ships which would pretend to transport agricultural industry machines for irrigation. Given that such machines were produced in Uzbekistan, Rashidov’s leadership of the mission was not expected to raise suspicions.

Reportedly, at first the Soviet delegation confused and bewildered Fidel Castro. However, after listening to Rashidov’s arguments, Castro agreed to the Soviet proposal and said “If it is necessary to strengthen the socialist camp…”. Starting from zero, it was Rashidov’s diplomacy which made the mission a success. This is how the Soviets started shipping missiles and other military equipment to Cuba. At the time it was quite a coup to have achieved, right under the noses of Washington.

In the following six months, 45 000 Soviet troops and 40 missile installments with nuclear heads were deployed in Cuba. Upon their discovery, a major international outcry occured. Luckily, the Cuban missile crisis was resolved peacefully with the US agreeing to Khruschev’s demand of shutting down its bases in Turkey and Italy, and guaranteeing the non-invasion of Cuba. The Soviets dismantled their missiles in Cuba in return.

The crisis’ resolution also effectively strengthened Castro’s position in Cuba. In 1963, when Fidel and Raoul Casto and Che Guevara visited the USSR, they went to Uzbekistan too. Rashidov and Castro were reported to have gotten along very well.

Another highlight of Sharof Rashidov’s diplomatic activity occurred during the growing cooperation of Soviet Uzbekistan with post-colonial India. Rashidov played an important part in promoting and developing the USSR’s ties with India, which was leaning towards the USSR, while Pakistan had picked the US as its strategic ally.

Cooperation between India and Uzbekistan was made easier due to cultural similarities and strong historical ties between the two countries. Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, often mentioned Babur, the Timurid born in Andijan and the founder of the Moghul Empire in India, as a remarkable example of a unique link between the two nations. Rashidov also skillfully used this historical tie and added his own personal input to further develop the beneficial relationship of Uzbek SSR with India. There were numerous visits of Sharof Rashidov to India. Jawaharlal Nehru, accompanied by Indira Gandhi, also visited Uzbekistan in 1955 and 1961.

In 1965, a violent war broke out between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The war was triggered by Pakistan’s operation “Gibraltar”, which was designed to send troops into the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir to launch an insurgency against the Indian rule there. The conflict caused thousands of casualties on both sides. Following a UN ceasefire mandate, it was Rashidov who got directly involved in talks between India and Pakistan and organised a meeting between India’s Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Although the hosting party was officially led by Alexei Kosygin, it was the Uzbek leader’s main merit and skill of diplomacy which assisted to have such a meeting that was held in no other place than Tashkent.

This meeting of 1966 ended with the signing of the historically important Tashkent declaration, where India and Pakistan agreed to pull back to their pre-conflict borders and decided to restore economic and diplomatic relations.  The Tashkent declaration expressed the India and Pakistan leaders’ gratitude to “the Government and friendly people of Uzbekistan for their overwhelming reception and generous hospitality”. Rashidov’s participation in these talks, as well as his general acquaintance with both India and Pakistan’s history, inspired Rashidov’s novel “The Kashmir Song”. The effect of Sharaf Rashidov’s diplomatic efforts resulted in the Tashkent declaration occupying a special place in the historical relations between Uzbekistan and India.

Sharof Rashidov was not just the typical Soviet leader of Uzbekistan. His knowledge, interpersonal skills and ability to listen helped him to succeed as an international negotiator too. The importance of Uzbekistan as a leading country in Soviet Central Asia, and the country’s special position in the USSR ties with Asia and Africa, are substantially due to the diplomatic talents of Rashidov.

by Zaynab Muhammad-Dost



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