Sanobar Shermatova

If the U.S. is keen on regaining influence in strategically important Uzbekistan it will have to factor in the new realities.

Admiral William J. Fallon, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, recently visited Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov returned to power in December 2007. The visit may signal changes in Uzbek foreign policy.

The Admiral was received by the President. The national news agency UZA reported that they exchanged opinions on measures to enhance regional security and stabilise the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Afghan problem was the focus of the talks. The list of officials and leaders whom the Admiral met was impressive: the Security Council Secretary, the Defence and Foreign Ministers, and the Commander of the border troops.

Apart from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Admiral Fallon visited Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. But experts have paid special attention to his visit to Tashkent. Some believe the U.S. is stepping up its dialogue with Uzbek leaders to regain influence in the strategically important Central Asian republic.

After the tragic events in Andijan in May 2005 which saw firing into a crowd of protesters, Uzbekistan became a target of Western criticism. In response, it demanded that the U.S. military base at Karshi be shut down. Since then, bilateral ties have been in limbo. But on the eve of the presidential elections, Mr. Karimov started talking about the forces standing between the West and Uzbekistan. He said: “It is easy to see that they would like to see conflicts from which they would gain a certain advantage... In its foreign policy, Uzbekistan has always stood for mutual respect and mutually advantageous cooperation with all close and remote countries, including the United States and European nations.”

The Europeans saw the signal. A day after Mr. Karimov’s inauguration, EU Special Representative for Central Asia Pierre Morel said the EU considered Uzbekistan a reliable partner and wanted to promote cooperation with it. Brussels has surpassed the U.S. in developing the dialogue — last year it partially undid the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan after Andijan. In response, Uzbekistan pardoned several human rights champions, abolished capital punishment as on January 1, and gave the courts the right to issue sanctions for arrest.

Taskhent cannot accept the role of an international outcast. Last year the Europeans adopted a strategy under which the task of promoting democracy in Central Asia was subsumed to EU energy interests.

Complex situation

But nothing is simple with such a difficult partner as Tashkent. It has already defined its foreign policy priorities — Germany in the West, and Japan in the East. These influential countries did not criticise Uzbekistan. The German officers and men at the Termez Air Force base near the Afghan border have nothing to worry about. An influential Uzbek analyst close to the Foreign Ministry told an expert that the deployment of the base was done in agreement with Moscow, and that Berlin was aware of that.

As for Japan, its relations with Tashkent are extremely important to limit the influence of Beijing, which is playing an important role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation . This is good for Uzbekistan, which wants to have more partners in addition to Russia and the other SCO members.

Obviously the Americans will not return to Uzbekistan triumphantly. For, the current situation in the region is very different from what it was in the late-1990s, when Uzbek-U.S. contacts were in the formative stages. At that time, Uzbekistan was threatened by Islamic extremist militants from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Tashkent received information through its own channels that Moscow was not going to help it in case of an attack. In 1999, Uzbekistan walked out of the Collective Security Treaty (this was interpreted as a break-off with Moscow) and started drawing close to Washington in the hope of securing support in the struggle against Islamic extremists. In 2001, the extremists’ main forces were routed following a U.S. operation in Afghanistan, and the Uzbek leaders breathed a sign of relief.

But the concept of regional security is now different. The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the SCO have the main role in this respect. Russia and China have major influence in both. Today, Uzbekistan relies on them to ensure its security. The Uzbek leaders want the headquarters of the SCO regional anti-terrorist centre to be based in Tashkent. Bishkek was supposed to host it. Recently, Uzbekistan’s Parliament ratified a number of documents in order to complete the procedure for accepting CSTO legal standards.

Uzbekistan’s return was made possible after the Kremlin met it halfway. Anti-Uzbek organisations — the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the party of Islamic liberation — have been blacklisted not only by Russia but by all CSTO and SCO countries, following lobbying by Russian diplomats.

There is no point in Uzbekistan revising the established system of allied relations and partnership. But this does not mean that resumption of contacts with the U.S. is taboo. The Afghan problem, which worries Tashkent, may become a new point of departure in bilateral relations.

There is one fundamental difference in the Americans’ status, however. At the turn of the century, the U.S. was Uzbekistan’s No. 1 partner. Now it can return to the region as one of the players and join Russia, China, and the EU. — Ria Novosti