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Central Asia: What Does Closure Of U.S. Military Base In Uzbekistan Mean?

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova --> Uzbek President Islam Karimov (file photo) Uzbek authorities asked the United States to pull all military forces out of the Karshi-Khanabad air base in the country’s south. The decision comes a few days after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited neighboring Kyrgyzstan and received assurances from Bishkek officials that the U.S. air base can remain there as long as needed.

Prague, 1 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL that Uzbek President Islam Karimov did not make a wise decision in demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“Well, I think, Karimov probably thinks he’s been quite smart," Murray said. "But I think in the long term he’ll discover he’s been pretty stupid, because the United States have been doing an awful lot on the international [scene]. And at the end of the day, the U.S. has a lot more resources available to it than Russia or China.”

Observers said the government’s decision to demand the withdrawal from the Karshi-Kanabhad base, known as K-2, was not a complete surprise. Relations between the United States and Uzbekistan have arguably been deteriorating since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Karimov appeared to believed that Washington encouraged or had a hand in the ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze, and possibly feared a similar fate.

“This, I mean turning against the U.S., started before the Andijon events," said Farkhod Inogombaev, a former financial adviser to Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara. "First of all, as relations with the U.S. worsened, Islam Karimov started rapprochement with Russia and China. The vector of Uzbekistan’s politics started changing not before Andijon but right after revolutions in the former [Soviet] republics. But this trend, obviously, climaxed after the Andijon events.”

Other factors also contributed. In early July, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose membership comprises four Central Asian states together with Russia and China, asked the United States to set a deadline for the withdrawal of its troops from the region. The decision is widely believed to have come at the prodding of Russia and China.
"[President Islam] Karimov’s decision to confront the U.S. is basically his struggle to survive. In this struggle, the first thing he decided to do is to get rid of [U.S.] military presence."

“Karimov understands that he has no chances [to win] a direct confrontation with Americans," Sergei Mikheev of the Center for Political Technologies, a Russian think tank, told RFE/RL from Moscow. "Russia is the only country he can appeal to. And it’s absolutely obvious that Russia has no interest in [seeing] the presence of the U.S. in Central Asia. Karimov’s decision to confront the U.S. is basically his struggle to survive. In this struggle, the first thing he decided to do is to get rid of [U.S.] military presence."

U.S. criticism of the Uzbek government’s crackdown of peaceful protesters in eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May is another major factor. In June, following Washington’s criticism and its request for an independent probe, Tashkent limited overnight flights out of K-2.

Karimov was also apprehensive of the role of U.S. companies that invested in the Uzbek economy. Ex-Ambassador Murray suggested that Karimov found them to be too independent.

“Karimov decided that having Western companies coming was building up alternative power bases in the country," Murray said. "He likes to keep the entire country, including the entire economy, strictly under his control. The companies like Coca-Cola, Newmont, British American Tobacco, have been treated very badly. And he decided for the development of Uzbekistan’s gas field, to turn to [Russian] Gazprom."

Finally, Uzbekistan received far less in rent for its base than did Kyrgyzstan. Washington reportedly paid $15 million annually for rent of the K-2 facility, while Kyrgyzstan received $50 million for the Ganci air base. Both bases housed about 1,000 U.S. troops. After last week’s visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to Bishkek, Washington reportedly agreed to double its payment for the Ganci air base as well as to provide a $200 million interest-free loan to Kyrgyzstan.

Toshpulat Yuldoshev, a Tashkent-based independent political analyst, said he believes that President Karimov has decided to play “va banque” and diminish U.S. influence in the region.

“Uzbekistan’s government has played a ‘love-and-hate’ foreign policy game with the U.S.," Yuldoshev said. "That’s why it sent a diplomatic note [to the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent demanding a troop withdrawal]. But I think it is the first signal of ending the relations with the U.S. I can conclude that after this, Uzbekistan will do its best to end cooperation with the U.S. and limit the U.S. influence [in the region].”

Murray said he believes that Kyrgyzstan will benefit politically and economically from Uzbekistan’s decision. Ganci will be the main American base in Central Asia.

“If I was a government of Kyrgyzstan, what I would do now is to revise that and demand a very large rent for the base, because that base becomes essential to the United States," Murray said. "They should be talking in terms of a couple of a hundred million dollars a year, which to Bishkek, a desperately impoverished country with a small population, would make a huge difference. But it’s very, very important that the West now stand by Kyrgyzstan, because Uzbekistan has the ability to strangle Kyrgyzstan economically, particularly to blackmail it over energy supplies and that kind of thing."

Murray said Tajikistan might also gain. He said it is not unlikely that the U.S. would deploy its troops in Tajikistan and thus help to control the borders and fight drug trafficking.

A number of Central Asian states became allies in the U.S.-declared war on terror after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States and the subsequent international invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime. Uzbekistan agreed to host U.S. troops in October 2001, neighboring Kyrgyzstan did the same two months later, in December. United States forces also used the Ayni airport in Tajikistan for refueling purposes.

(RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

See also:

"Uzbekistan: Karimov Battens Down The Hatches"