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Uzbekistan: Indian Premier's Visit Signals New Interest

  • Bruce Pannier --> President Karimov (left) visited New Dehli in April 2005 (AFP) Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to use a two-day stopover in Uzbekistan that begins today to further his country's goal of increased economic and political influence in Central Asia. The visit -- which comes on the heels of an official trip to Germany -- is the first to Central Asia's most populous country by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade.

PRAGUE, April 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Singh identified gas-rich Uzbekistan as a key country in the region before he took off for Tashkent. He said he hoped to boost ties in many areas, but it is cooperation in the political, energy, and defense sectors that has many observers' attention.

John MacLeod is a senior editor for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He singled out Uzbekistan's relative population and security as motivating factors in making it Singh's only destination in the region.

"Uzbekistan is of interest as the major regional state in terms of population, possibly also in terms of defense forces, for India," MacLeod said.

Talking Energy...

The main topic of conversation when Singh meets with Uzbek President Islam Karimov is almost sure to be energy exports. India is hungry for new energy sources and has been eying nearby Central Asia for some time. Last year, an Indian company, ONGC Videsh-Mittal, lost to a Chinese oil company in a bid to acquire an oil company in Kazakhstan. The defeat has not lessened India's proven zeal for extraction work on Central Asia's energy resources, however. And when Karimov visited India last year, Indian newspapers repeatedly noted that Uzbekistan was the world’s eighth-largest producer of natural gas.

MacLeod suggested that beyond basic goods -- and despite problems with export routes -- India might well be seeking Uzbek gas.

"There's a certain amount of Indian commercial interest in these slowly developing economies," MacLeod said. "They are countries that can produce textiles, cotton, some low-quality silk. There's that factor. There's also potential of Uzbekistan as an energy producer, principally a gas producer -- and it's quite a substantial [gas producer]."

...And Security

But MacLeod said the two countries also have common security issues that Singh will want to discuss with Karimov.

Prime Minister Singh (left) greeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai in New Dehli earlier this month (epa)

"I think it's more of a general interest in Central Asian security, as it affects the wider region, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, which of course is a country with which India has some troubled relationship over the years," MacLeod said.

The Uzbek government has complained for nearly a decade that Uzbek Islamic militants find refuge and training in Pakistan before returning to Uzbekistan to carry out attacks.

"The Times of India" reported that Singh will sign a number of agreements with his Uzbek counterpart in the oil and gas industry, as well as agriculture, information technologies, and business.

Regional Play

India's interests in the region extend beyond just Uzbekistan, of course. New Delhi is seeking stronger ties with all five Central Asian states. Indian experts have been helping repair the Aini military airport in Tajikistan, fueling stories that India wants to station warplanes there. MacLeod says that in all these efforts, India hopes to capitalize on historic recent ties to the region.

"Of course the Central Asian republics -- being former Soviet republics -- would tend to be not aligned with Pakistan, and therefore [would be] potential partners for India, which over the years -- over the decades, in fact -- has had not a bad relationship with the Soviet Union and then with Russia," MacLeod said.

Singh's visit should bring a host of agreements as it extends into April 26. But more generally, the appearance of the Indian prime minister reminds all in the region -- and those outside seeking influence -- that New Delhi wants to be a player in Central Asia.
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