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Russia: Uzbekistan Renews Old Relations

  • Bruce Pannier

An often-played television scene of Russia's then-president Boris Yeltsin tottering at a public ceremony in Tashkent two years ago -- with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov supporting him -- has until recently stood as a symbol for Russian-Uzbek relations. But last week Russian President Vladimir Putin supplied a new image on a triumphal tour of Central Asia's members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS. RFE/RL analyst Bruce Pannier examines Uzbekistan's surprising new welcome mat for Russian hegemony in his region.

Prague, 26 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan greeted last week greeted visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin by, in effect, throwing wide open to Russia's influence a large set of Central Asian doors.

Putin was making his presidential first tour of Central Asia's CIS members. In Uzbekistan, Karimov told Putin at a joint press conference that his country always has recognized Russia's interest in Central Asia and, Karimov seemed to suggest, always will. In Karimov's words:

"Russia has always had an interest in Central Asia. It still does and will continue to have [an interest]. We, as a country that is a key state in Central Asia, always recognized this and will continue to recognize it."

During the Yeltsin presidency, a welcome this warm, an invitation so open-ended, would have been unthinkable. Relations then ranged from lukewarm to icy, especially in Yeltsin's last years.

Two years ago, TV cameras caught an almost slapstick scene of Yeltsin tottering during a public ceremony in Tashkent and of Karimov propping him up. Russian national television later replayed the scene so often that it emerged as a standing symbol of shaky bilateral relations -- helped by a tottering Kremlin leadership.

The apparent new relation involves an interesting -- and somewhat surprising -- policy shift.

Paul Bergne, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, recalls the Uzbek stance immediately after the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991. In an interview in Prague, Bergne told RFE/RL that Karimov's aims then seemed straightforward:

"President Karimov's first priority was firmly to establish Uzbek independence. And clearly the first step in doing that was to create a distance between him and Moscow as the former colonial power."

Uzbekistan was the first country in what is now CIS Central Asia to rid itself of Russian troops. Russian uniforms -- mainly those of border guards -- remained in neighboring countries. Karimov told his fellow Central Asian leaders that the presence of one country's troops on another's soil amounted to accepting national slavery.

There were other signs of Uzbekistan's casting off of Russian influence. Uzbek cotton sales earned hard currency, while potentially oil-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan still were marking time waiting for their fields to be developed. Uzbekistan built the largest army in the region, established ties with the West and pulled out of the CIS collective-security treaty last year. Russian influence in Central Asia seemed to stop at Uzbekistan's borders.

Karimov told last week's press conference as much:

"Yes, on many positions in the course of years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and our becoming an independent state, our views, our assessments and positions have differed."

More recently, Uzbekistan has apparently had reasons for renewing and advancing relations with Russia. And Russia now has much to gain from better ties with Uzbekistan.

The situation began to shift early last year. In February 1999, a series of still-unexplained explosions was set off in Tashkent. Uzbek authorities blamed a group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and said that the incident was part of an Islamic terrorist plot to assassinate Karimov.

Later in the year, militant groups attempted incursions into Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan from bases in Tajikistan's mountains. Kyrgyz forces intercepted them near the Uzbek border with southern Kyrgyzstan, and weeks of fighting followed. Authorities of all three governments expect the militants to try again this summer.

At about the same time last year, Russia began its assault on what it called Islamic extremists in Daghestan. That campaign expanded into its second war in Chechnya.

Putin visited Tashkent in December when he was still Russia's prime minister. Ambassador Bergne says the two countries found common ground in the fight against terrorism:

"President Putin practically never opens his mouth without mentioning the Islamic threat, and this very clearly serves to remind anybody who might have misgivings about renewing a relationship with Moscow that Moscow has a lot to offer, and that there is a threat."

Uzbekistan wants support in fight against what its government describes as the Islamic terrorist threat. Russia under Putin is able -- and eager-- to provide Tashkent with both the technical and moral support for combating terrorism on the southern borders of the CIS.

Those new circumstances explain why Moscow is now aiding a country that in earlier years led the CIS in pulling away from Russia. They also explain why a formerly recalcitrant Uzbekistan is now anxiously building ties with Russia, and may well become a model and a guide for other CIS countries.

(Zamira Echanova of the Uzbek Service and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)