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Uzbekistan: Gas For Russian Arms May Be Dangerous Precedent

  • Michael Lelyveld

Russia has agreed to supply Uzbekistan with guns in exchange for commodities, including cotton and gas. The barter deal is aimed at helping Tashkent to ward off Islamic attacks, but the trade could have troubling consequences. Our correspondent Michael Lelyveld provides the following analysis.

Boston, 8 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan may have set a perilous precedent last week by agreeing to trade gas and other goods for Russian arms to fight Islamic militants.

News agencies report that during a visit to Moscow, Uzbek President Islam Karimov reached an agreement with President Vladimir Putin under which Russia will swap weapons for gas, cotton, fruits, and vegetables.

Tashkent wants the hardware, including mortars and multiple-launch rocket systems, to repel the insurgents in difficult terrain.

Uzbekistan's Defense Ministry hailed the barter deal as a breakthrough because Russia had balked at providing more aid. Tashkent already owes Moscow $600 million.

Last August, Russia promised to send Uzbekistan $30 million worth of armored vehicles and helicopters. Like the Islamic offensives, the appeals for Russian assistance are becoming annual events.

Although Putin said there was no need to "over-dramatize" the threats to Central Asia, there seemed little doubt that Karimov wants Russia to assume a greater role.

Karimov said, "We see Central Asia as Russia's southern frontier, and it should clearly be in Russia's interest to maintain stability, peace, and harmony on its southern flank," the Reuters news agency reported. He added that Uzbekistan sees Russia "not only as a guarantor of our security but also a reliable strategic partner."

But the idea of trading gas and other commodities for military items could have consequences that go beyond defense. The barter deal may be the first in the CIS to link energy supplies with security from an external threat.

With the commitment of civilian resources, Tashkent may be showing that it is willing to risk a more costly conflict with the fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Cotton and gas are the country's most important exports and the mainstays of its economic growth.

The government has given Russia highly concessionary terms for the exchange of its agricultural products, with discounts of 60 percent below world prices, according to the AVN Russian Military Network and The trade could also be costly for the gas sector if it is seen as generating energy for arms.

So far, the IMU has not targeted Central Asia's petroleum resources or pipelines. But that situation could change if Uzbekistan's gas exports to Russia become a direct source of funding for the military.

Uzbekistan has been the second-largest gas producer in the CIS after Russia, although high domestic consumption has left it little to export. Much of the 40 billion cubic meters of gas that it uses annually goes to industrial areas of the Fergana Valley, which has been an Islamic hotbed.

The country produced 56.4 billion cubic meters of gas last year, exporting much of its small surplus to Russia. Uzbekistan delivers gas through the Central Asia-Center pipeline network, the main artery that connects the region with the Russian network. The system also links other CIS countries, including Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

While Uzbekistan's gas exports are modest, they are vital to the neighboring nations of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. All lack either the resources or the infrastructure to supply gas to their citizens on portions of their territory.

Last winter, all three countries suffered cutoffs of Uzbek gas due to a combination of debts, politics, and Tashkent's domestic needs. Gas may already be a weak point for security in the region, even before the decision to start swapping it for arms.

Uzbekistan will also do little for its economy by increasing non-cash barter and offering bargains to get Russian weapons. The country reported a narrow trade surplus of only $317 million last year. That could quickly turn to a deficit if the government devotes economic resources to a non-productive war, further fraying its security.

Russia may also soon see the advantage of such a trade, which would allow it to sell weapons out of inventory while increasing its supply of Central Asian gas to sell at high prices in Europe.

Instead of paying cash for gas from neighboring Turkmenistan, Russia now has the option of taking Uzbek gas for arms. If the trade continues, Moscow could see the benefit of maximizing the Islamic threat instead of talking it down.

While Karimov may feel safer after his visit to Moscow, his country may soon find that he has made a dangerous deal.