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Uzbekistan: Regional Ambitions May Hit Limitations (Part 2)

  • Bruce Pannier

The decision to allow the U.S. to base planes and troops inside Uzbekistan has strengthened Tashkent's position in Central Asia. The Uzbek government has long wanted to be a regional power and closer ties to the U.S. may help it reach this goal. But analysts are questioning how much influence Uzbekistan can really hope to gain. They caution that U.S. interest, while keen, may also be fleeting. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier files this second of a two-part feature on Uzbekistan.

Prague, 12 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan last week gave permission for the U.S. to use one of its air bases as part of the U.S.-led operation against suspected terrorist camps in neighboring Afghanistan.

That permission has led to a perceived partnership between the Uzbekistan and the U.S. -- one that carries with it obvious advantages as Uzbekistan pursues a long-held dream to become a regional power. Uzbekistan has the largest population in Central Asia and its largest army.

John Schoeberlein is the director of the Harvard Forum for Central Asian Studies and of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Central Asian Project. He says an obvious plus is that international opinion may be less critical of the Uzbek government. The U.S. has led the way in pointing to the poor democratic and human rights records of President Islam Karimov's government.

"Uzbekistan certainly has been domineering in its relationships with neighboring countries, maybe domineering is even a mild way of putting it. And there is reason for concern for neighboring countries that this could be encouraged by the development of a special relationship with the United States. One of the factors that has diminished [Uzbekistan's] ability to act more freely in relation to neighboring countries is the pressure of international opinion. But if the United States becomes their great proponent, that pressure will undoubtedly decrease."

Schoeberlein said it will be up to the U.S. to keep Uzbekistan in check as it forges a new relationship with the Central Asian nation.

Peter Sinnott, a professor of Central Asian studies at New York's Columbia University, says Uzbekistan's new relationship with the U.S. is potentially a cause of concern for Uzbekistan's neighbors -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

"When we look at relations among these [Central Asian] states, Uzbekistan is really the one state that has every other Central Asian state touch its borders. And Uzbekistan's relations with none of them are such that you could characterize any one of them as an ally."

Those four countries are not the only ones worried about Uzbekistan's new role in the region.

Russia has long been the dominant power in Central Asia and could view with suspicion the strong U.S. presence in the region.

Vladimir Socor is an analyst at the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation. He said Russia is probably not entirely pleased with the recent developments in the region.

"I don't think the Russians are glad that the Americans are there [in Central Asia]. The Russians, at the beginning, strongly opposed the American landing and then they had to give way because the Americans went directly to the Central Asians."

All of the Central Asian states have offered some sort of support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism by opening their airspace to U.S. planes. But only Uzbekistan has offered the use of an airfield -- and not only for humanitarian shipments, but also for what the Uzbek government terms "search and rescue operations."

However, Schoeberlein said it would be difficult, and even dangerous, for Uzbekistan to totally break with its neighbors and Russia.

"[The Uzbeks] have a difficult balance to keep in those relations, and although they certainly have given a high priority to building a good relationship with the United States, they have had to recognize the importance of Russia. And in many ways they are very dependent on Russia, and Russia is much more present in the region for them and is likely to be a much more long-term partner. So, if they do sacrifice their relations with Russia and other neighboring countries, then this could have a long-term detrimental effect on their own security interests."

Schoeberlein points out that the attacks on targets in Afghanistan are only part of a wider U.S. policy, and that the American presence in Central Asia may be temporary.

(The Uzbek and Tajik services contributed to this report.)

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