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Uzbekistan: Karimov Makes Rare Visit To Moscow For Talks With Putin

Uzbek President Islam Karimov is in Moscow today for a visit that will include talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a brief statement, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry said the talks will focus on international issues of common interest, as well as Uzbek-Russian relations. The visit comes one day after Russia's energy giant Gazprom announced that it will invest the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars into the Uzbek gas industry.

Prague, 15 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It's a rare trip to Moscow for Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

It comes less than three weeks after a still-unexplained wave of violence hit the Uzbek capital. Some 47 people died, most of them suspected militants and police, in a series of explosions, suicide attacks, and gun battles.

Shirin Akiner thinks the timing is not coincidental. Akiner is a Central Asia specialist at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs: "It is quite a rare visit. I think it's happening now probably in the wake of the bomb explosions in Uzbekistan a couple of weeks ago.... I think first and foremost President Putin would like to know more about how President Karimov sees the situation. Secondly, it may well be that President Karimov is looking for some assistance in the security field, some heightened cooperation, perhaps some exchange of information."

"Personally, I am not satisfied with our relations with Russia today."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said yesterday the violence in Uzbekistan prompted a wave of arbitrary arrests and a "broadening of the government's crackdown on nonviolent independent Muslims."

But political analyst Kamoliddin Rabbimov says Karimov doesn't need to worry that awkward subjects like human rights will come up in discussions with Putin.

Russia -- unlike the West -- has refrained from criticizing Uzbekistan's record of human rights violations and political repression.

"For Russia, the most important issue [in relations with Uzbekistan] is rights, social status and political rights of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people [living in Uzbekistan]," Rabbimov said. "Russians can raise these issues, which are not important for Uzbekistan. But unlike the West, Russians are not going to raise issues such as the status of opposition parties and human rights. Therefore, cooperation with Russia is convenient for Central Asian governments."

Still, there was little sign of bilateral warmth in comments by Karimov today. Speaking before he left Tashkent, Karimov said he is not satisfied with the current state of relations with Russia.

"Personally, I am not satisfied with our relations with Russia today," he said. "Frankly speaking, I am not satisfied. Why? I think my aim is that we need to provide mutual help to each other, recognize each other, back each other's policy, even support each other, if you like, proceeding from the interests of each state. I think that this my goal, this is Uzbekistan's goal."

Uzbekistan's relations with Russia cooled during the 1990s. It was the first Central Asian state to get rid of Russian border guards on its territory and, in 1999, Uzbekistan left the Collective Security Treaty, a defense grouping of CIS states.

There was some rapprochement with Russia after incursions into Uzbekistan by Islamic militants later that year. But the 11 September attacks changed that, with Uzbekistan becoming the U.S.'s main Central Asian ally in its war on terrorism.

Could the recent violence prompt Uzbekistan to turn again to Russia? Lena Jonson, a senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, believes that's unlikely: "I think that this meeting, if one would look into the crystal ball, I believe it would not change the pattern especially because I think that Karimov will [do] as he has done before. He's turning to both sides, turning to the U.S. and to Russia, and he's also trying to play them out against each other in order to improve what he can get from the other. He will do that this time, as well."

Jonson says Karimov will seek to keep strong ties with the U.S. a priority, as long as the U.S. maintains Uzbekistan as an ally.

In the end, Rabbimov in Tashkent says Uzbekistan doesn't have to choose between Moscow and Washington.

"I don't think the visit [to Moscow] will worsen relations between the U.S. and Uzbekistan," Rabbimov said. "In the contemporary world, we see a dichotomy system where Russia and the U.S. are perceived as two geopolitical poles. But Uzbekistan doesn't have to choose one of them and ignore the other. Uzbekistan is closer to Russia geographically and historically. Although the U.S. is the strongest state in the world, from an economic point of view, it is impossible for Uzbekistan not to cooperate with Russia."

(Gulnoza Saidazimova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and correspondent Bruce Pannier contributed to this report.)