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Uzbekistan: Military Exercises With Russia Timely For Tashkent

The timing of the exercises couldn't be better for President Karimov (file photo) Russia and Uzbekistan have been engaged in joint military exercises this week, the first the two countries have ever held. Such an event was unthinkable just a few years ago but ties between the two countries have been warming. And though the exercises were already being planned last year, analysts say they could not come at a better time for Uzbekistan.

Prague, 23 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and Uzbekistan have participated in multinational exercises alongside troops from other nations, but never had they engaged in military exercises involving just the two of them. The current operations began on 19 September and run through tomorrow (24 September).

Alex Vatanka, the Eurasia editor of the London-based Jane’s Country Risk, told RFE/RL the significance of the event is not the exercises themselves. “It’s pretty significant politically, but from a military point of view these exercises are on a fairly limited scale," he said. "This is not seriously going to improve the Uzbek capability or teach the Russians particularly anything useful, but it is a very important political gesture.”

Indeed, the two countries have not enjoyed the best of relations. But recently, their ties have grown warmer, due in part to the international uproar over alleged Uzbek human rights abuses and the presence of U.S. troops in Central Asia -- a fact Russia clearly has never welcomed.

Gregory Gleason of the University of New Mexico specializes in Central Asia. He compares the warming relations with the early of days of Uzbek independence after 1991, when Tashkent had both the opportunity and the incentive to part ways with Russia.

“In the early years of the Boris Yeltsin administration, the first minister of foreign affairs, Andrei Kozyrev, saw the region of Central Asia as a region of minimal significance to the economic goals of Russia, but also saw the former border of the Soviet Union as the line that defined the sphere of influence of Moscow in the region," Gleason told RFE/RL. "And as a consequence, Moscow continued to think of Central Asia as an area that was under the control, basically, of Russian foreign policy.”

Gleason said Tashkent quickly showed its resistance to Russian influence on its soil, adding that one problem "was the emphasis that [President Islam] Karimov had upon the reassertion of Uzbek national rights, and some of that resulted very clearly in that early period in the elimination of Russian culture from the region.”
“We know for a long time President Karimov was, if anything, very suspicious of the Russians." -- analyst

The situation grew so bad that then Foreign Minister Kozyrev said in 1995 that Moscow was prepared to use force to protect ethnic Russians abroad. Though Uzbekistan was not specifically mentioned, Tashkent bristled at the comment.

Russian media also hammered away at the situation in Uzbekistan. In response, Tashkent cut off most Russian media to Uzbekistan. A journalist for Russia’s Interfax news agency in Uzbekistan turned up dead in a Tashkent canal. The media war spilled over into other areas of bilateral relations.

“The gradual reduction of the availability of those materials [newspapers, magazines, and television and radio broadcasts] was very apparent in Moscow and much criticized by Moscow and the Russian media analysts and journalists," Gleason said. "And this resulted in a cooling of relations between the Karimov government and the Russian government, and that was reflected as well in a reduction of trade.”

Karimov objected to Russia’s military in neighboring countries and criticized their leaders, saying no nation whose security depended on foreign forces was truly independent.

Moscow and Tashkent were alternately allies and competitors during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war. Each helped the Tajik government fight the mainly Islamic opposition, but each had their own idea about how peacetime Tajikistan should look. Any cooperation between Uzbekistan and Russia was gone months before the Tajik peace accord was signed in June 1997.

Vatanka said by the end of the 1990s, Karimov saw Russia as a competitor in a region he wanted Uzbekistan to dominate. “We know for a long time President Karimov was, if anything, very suspicious of the Russians," he noted. "Only a few years ago, if we go back to 1998 or 1999, there were Uzbek accusations that the Russians were involved in incitement in Uzbekistan to get rid of the regime of Karimov.”

Vatanka and Gleason agree that Uzbek-Russian ties have improved since Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president. Putin’s first foreign visit after being elected in 2000 was to Uzbekistan. He has since been back twice on state visits. In comparison, Yeltsin made one state visit and had to cut that short when he fell ill in Tashkent.

The joint military exercises were announced last year, but for the Uzbek government, holding them now has been fortunate timing. Violence in May in the eastern city of Andijon, where hundreds were reportedly killed in clashes between protesters and troops, and Tashkent’s refusal to allow an international investigation into the incident have strained Tashkent’s relations with several governments, including Washington.

In July, Tashkent told the U.S. military to vacate the base in Khanabad that the U.S.-led coalition forces had used for operations in Afghanistan since 2001.

Throughout Tashkent’s diplomatic crisis over Andijon, Russia has backed the Uzbek government. Vatanka noted that support comes at little cost to Russia but promises rewards. “As far as Russia’s concerned, right now at least was fairly convenient for the Russians to kind of help the Karimov regime out when the hammer fell on Tashkent following Andijon," he told RFE/RL. "So it was a desperate situation for Uzbekistan where Russia was willing to reach out. The political, economic and military costs for Russia have been very limited, and yet the prize that it [Russia] could reap was obviously fairly high.”

The biggest payoff for Moscow is the departure of U.S. troops from Uzbekistan, which removed a strategic thorn from Russia’s southern flank.

But Vatanka said both Tashkent and Moscow share other concerns. Both are worried, he said, about what they see as U.S.-backed “colored revolutions” that have occurred in three nations -- Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan -- of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). And both Russia and Uzbekistan have suffered more acts of terrorism than any other CIS countries.

See also:

Moscow, Beijing Conclude War Games, As Region Looks On With Interest

Is Central Asian Turbulence Return Of The Great Game?