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Uzbekistan: Is Tashkent's Foreign Policy Going Multivector?

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (file photo) (epa) March 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The mood in Tashkent was outwardly buoyant when Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov on March 7 as the two men praised their nations' dynamic ties, hailed new deals, and touted billions of dollars of incoming Russian investment.

Yet Fradkov's visit carried hints that the ardor between Moscow and Tashkent may be cooling amid signs that Uzbekistan is seeking a rapprochement with the West.

Since Uzbekistan's grand falling-out with the West in 2005 over Andijon, Tashkent has looked primarily to Moscow, which has gratefully looked back.

The pendulum of Uzbek-Russian-Western relations, which has swung through a number of cycles in recent years, appears to be poised for yet another shift.

Tighter Ties After Andijon

In November 2005, the two countries signed a treaty that established allied relations and even provided for military assistance "if an act of aggression is committed against one of the sides by any state or group of states."

Subsequent high-level meetings have unfailingly sung the praises of the Russian-Uzbek alliance, and Fradkov's visit to Tashkent unfolded in a similar spirit. After receiving Fradkov, President Karimov noted that Russian natural gas company Gazprom and oil company LUKoil are in the process of investing $2.5 billion into Uzbekistan's energy sector, and that bilateral trade rose 42 percent year-on-year in 2006 to $3 billion, the official Uzbek news agency UzA reported.

Boris Aleshin, the head of Russian industrial agency Rosprom, told journalists in Tashkent that Russia and Uzbekistan have signed an agreement to set up an aviation joint venture called UzRosAvia in which Russia will hold a minimum 51 percent stake, Interfax reported. And Konstantin Romodanovsky, the head of Russia's Federal Migration Service, announced that the two countries will conclude agreements in a month and a half to regulate labor migration from Uzbekistan to Russia, where as many as 1.5 million Uzbeks work.

Yet a number of disagreements bubbled to the surface of what should have been a carefully scripted visit. Andrei Sharonov, deputy Russian minister of economic development and trade, admitted that Uzbek officials are miffed that state-controlled Russian gas company Gazprom has invested only $30 million of the $300 million it was supposed to have invested by this time in the development of new gas fields in Uzbekistan, reported.

Signs Of Unhappiness?

Meanwhile, Sharonov said that Russia is unhappy that Uzbekistan exported 67,000 cars to Russia in 2006 while importing only 3,500 vehicles from Russia, Vek reported. And Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak described upcoming talks on Uzbekistan's $700 million debt to Russia, which Tashkent has not serviced since 1998, as "very complex" in light of disagreements between the two sides, Prime-TASS reported.

As Uzbekistan-based observer Sergei Yezhkov noted on on March 8, journalists who were present at the meeting between Fradkov and Karimov wondered why the Russian premier spent three and a half hours in a plane for a visit that produced such mixed results. "Either the tasks the Russians wanted to carry out were blocked by the Uzbek leadership, or there were no tasks to carry out in the first place," Yezhkov commented. He concluded: "The first option, it seems to us, is more likely."

Even as clouds are appearing on the Russian-Uzbek horizon, signs have emerged that Uzbekistan wants to prop up its sagging ties with the West.

On February 22, the official newspaper "Pravda Vostoka" ran an article by Rafik Saifulin -- a former adviser to President Karimov and now the head of a think tank in Tashkent -- praising recent attempts at dialogue between Uzbekistan and the European Union, United States, and Japan.

Looking To The West

Attributing Uzbekistan's strained ties with the West to the latter's penchant for "criticism and allegations," Saifulin argued that "it is necessary to think jointly about ways to create new, promising opportunities for cooperation and to modernize traditional relations." He concluded: "A majority of the representatives of leading analytical structures abroad, and in Uzbekistan, support this view and hope that this will lead to positive political, economic, and other types of changes in relations between our states and people in the near future."

If Saifulin's article signals a possible shift in the Uzbek official line -- which has been harshly critical of the West -- it also reflects limited overtures on the other side.

While EU foreign ministers decided on March 5 to postpone a review of sanctions against Uzbekistan until May, EU representatives voiced hope for improvement, RFE/RL reported.

Germany has managed to keep a small military facility running in the Uzbek city of Termez despite Tashkent's eviction of U.S. forces at the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in 2005. And it was German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking after the EU foreign ministers' meeting on March 5, who pointed to an Uzbek promise of further talks about the May 2005 killings in Andijon and the plight of rights activists in Uzbekistan as positive signs.

EU Is Hopeful

Steinmeier said: "This shows that there are openings that must be developed, and it remains to be decided in May in what way we proceed with the EU's current policy towards Uzbekistan, [and] if any changes are possible."

Evan A. Feigenbaum, assistant to the U.S. state secretary for South and Central Asia, struck a similar note at a March 2 news conference in Tashkent to wrap up a three-day visit to Uzbekistan, reported.

Feigenbaum said that "the Uzbek authorities signaled their interest in a restoration of relations with the United States not long ago. We in turn have always stood for close cooperation." He added: "There may be some differences on some nuances but the United States does not want these differences to interfere with cooperation between our countries. My visit here is an attempt to decide exactly what cooperation may be established in the nearest future."

Moving To Multivector?

Taken together, the slight chill in Uzbek-Russian relations, the appearance of an article in a major Uzbek government mouthpiece urging better ties with the West, and stated Western willingness to engage Uzbekistan suggest that a multivector moment is beginning in Uzbekistan's foreign policy.

The example of Kazakhstan, which has skillfully used a multivector foreign policy to maintain solid ties with Russia, the West, and, increasingly, with China, likely provides added incentive for President Karimov, whose sense of rivalry with his oil-rich northern neighbor is no secret.

Uzbekistan's room for multivector maneuvering remains considerably smaller than Kazakhstan's, however. Tashkent has shown no sign that it will accede to Western demands for an independent investigation of accounts that Uzbek security forces massacred demonstrators in Andijon in May 2005.

Arrests of rights activists continue in Uzbekistan, as indicated by the recent case of Umida Niyazova. And Uzbekistan's commitment to its relationship with Russia -- which presses no rights or reform demands on its partner -- remains strong. Nevertheless, the pendulum of Uzbek-Russian-Western relations, which has swung through a number of cycles in recent years, appears to be poised for yet another shift.