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Uzbekistan: President Karimov Meets With Close Ally Putin

Islam Karimov and Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin (AFP) Uzbek President Islam Karimov has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, on Karimov's first trip abroad since his controversial reelection in December to a third term as president.

The destination is not surprising, as Moscow remains one of the few allies of Uzbekistan. The country has endured international isolation since the bloody events in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005, when government troops reportedly killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.

Karimov -- who has been in power in Uzbekistan since before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union -- has said that his visit to Moscow is significant and underlines "special relations" between the two countries.

Putin pointed out that economic ties between the two countries have risen, with annual trade turnover reaching $3 billion in 2006. The visit, Putin said, "is a sign that our relations are going to develop further, as they have been developing in the previous years. Our bilateral relations have been quite good. It is enough to say that the growth of the trade turnover was 37 percent, which is approximately $3 billion."

Karimov also praised bilateral relations, saying the meeting "underlines once again the special relations between our two countries; indeed it underlines Uzbekistan's high respect for Russia."

Positive official declarations and elevated rhetoric are nothing new in the two leaders' meetings in recent years.

However, as Sergei Luzyanin, a professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), says, there is a new element in relations between Russia and Tashkent. Luzyanin notes that Karimov is visiting Moscow before the end of Putin's term as president in March, and that meeting with Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is one of the goals of the visit.

Karimov has already met with other high-ranking officials including former Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and his successor, Vladimir Zubkov, who visited Tashkent last year.

A Much-Needed Ally

Putin was one of the few world leaders -- in addition to his counterpart in Beijing -- who openly supported Karimov's moves to quell the Andijon protests.

Six months after the May 2005 incident, the two countries made an unprecedented agreement on allied relations. Uzbekistan rejoined the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, and became an active member of other Russian-led groupings, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Community, while quitting the pro-Western GUUAM (Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova).

Yury Fedorov, a senior regional analyst at the London-based Chatham House, says the Putin government is likely to continue its endorsement of Karimov.

"Of course, Moscow has been Tashkent's ally," Fedorov said. "Development of relations with Tashkent [such as] Tashkent's agreement to rejoin the Collective Security Treaty Organization are seen as great foreign-policy achievements in Moscow. Russia is ready to continue its support for Karimov at least until [Karimov's] successor emerges -- which is not going to happen soon, obviously."

Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Karimov on his reelection on December 23. Karimov won the polls virtually unchallenged, even though he was constitutionally barred from running for a third term. Putin also sent a congratulatory letter to Karimov on his 70th birthday on January 30 and said Russia values its "strategic partnership and alliance" with Uzbekistan.

Despite these acts of courtship, Fedorov says Moscow does not consider Karimov a trustworthy partner.

"Relations between Russia and Uzbekistan are not sincere, I would say. Strategically, Moscow does not trust Karimov because of those foreign-policy zigzags Uzbekistan has made in the last decade. On the other hand, I think Tashkent sees Moscow as an unwanted partner it has to deal with in the absence of other allies," Fedorov says.

Gas Issues

Analysts say the issues of Uzbekistan's gas exports to Russia and the price that Russia pays will top the agenda.

Uzbekistan has reached several agreements with Russia's state gas monopoly, Gazprom, in recent years. The Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on February 6 that Uzbekistan intends to ask for higher gas prices from Moscow and to increase the fees for Turkmen gas that transits Uzbekistan.

"Kommersant" also noted that Karimov is following the policies of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which already reached an agreement to sell their gas at higher prices to Russia, which in turn exports the Central Asian gas to Europe at a higher price.

Security is also on the agenda, as common security threats have helped strengthen cooperation between the two sides, the MGIMO's Sergei Luzyanin says.

"The 'Afghanistan-Pakistan' problem has become extremely acute," Luzyanin says. "Well-known events in Pakistan and permanent chaos in Afghanistan, amid serious concerns that Afghanistan may follow the path of Iraq and fall apart -- along with the possible fall of President [Hamid] Karzai's regime -- will directly impact Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, and therefore Russia."

Interfax quoted Putin as saying on February 6 that he was delighted to discuss with Karimov "not only bilateral relations, but also regional problems."

Luzyanin adds that despite apparent competition between the West and Russia, as well as China, for energy resources in Central Asia, the security threats of Afghanistan and Pakistan are common for all of them and should become a basis for cooperation.

Karimov's visit to Moscow comes amid apparent signs that Uzbekistan's international isolation may be ending. The head of the U.S. Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, met with Karimov in Tashkent in late January, while the EU's special representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morrel, visited earlier that month.

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