Accessibility links

Breaking News

Uzbekistan: NATO Hints At Deal On Renewed Operations

A U.S. soldier at Karshi-Khanabad in the early days after September 11, 2001 (USDoD) Conflicting reports of a potential deal on a NATO troop presence in Uzbekistan have spawned talk of a delicate thaw that could raise Russia's hackles and prompt a backlash from rights groups angry over a deadly crisis in eastern Uzbekistan in 2005.

A NATO envoy says officials in Tashkent are weighing the possibility of allowing NATO armies to use an Uzbek military base for alliance operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

The prospect of such a presence could indicate a willingness on both sides to improve relations since a deadly security clampdown in eastern Uzbekistan in mid-2005.

Some observers are likely to question whether the flip side of such an approach suggests that the events of Andijon -- where authorities say under 200 people died but eyewitnesses and watchdog groups claim many more peaceful protesters were gunned down -- have been forgotten.

The thaw could also anger regional players Russia and China, who have worked hard to capitalize on frosty relations between Tashkent and the West to strengthen their own energy and security relations in Central Asia.

U.S. forces had used the Karshi-Khanabad base until being kicked out by Uzbek President Islam Karimov after criticism over Andijon. German troops were allowed to stay in the country, at another base in Termez.

But Robert Simmons, NATO's envoy to the Caucasus and Central Asia, suggested at a Moscow news conference on March 5 that U.S. forces might now be back.

"My understanding is [Uzbek authorities] are also agreeing to participate or let other ally nations beyond Germany use facilities in that country," Simmons said. "It might be because of that -- although I am not sure of all the details -- that other allies including the United States are now again using facilities in Uzbekistan."

Simmons added that "inasmuch as that supports our mission in Afghanistan, we welcome the fact that more allies can in fact use those facilities."

It is the suggestion that U.S. soldiers are already there that has rankled some.

A spokesman for the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Vitaliy Strugavetz, said he thought Simmons "simply made a mistake." He said the Uzbek government has not informed other CSTO members about the possibility of inviting a third party's troops to Uzbekistan, as it is obliged to do under the treaty.

"It was wishful thinking, and I assume it was also a well-prepared informational 'mistake,' softly speaking -- as he 'mixed up' Khanabad and Termez," Strugavets said.

Officials in Tashkent have not responded to Simmons' comments.

The press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Molly Stephenson, has denied a report claiming that U.S. troops are already using the Uzbek base again. Stephenson told RFE/RL that there was a "misunderstanding" related to the NATO envoy's quote and that "the United States has no bilateral access to military facilities in Uzbekistan."

"Individual Americans who are attached to NATO international staff can use the German air bridge from Termez to Afghanistan, and that's on a case-by-case basis," Stephenson said, "but there are no American troops based in Termez, or Karshi, or any other base in Uzbekistan."

The Karshi-Khanabad, or K2 base as it is sometimes known, was one of the biggest Soviet military bases and a key staging point for Soviet operations during its abortive 1979-89 campaign in Afghanistan.

To be sure, there has been a flurry of recent Western diplomatic activity in Tashkent. In late January, Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, met with President Karimov in the Uzbek capital.

The European Union has had sometimes wrenching debate over its post-Andijon sanctions and is set to discuss lifting its visa ban on top Uzbek officials in late April. The EU ban was imposed in November 2005, after Karimov dismissed calls for an independent international probe into the Andijon deaths.

Uzbek authorities also recently granted amnesty to several prominent human rights activists, a move that was welcomed by the EU.

Human rights activists have accused the West of abandoning the dispute over what really took place at Andijon. Western officials, however, say Uzbekistan's human-rights record has always been a part of the equation.

"Recently, given certain events including the access of the European Union to discussions about human rights in Uzbekistan, relations between NATO and NATO members and Uzbekistan have improved," Simmons said in Moscow, "and Uzbekistan has, for instance, returned to participating in meetings in Brussels in the Partnership for Peace context -- and we welcome that."

Moscow and Beijing are not likely to embrace even tentative moves that could open the door to increased Western influence in Uzbekistan or the region.

Following international criticism over Andijon, Uzbekistan became an active member of the CSTO.

Sergei Mikheev of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies said Karimov has been trying to broaden his foreign-policy options to lessen Russian and Chinese influence. But if Karimov has decided to allow U.S. troops back in, he added, the decision could backfire.

"Karimov is in a very difficult situation right now [and] we have to wait and see if this news will be confirmed," Mikheev said. "But I believe that U.S. troops' return to Uzbekistan may to some extent soften Uzbekistan's relations with Americans but simultaneously complicate relations with Russia. Which is better for Karimov? I don't know."

He went on to suggest that "history shows [that] attempts by authoritarian regimes to reach a compromise with the Americans often ends in those regimes' destruction."

Mikheev said he thought "conclusions were drawn and lessons learned" from Andijon and its aftermath, and added that he doubts "Karimov is ready to take another risk" through such a crackdown.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Alisher Siddikov contributed to this report