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Uzbekistan: U.S. Alliance Leaves Tashkent Feeling Confident (Part 1)

Uzbekistan is enjoying closer ties with the United States after a decision this month to allow the U.S. to use one of its air bases for the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Tashkent this week declined to attend a key regional security conference -- perhaps due to a belief that its new alliance with the U.S. provides it ample security. In the first of a two-part series on Uzbekistan's changing security position, RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that Tashkent's cooperation with the U.S. will help Uzbekistan boost its profile in Central Asia.

Prague, 12 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- At first glance, it would not appear to be the best of times for Uzbekistan. Afghanistan's ruling Taliban have threatened to attack this northern neighbor. Groups of armed militants have stirred unrest in the country for more than two years. The impoverishment of the population is also a growing concern.

But the official mood in Tashkent is upbeat. The Uzbek government appears recently to have made a powerful new friend -- the United States. The Uzbek government chose not to send representatives to yesterday's meeting in Kyrgyzstan of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- despite the fact that Uzbekistan only became a member of that group less than four months ago. This could be taken as a sign of growing self-confidence.

Uzbekistan has always been something of a loner among the former Soviet republics. After gaining independence in 1991, the Uzbek government worked quickly to rid itself of any Russian presence and later resisted maintaining ties with a country viewed as its former master. To counter Russian designs on the region, Uzbekistan courted ties with the United States, but because of Tashkent's poor human rights record, that relationship has been rocky.

John Schoeberlein is director of both the Harvard Forum for Central Asian Studies and the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Central Asian Project. He told RFE/RL that Uzbekistan and the United States have for several years been doing "a sort of dance" in which U.S. strategic interests and Uzbekistan's desire for greater involvement in the region have been tempered by Washington's concerns over Uzbekistan's poor records with respect to democracy and human rights.

But Schoeberlein says the U.S.-led strikes on targets in Afghanistan and Tashkent's offer to allow the U.S. to use an Uzbek air base and station troops there have changed the relationship.

"Now suddenly this goal of the Uzbek government has received a huge boost and they certainly have gotten their way, in a sense, as a result of the most recent developments. When I say they've gotten their way, that means that they have gotten the U.S. to be heavily involved and committed to [Uzbekistan's] own security interests in the region in a way they could not even have dreamed of just a few months ago."

Security issues have traditionally been a top priority for the Uzbek government. Tashkent's decision to withdraw from the CIS Collective Security Treaty in 1999 was in large part due to the complacency of other CIS nations regarding Afghanistan's Taliban militia, which had seized control of the territory adjacent to Uzbekistan the year before. Belarus, for example, said it would send no soldiers to Central Asia to fight Islamic militants.

Shortly after leaving the security treaty, Tashkent sustained a series of uprisings by an armed group calling itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU was blamed for an assassination attempt against the Uzbek president in 1999 and attacks on Uzbek troops in the summers of 1999 and 2000.

When Vladimir Putin became Russia's president, Uzbekistan's policy toward Russia changed and it seemed a rapprochement had occurred. Putin inherited a war in Chechnya that the Kremlin portrayed as a war against terrorism. Since Uzbekistan considered the IMU to be terrorists, the two governments suddenly discovered a common enemy and concluded their problems had the same roots -- training camps in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Uzbek-Russian ties grew stronger as a result, but Uzbekistan did not change its policy toward the Russian-dominated CIS Collective Security Treaty.

Instead, this June Uzbekistan became a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose original members were Russia, China, and Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Terrorism had been the leading issue on the SCO's agenda since the start of Russia's war in Chechnya. In return for joining the SCO, Uzbekistan received military equipment from China and promises of mutual security from the organization.

But according to Schoeberlein, the U.S. presence in Uzbekistan and the strikes against Afghanistan have made the SCO less important for Tashkent.

"This [the U.S. presence and the attacks] changes [Uzbekistan's] relationship in relation to both Russia and other CIS countries [as well as with] other formations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which for the last few months has been a very important one for them. This will change too with the latest meeting [of the SCO], and [Uzbekistan's] non-participation in it shows that they're orienting much more toward the United States and are hoping to rely on that relationship as opposed to building cooperation in the region."

The new ties with the U.S. have obvious advantages for Uzbekistan. In a speech last month, U.S. President George W. Bush implied that Washington was ready to actively work towards the destruction of the terrorist camps, and by extension, the IMU.

"The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as Al-Qaeda. [This] group and its leader, a person named Osama bin Laden, are linked to many other organizations in different countries -- including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan."

The U.S. government has placed the IMU on a list of 27 suspected terrorist organizations.

Martha Olcott of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told RFE/RL that Bush's remarks reflected U.S. determination to rid Central Asia, and Uzbekistan, of the IMU presence.

"The destruction of the IMU is one of the goals of this campaign, as well. [The IMU] has been linked to Osama bin Laden. The president [Bush] introduced it to the American people as a target. So I think we are unlikely to leave the region without [the IMU] destroyed, as well as the terrorist camps of bin Laden."

With the U.S. engaged in Central Asia, Uzbekistan is no doubt hoping that the potential threat from the Taliban as well as the IMU will soon be neutralized.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Tajik services contributed to this report.)