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Uzbekistan: Karimov Decides To Take Part In Shanghai Group Summit

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its seventh summit today in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. The purpose of the group has evolved from solving border issues to promoting economic development and fighting terrorism. But the most recent member of the group, Uzbekistan, has not appeared to be very enthusiastic in recent months. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is attending the events, but RFE/RL reports that does not necessarily mean Karimov values the organization's work.

Prague, 7 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The first big piece of news for today's Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in St. Petersburg is that all six heads of state are there.

It is the seventh summit of the group, but there had been questions about the participation of the organization's newest member, Uzbekistan.

Tashkent did not send anyone to the organization's ministerial meetings earlier this year. This seemed odd given the Uzbek government's enthusiasm last year when it was admitted. But that was before 11 September and Tashkent's decision to allow U.S.-led antiterrorism forces to use its military facilities.

The Shanghai Five first met in 1996 to resolve border issues left over from the days of the Soviet Union. China and the four CIS neighboring countries -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- adopted a number of confidence-building measures along the CIS-Chinese border.

That proved so successful that the group started talking about economic cooperation and gradually transformed itself into an organization concerned largely with trade issues.

The focus of the group shifted again in 1999, when all of the members were facing armed opposition from Islamic groups. Two successive years of Islamic incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan led Uzbekistan to seek membership in the group.

Alex Vatanka is the editor of "Russia-CIS Security Assessment Binder," part of Jane's Sentinel. He said after two years of incursions, the Uzbek government realized it needed help. "By 2001, obviously the issue of Islamic radicalism had got so bad that they [the Uzbeks] needed Russian help on the ground."

Uzbekistan's interest in the organization seemed to fade after 11 September and the start of the United States-led campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan. The main militant group threatening Uzbekistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, suffered heavy losses in the attacks.

Oksana Antonenko is a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. She says the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan and the willingness of the coalition to put troops on the ground, caused some members, like Uzbekistan, to reconsider the value of the Shanghai group. "The role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in addressing regional security issues has been re-evaluated by the members of the organization. [The fact] that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization had not been in the forefront of responding to the terrorist threats from Afghanistan and had been very slow in taking a strong position or cooperating as an organization with other countries on the ground, made a lot of members who were very anxious originally to join the organization to maybe change their position."

Vatanka agrees. He says in Uzbekistan's view there is not much the Shanghai organization can offer: "In many ways, this really confirms what the Uzbek president all along said. Even after [Uzbekistan joined the SCO], the Uzbek president came out shortly after and said this alliance, the SCO, should never develop into a military or political forum or organization. It should stick to what Uzbekistan really joined it for -- to fight separatism in Central Asia."

Antonenko points out that Uzbekistan has border problems with fellow SCO members Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which Tashkent prefers would remain a matter for bilateral discussions. "As far as Uzbekistan is concerned at least, I'm not very sure whether Uzbekistan would want some of these border issues discussed within the organization."

Vatanka says the Uzbeks most likely see the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a back-up in case the U.S. withdraws from the region, hence Karimov's participation.