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Central Asia: Uzbek President Skeptical About New Russian Military Presence

Prague, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov has clarified his views on Russia's efforts to establish a new military base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, Karimov, who analysts say is keen to be seen as a regional leader, questioned the need for a Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev signed a security agreement that will allow aircraft belonging to Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan to operate out of the country's Kant air base.

Answering a question about whether a Russian military presence in Central Asia could create a counterbalance to Washington's interests in the region, Karimov said it is important to first clarify the real motives behind Moscow's actions. "I want to say, if all these actions are being made, as they say, 'Better late than never,' to provide peace and stability, to prevent potential invasions, then Uzbeks say, 'Welcome,' and [have] no more questions. But if this is just for competition over the issue of whose presence in Central Asia will be bigger, [whether the U.S. or Russia, and] who will have more military power, then I say this competition is absolutely counterproductive."

The Uzbek president said the overall security situation in Central Asia is much better than it was one year ago. He said the relative peace in Afghanistan has minimized the threat of terrorist actions by the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its supporters. Nevertheless, he said the signatories of the CIS Collective Security Treaty still insist on emphasizing the volatile security situation in the region as a basis for an increased Russian presence.

"Instead of underlining that the situation has been improving and there is a trend toward stabilization, they [signatories of the CIS Collective Security Treaty] are organizing a whole series of various meetings of Security Councils and saying that in southern Afghanistan there are still armed Taliban groups who have not surrendered [to Kabul], and that they may invade the Central Asian countries -- and that's why we should be prepared."

In his statements, Karimov recalled that Russia had not reacted to his appeals in 1999, 2000, and 2001 for help in the face of attacks by the IMU. He questioned why Russia has chosen this time to get involved in the regional fight against terrorism.

The Uzbek president said the military presence of all foreign countries in Central Asia should be temporary -- that is, only until real peace and stability have been established in Afghanistan, where the lack of a strong, centralized government still poses a threat to regional stability.

"As a matter of fact, I think that if there is peace in Afghanistan, I'll support the full demilitarization [of Central Asia]. I am a supporter of that. As soon as nothing will threaten us from the south, I support the idea that none of the current forces -- which are, let's say, now invited to protect us -- should remain here. If there is no threat, why would we need these forces on Central Asian territory?"

Karimov emphasized that Russia shouldn't be worried about protecting its influence in the region by expanding its military presence. He said its roots sink deep into the cultural and social life of Central Asians.

Karimov warned that Russia's new military competition with the U.S. in Central Asia could create what he called an unhealthy competition among regional governments.