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Central Asia: Iraq Not Likely To Affect Relations With U.S. Or Russia

The Central Asian republics were strong supporters of the U.S.-led antiterror campaign in Afghanistan. But on Iraq, the message has been mixed. Uzbekistan is the only state in the region to back the U.S. campaign to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and force the country's disarmament. RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua reports on how the region's divided stance on the issue will affect its relations with both Russia and the United States.

Prague, 20 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asia appears divided on the issue of Iraq. Uzbekistan says it supports the U.S. initiative to depose Saddam Hussein. Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, has backed America's most vocal detractors on the issue -- France, Germany, and Russia. The remaining three states in the region -- Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan -- have remained largely silent on the issue.

Artyom Malgin of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at Moscow State Institute for International Relations, offers an explanation for Central Asia's low profile on the Iraq issue:

"Central Asian states try to keep neutrality because this [issue] does not concern them directly. I would say that these countries belong to the silent majority of the world community."

Malgin says the Central Asian countries are not crucial players in the Iraqi crisis, and that their stand on the issue is not likely to affect their long-term relations with either Washington or Moscow.

Alex Vatanka is editor-in-chief of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security-assessment publication based in London. He says Iraq does not represent a significant opportunity for Central Asia the way Afghanistan did, with its inflow of Western attention and aid.

"You did not see any hesitation [among the Central Asian states] when the Americans went into Afghanistan," Vatanka said. "Everybody knew exactly where their interests would be lying, and they went there. On this one, [the states are] more or less for it or they're against it. I just don't think those big packages of aid or other types of concessions are there for them to go and grab."

Kyrgyzstan is the region's most vocal opponent of war in Iraq. ITAR-TASS reported that at a meeting with diplomats on 18 March, Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov continued to press for a peaceful solution to the crisis, warning that the Iraq issue could spark instability in the Middle East.

Vatanka says Kyrgyzstan is not risking much by "symbolically" siding with Russia, and that Washington -- which still counts Afghanistan among its foreign-policy interests -- is unlikely to withdraw either troops or aid from the country because of its stance.

Richard Faillace agrees. He teaches foreign policy and diplomatic history at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics, and Strategic Research in Almaty: "Kyrgyzstan still occupies a very important geopolitical position for the United States. Kyrgyz support for the war or Kyrgyz condemnation of the war ultimately is not going to be a major factor in the minds of policy makers in Washington. The United States as well as the French have bases in Kyrgyzstan. They've been the recipients of massive aid. I think in the end result, Washington is going to take little notice of that rejection [by Bishkek], because they need Kyrgyzstan to prosecute the war against terrorism."

At the same time, Faillace notes, Bishkek's stand may persuade Russia to continue its aid and assistance to Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoyev is in Moscow today to discuss military and technical cooperation. The two sides are expected to coordinate a draft agreement on developing a Russian military base on the Kant airfield 20 kilometers east of Bishkek.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has been the only Central Asian leader to voice support for the U.S. on the Iraqi crisis. "If the United States has grounds, we need to take fundamental measures to prevent the genie escaping from its bottle," the Uzbek president has said.

Uzbekistan is one of just three former Soviet republics -- along with Azerbaijan and Georgia -- to be included in the U.S. list of 30 countries openly committed to the immediate disarmament of Iraq. Britain and Australia are the only allies to contribute offensive military forces.

Abdulaziz Kamilov -- a state adviser to the Uzbek president and until last week Uzbekistan's foreign minister -- said on 18 March that his country supports U.S. efforts to disarm Iraq. That same day, Uzbek newspapers carried a letter from U.S. President George W. Bush thanking Karimov for his support on Iraq and for hosting some 1,500 U.S. troops involved in the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan.

Faillace says that for Uzbekistan, which has prickly relationships with Russia and is worried about Moscow reestablishing a sphere of influence in the region, the consequences of its support are likely to be positive: "Uzbekistan is desirous of regional leadership, and Uzbekistan obviously has been the only state in the region to really see Russian power in Central Asia as an affront, and something that should be taken out of the equation ultimately. So I think for Uzbekistan it's actually a positive development because it certainly gives more of a reason to incur future U.S. support."

Malgin says Uzbekistan's support may be part of a strategy to keep U.S. aid flowing into the country, but that the move is unlikely to alter the country's relations with either the U.S. or Russia: "In this case, I see nothing extraordinary. Uzbekistan could count on some help from the United States, [and] that is why they support [the U.S.]. Now it gives neither real support to the United States nor real trouble for Uzbek foreign policy, because in any case [no] one will remember about the Uzbek position, even half-a-year from now."

From the Russian side, Malgin says, Russian foreign policy has showed its "indulgence" toward countries voicing support for the U.S. on the Iraqi issue. For instance Bulgaria, an early supporter of the U.S., has received no negative signal from Moscow. Visiting Sofia earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin merely noted that the two countries' positions on Iraq did not "fully coincide," adding that it is Bulgaria's prerogative to form its own foreign policy.