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Uzbekistan: Putin Pays One-Day Visit

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Uzbekistan today for a one-day visit. During his talks with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Putin called for greater economic cooperation with Tashkent. Issues of mutual concern include Tashkent's debt to Moscow and prospects for Russian participation in the exploitation of Uzbek oil and gas deposits in Uzbekistan.

Prague, 6 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin called today for greater economic cooperation with Tashkent in talks with his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov.

Going into talks in Uzbekistan's historic second city, Samarkand, Putin deplored a slump in trade between the two nations, which he described as cause for "concern." Russia's share in Uzbekistan's foreign trade has dipped from 25 percent to 16 percent in the past 10 years.

Karimov, meanwhile, stressed the importance of Russia's role in Central Asia: "We understand unambiguously the significant role that Russia is playing not only in our bilateral relations, and not only in multilateral relations within the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States]. We are convinced, and the rest of the world recognizes it too, that Russia is rising again and regaining its leading positions that rightfully belong to it."

Putin, who arrived in Uzbekistan from Malaysia, also discussed the issue of creating a single economic space for Russia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan was the first CIS state Putin visited following his inauguration as Russian president in the spring of 2000. He has returned several times, but this is his first visit to Samarkand, Uzbekistan's second-largest city and Karimov's hometown.

The visit was originally scheduled for early last month, but was postponed following the double suicide-bombing at a Moscow rock concert on 5 July.

According to Sergei Prikhodko, deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, likely issues on Putin's agenda included Uzbekistan's $640 million debt to Russia and how to reverse last year's 20 percent decline in bilateral trade. The two leaders were also expected to discuss the prospects for Russian companies to participate in the exploitation of Uzbek oil and gas fields and the modernization of the country's energy system.

Prikhodko did not rule out Karimov briefing Putin on his recent visit to Tehran, where he discussed with Iranian officials the road project that could earn Uzbekistan a sea port.

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported on the beginning of the talks, during which Putin indicated that a number of issues have accumulated that need discussion. ITAR-TASS reported him as saying that the level of trade turnover between Russia and Uzbekistan had lowered lately, an issue that Putin indicated as worrisome.

The AFP news agency also noted that international drug trafficking was expected to feature high on the agenda. Much of the heroin cultivated in Afghanistan passes through its common border with Uzbekistan and via Russia on its way to European markets.

Yet another issue likely to figure high on the agenda was regional security. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Uzbekistan under Karimov has pursued a more pro-Western policy than any other Central Asian state and sought to minimize contacts with Russia.

But the emergence in 1999-2000 of Islamic terrorist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan impelled the Uzbek leadership to consider closer security cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia and China are also members.

Since then, however, the 11 September 2001 attacks on the U.S. has Uzbekistan once again looking West. Alex Vatanka, editor of "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments: Russia and the CIS" a publication based in London, says, "Karimov, among the five Central Asian leaders, has been the one most actively trying to distance his country from Moscow's domination of Central Asia. To some degree, he has success with it, particularly now since 11 September 2001, where Uzbekistan's geography played in its favor and it could sort of get America's military presence on its territory -- which has been, obviously in this regard, a good development for Uzbek foreign policy."

Vatanka describes this attempt by Tashkent to strike a security-cooperation balancing act between the SCO and the U.S. as reflecting a "new pragmatism" in Uzbek foreign policy.

Putin's agenda in Samarkand may suggest that Moscow is aware that there is little point in trying to woo Tashkent away from its security engagement with the U.S., and will focus instead on the opportunities for increased economic cooperation between the two countries.