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Uzbekistan: Karimov Says Improved Relations With Russia Not At Expense Of U.S. Ties

Uzbek President Islam Karimov says Tashkent is interested in improving economic cooperation with Moscow. But he emphasizes that this does not mean Uzbekistan is retreating from its pro-U.S. foreign policy.

Prague, 4 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov used the 1 September opening of the fall parliamentary session to stress the importance of bilateral relations with Russia.

Karimov recalled his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand last month, after which he said "adjustments" had been made to Uzbek-Russian relations.

Uzbekistan's ambassador to Russia, Bakhtiyer Islamov, likewise reiterated the importance of the Samarkand meeting in an interview with ITAR-TASS on 1 September. Islamov called the meeting a "landmark" in bilateral relations. He stressed the need to focus more attention on the development of business relations between the two countries.

During the Samarkand meeting, Putin and Karimov concentrated primarily on prospects for expanding bilateral economic cooperation, especially the export of Uzbek cotton and natural gas and the participation of Russian companies in exploring oil and gas deposits in Uzbekistan.

After the Samarkand talks, Karimov said that when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, many former Soviet republics -- in what he called a mood of "euphoria" -- believed they would be able to find new trading partners. But this belief has proved mistaken, Karimov said, and it is now time to set about restoring trade and economic ties between the former Soviet republics -- and between Uzbekistan and Russia in particular.

In his address to parliament on 1 September, Karimov again described the Samarkand talks with Putin as important. He said he and Putin sought to reach agreement on all topics they discussed, and that he was greatly satisfied with the outcome.

Karimov said he thinks Putin is becoming increasingly pragmatic in his approach to both domestic and foreign policy: "I think Russia in the person of Putin is occupying a more and more pragmatic position."

Karimov said he sees new possibilities opening up for strengthening relations if Putin's balanced position receives support from the Russian people in the State Duma and in next year's presidential elections.

At the same time, Karimov stressed that he desires bilateral relations with Russia more than multilateral economic relations within the Commonwealth of Independent States: "With Russia, we want most of all to have bilateral relations."

Karimov was disparaging in his comments on such CIS initiatives as the Customs Union Agreement in 1996, the Eurasian Economic Community (EURASEC), formed in October 2000, and a planned single economic space between Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

He said the Customs Union Agreement was "stillborn," and he confessed that he cannot understand how the Eurasian Economic Community -- which unites Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan -- differs from the customs union. He said enthusiastic talk about the benefits of those organizations contains an element of what he called "populism."

Both Karimov and Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev stress, however, that Tashkent's desire for expanded economic ties with Russia does not mean a deterioration of relations with the U.S.

Karimov on 29 August that attention given to strengthening Uzbek-Russian relations should not be interpreted to mean that Tashkent is "drifting toward Russia."

Alex Vatanka is editor of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security-assessment publication based in London. He believes Uzbekistan is looking to Russia with long-term economic benefits in mind but that ties with the U.S. remain important, at least as long as the war on terrorism remains in the forefront.

"I think the Uzbeks are looking at the benefits, the practical benefits, that they can gain from cooperation with America," Vatanka said. "They are looking at those as highly desirable, and it would be viewed obviously as huge mismanagement on their part should they squander this opportunity. But they also look at Russia, [at] the new generation of politicians in Russia, who are looking at Central Asia when it comes to economic integration."

In an interview with Interfax yesterday, Safayev described the Samarkand meeting as a landmark in bilateral relations between Russia and Uzbekistan. But he said relations with the U.S. are also very important to Uzbekistan. He said U.S. efforts to combat international terrorism -- especially in neighboring Afghanistan -- are important for the region and are in Uzbekistan's interests.

Safayev, too, said it would be wrong to conclude that improving relations with Russia should be interpreted as a cooling off of Tashkent's relations with Washington.

"I am deeply convinced," he said, "that those who believe that stronger ties with one country would inevitably weaken relations with another are mistaken," especially considering new threats to global stability.

"In this case," he said, "cooperation and joint efforts benefit everybody."