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Central Asia: Medvedev Visit Underscores Kazakh Victory Over Uzbekistan For Regional Dominance

President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) meets with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Astana (ITAR-TASS) While the media focuses on new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Kazakhstan, there is another important aspect to his trip.

Medvedev's choice of Kazakhstan as the destination for his first official visit as Russian president is an unpleasant reminder to many Uzbeks about the changing fortunes of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Nearly eight years ago, another new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, went to Uzbekistan on his first official visit abroad after being inaugurated.

Medvedev's visit to Astana is the latest proof that Kazakhstan is leaving Uzbekistan behind in the battle to be the leading power in Central Asia, a role that Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev have been vying for since their countries gained independence in 1991.

"Kazakhstan is the dominant state politically and economically in Central Asia and I predict that it will continue to be so for some time to come," says John MacLeod, senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "Certainly as long as Nazarbaev is in charge and the economic outlook is as good as it is now."

There are now only two heads of state in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) who have been in power since the first day of the organization that rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union -- Nazarbaev and Karimov.

Balancing Relations

Kazakhstan is geographically the largest of the Central Asian states and Uzbekistan the most populous, so perhaps the rivalry that emerged with their independence in 1991 was natural. Karimov's recent visit to Kazakhstan and complete rejection of Nazarbaev's idea of creating a Central Asian union of some sort (which the Kyrgyz and Tajik presidents support), shows that the rivalry continues.

Post-Soviet relations with Russia are a big factor in understanding why Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan seem to have different fortunes today, and explain why Medvedev is in Kazakhstan and not somewhere else on his "maiden voyage" as Russian leader. The current situation reflects the policies of the early years of independence.

"Karimov tried to take his state and make it into the regional leader, a role that the Uzbeks always saw for themselves and that naturally created some tension with Russia because here was a new country saying, 'I am the regional leader,' so implicitly Russia should step back," MacLeod says.

Uzbekistan could better afford bad relations with Russia, as Kazakhstan is situated between Uzbekistan and Russia, putting Kazakhstan in a different position regarding Moscow.

"Another important factor is that the country is closely interlocked with Russia economically because they have a long border and their economies are more closely intertwined than any other Central Asian state is with Russia and, importantly, also [on] a slightly more equal basis," MacLeod notes. He says other Central Asian countries are "closely tied" to Russia but "more dependent" economically.

Uzbekistan courted better ties with the West, as did Kazakhstan. But Uzbekistan did so at the expense of ties with Russia, whereas Kazakhstan never neglected the country that Nazarbaev once called a "neighbor given to us by God."

"One important difference between the two leaders is that whereas with the Uzbeks, whenever relationships with the West were relatively good, whenever the Uzbeks were courting the West, relations with Russia would be correspondingly poor," MacLeod says. "Whereas Nazarbaev made both relationships work at the same time. It's a different, much more flexible approach."

That approach is now paying off literally and diplomatically for Kazakhstan. Much of Kazakhstan's oil is exported via Russian pipelines and since both countries are getting richer from energy exports they are jointly participating in new projects -- exploring for new oil and gas deposits and constructing new export pipelines. Russia was the leading supporter of Kazakhstan's bid to receive the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which Astana is slated to assume in 2010.

Picture Of Stability

That says something about the countries, but what about the leaders of the two countries -- what is their image now?

As mentioned, Karimov courted better ties with the West after independence but Putin's 2000 visit began a thaw in the two countries' frosty ties. Then, in May 2005, there was the bloody violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon.

Western nations condemned the Uzbek government for ordering troops to fire on a crowd of thousands of mostly peaceful demonstrators in Andijon and called for an independent international investigation. U.S. troops based in southern Uzbekistan -- in support of operations in Afghanistan and once warmly welcomed just after September 11, 2001 -- were abruptly told to leave the country within six months.

Russia supported Uzbekistan's efforts to confront what Tashkent said was an attempted coup led by Islamic militants and to restore order and demand that U.S. military forces withdraw from Uzbekistan. But Karimov's fickle foreign policy and events like Andijon have created some skepticism in Russia.

"History makes Karimov less of a known quantity," MacLeod says. He says that, while the Kremlin supported Karimov over Andijon, "it's that sort of incident that would create concerns about the long-term stability of the country, you know? [People start thinking,] 'Is this man the right person to be leading the country?'"

That contrasts with MacLeod's assessment of Nazarbaev: "Nazarbaev has proved a fairly stable character. His behavior politically has been predictable so that when he's worked with the West on oil projects, he's done it in such a way that he managed the undoubted tensions with Russia, because Russia didn't necessarily always want Western companies to be involved in Kazakhstan, but Nazarbaev managed that, made it work for all sides."

MacLeod adds that this stability and predictably of character and longevity in office has led Nazarbaev to a new and unexpected position within the CIS.

Nazarbaev "is the elder figure [even] among the Russian politicians," he says. "He is a known figure to them, many of them will have worked with him in the past but politically he is the elder statesman in the former Soviet Union and particularly in the former Soviet Union among those countries which remain broadly loyal to Russia."

Uzbekistan under Karimov, in contrast, is a country with a history of shaky support for the CIS.

Some basic facts help in comparing the two countries today. Kazakhstan is six times the size of France and has a population of some 15.4 million. Uzbekistan is a bit smaller than Sweden and has a population of some 27 million.

Uzbekistan's average monthly wage is about $20-$30, while Kazakhstan's is more than $100. Kazakh businesses are investing in the banking and industrial sectors of many countries, which is not true of Uzbek businesses. Tens of thousands of Uzbekistan's citizens are migrant laborers working mainly in Russia but also, tellingly, in Kazakhstan, which has no significant migrant labor force of its own.

Kazakhstan annually hosts international conferences like the Eurasia Media Forum and Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. The latter has attracted several heads of states and high-ranking officials from international organizations such as the UN. Uzbekistan occasionally holds international conferences but they are usually a onetime only event.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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