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Central Asia Report: August 8, 2003

8 August 2003, Volume 3, Number 27

PUTIN IN SAMARKAND: THE 'OLD FRIEND' RETURNS. On 6 August Russian President Vladimir Putin made a one-day working visit to Uzbekistan's second city Samarkand, where he held three-hour talks with President Islam Karimov. (Putin's trip, originally scheduled for early last month, was postponed after two suicide bombings at an open-air rock concert in Moscow on 5 July.) The presidents' discussions ranged from economic relations -- notably the need to reverse a slump in bilateral trade -- to the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terrorism, Uzbek and Russian news sources reported. However, boosting cooperation between the Uzbek and Russian hydrocarbon industries topped the agenda, including 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.

Commentators noted Russia's interest to reassert its economic influence in Uzbekistan, which many linked to a general strategy to increase Russian influence in the Central Asian region as a whole, and to counter what the Kremlin perceives as U.S.-backed efforts to construct pipelines in the Caspian region that bypass Russia. In this context, it is significant that this week was the first time Putin has visited Uzbekistan since Karimov contracted a strategic partnership with Washington in autumn 2001.

At a joint press conference, Karimov stressed that Uzbekistan and Russian had "no differences" on oil and gas issues, while Putin said their talks on the topic had produced tangible results, VOA reported on 6 August. "We are interested in using the pipelines running through Central Asia in the most effective way, and to maximum capacity," the Russian leader said as quoted by He added that this effort was fully supported by the Russian gas giant Gazprom, and that the Russian government in turn was ready to back Gazprom's activities in Uzbekistan. Karimov also stressed to journalists that his country welcomed the company's participation in developing its natural-gas deposits.

Gazprom -- whose chief, Aleksei Miller, was in Tashkent on 22 July to discuss joint gas projects with Karimov -- both buys gas from Uzbekistan and has a partnership agreement on the transit of Uzbek gas. The company signed a contract last December with the Uzbek state holding firm, Uzbekneftegaz, on the export of 5 billion cubic meters of gas over a 12-month period. Shipment of the gas commenced in May 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 July 2003). By 2005, Uzbekistan has ambitions to be exporting as much as 10 billion cubic meters of gas with the technical assistance of Gazprom. The government has been signaling for months that it plans to sell more of its gas. Prime Minister Utkir Sultonov warned the Russian gas firm Itera on 15 July that it would be unable to use the Uzbek pipeline system to ship the amount of gas it had requested to transit through the country, because Tashkent would be giving precedence to shipments of its own gas. Uzbekistan is also exporting gas under a 2003 contract with the Russian firm Gazeksport that envisages increasing exports in the coming years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 July 2003).

Russia's share in Uzbekistan's foreign trade has fallen from 25 percent to 16 percent in the past 10 years, a drop that Putin in Samarkand described as a cause for "concern." Last year alone saw a 20 percent decline in bilateral trade (see "Uzbekistan: Putin Pays One-Day Visit,", 6 August 2003). Considering ways to halt this trend, Putin suggested that Russian enterprises could play a greater role in processing Uzbek cotton. "At the moment, our textile industry buys cotton from third-party countries [i.e. middlemen]," he said. The two sides consequently were looking to eliminate such intermediaries, said.

The presidents also discussed collaborating in the fields of aircraft construction, machine engineering, water management, and military-technical matters. Moreover, they agreed to revive an intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation, which last met in 2001, to work on developing joint business projects and harmonizing legislation, said. The reactivated commission will meet in September. Meanwhile Russia's Ambassador to Uzbekistan Farit Muhamedshin said that representatives of Russian business circles would soon be arriving to explore opportunities, the website reported.

On the security front, the leaders discussed counterterrorism measures being developed under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). "We welcome an initiative by Uzbekistan to host the SCO antiterrorism center in Tashkent and today Islam Karimov reported what is being done to implement it," Putin told journalists on 6 August. Significantly, he was speaking on the day that military units from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia launched the first stage of SCO exercises at a Kazakh air base, involving training in intercepting aircraft, dropping airborne troops, and encircling and eliminating a terrorist group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 2003). SCO members originally planned to establish the antiterrorism center in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Karimov's successful efforts to get it moved to Tashkent is one of the signs that his regime -- having spurned most regional security initiatives, and generally shunned Russia, especially after throwing in its lot with the United States in the wake of 11 September 2001 -- is re-examining the wisdom of putting too many eggs in one basket and seeking a more balanced policy.

As Karimov said himself on 6 August: "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."

Yet this statement flies in the face of countless speeches the Uzbek leader has made over the last decade, demeaning Russia and proclaiming that its days as regional hegemon were finished. Thus Karimov was not merely laying on compliments and flattery for his guest's enjoyment: he was engaged in the more humiliating exercise of eating his words -- almost making a public recantation in the Russian president's presence.

Karimov even cast a tiny shadow over the Uzbek cult of Mustaqillik (Independence) touted by his ideologues as the ultimate good. As reported by, he admitted that Uzbekistan "just like other CIS countries" experienced "definite euphoria" after the collapse of the USSR, but now they understood it was necessary to establish firm bilateral relations with Russia.

Perhaps the toughest moment for Karimov was when he acknowledged that Uzbekistan and Russia had made mistakes in the past regarding their relationship. But an old friend is always better than a new one, he went on to say, according to VOA -- and one imagines he gritted his teeth while doing so. Presumably this was as unpleasant for him to say as it was for Washington, Uzbekistan's "new friend," to hear. After years of hectoring Russia for trying to dominate, undermine, or meddle in the region, Karimov's words welcoming it back to Central Asia came close to eating crow.

WHY WAS KHAMROEV ARRESTED? One advantage of Russia as a partner for Uzbekistan is that unlike Western countries, where increased cooperation has come at the price of strong pressure on Karimov to democratize and liberalize the economy, Putin -- perhaps mindful of the adage about throwing stones in glass houses -- has refrained from criticizing him. In fact, in the latest cause celebre among Tashkent's human rights community, Russia has been accused of aiding and abetting repression in Uzbekistan.

Bakhrom Khamroev, an activist for the banned Uzbek democratic movement Birlik and a spokesman for the opposition magazine "Harakat," was detained in Moscow on 20 July by Russian special-services officers. A Russian citizen, Khamroev was forced to emigrate from Uzbekistan because of repression of dissidents in the early 1990's, according to local rights activists. He has lived in political exile in Russia since 1992. Khamroev was arrested on suspicion of possessing heroin with intent to sell. According to his wife, he was seized by men in masks who beat him and then allegedly discovered a packet of narcotics in his pocket (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2003).

In an open letter to Putin on 22 July, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights voiced strong suspicions that Khamroev's arrest was politically motivated. "Mr. Khamroev's engagement on behalf of the political rights of the Uzbek people has drawn the attention of Russian and Uzbek security forces for a number of years," the letter averred. In a further appeal to Putin to intervene in the case, reported by on 27 July, a group of Uzbek human rights activists asserted that Khamroev's arrest created the impression that the Russian authorities were taking orders from Uzbek security forces. His wife told local activists that she, her husband, and his brother were questioned recently by police about Khamroev's alleged connections with radical Islamic groups and about his involvement with "Harakat" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 July 2003).

However, the Russian human rights organization Memorial has looked at Khamroev's activities from a different angle. Its interpretation of the Russian authorities' motivation behind his arrest has stressed his reporting about the arrests of 55 alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir sympathizers in Moscow in early June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 June 2003). It was later proven that those arrested had no connection with religious extremism. This was thanks in part to Khamroev, who took part in a 24 June press conference whose title speaks for itself: "Operation Against Islamic Extremists in Moscow: The Official Version and Actual Events." Therefore, Memorial has argued that Khamroev's arrest was an internal affair -- a response to his revelations about the incompetence of Russian security agencies in identifying and coping with real terrorist threats. Russian police were retaliating against him for embarrassing them, in other words, not because they wanted to help out Uzbekistan.

Thus Russian and Uzbek rights defenders have latched onto Khamroev's case for different reasons and to advance different agendas. On 31 July reported that Memorial had appealed for all human rights and journalism organizations to join in pressuring the Russian government to release Khamroev. A recent Memorial article, documenting a pattern of harassment of Khamroev and his family by Russian security officials, adds substance to the idea that the authorities believed he was involved with Muslim terrorists and were fuming at his exposure of their incompetent antiterrorist operation in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 August 2003).

But rights groups in Uzbekistan are emphasizing Khamroev's role as a political opponent of Karimov's regime, seeing his arrest as related to the rapprochement between the Uzbek and Russian leaders. According to Vasila Inoyatova, chairwoman of the human rights movement Ezgulik (Virtue), Khamroev's incarceration was "a present to Karimov before Putin's visit to Uzbekistan," RIA-Novosti reported on 6 August. To coincide with Putin's visit to Samarkand, Ezgulik, together with the unregistered Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, organized a picket in front of the Russian Embassy in Tashkent demanding Khamroev's release. Some 30 activists started the demonstration. But according to the newspaper "Kommersant," a number of people waiting in a line at the embassy joined the picketers to protest against changes in regulations on obtaining Russian citizenship. The result was described as the largest demonstration in Tashkent in many years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 2003). Once again, ironically, the Khamroev case was being used by separate groups for different reasons to advance their own different agendas.