Uzbek President Karimov Meets With Close Ally Putin
The destination is not surprising, as Moscow remains one of the few allies of Uzbekistan. The country has endured international isolation since the bloody events in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005, when government troops reportedly killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.
Karimov -- who has been in power in Uzbekistan since before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union -- has said that his visit to Moscow is significant and underlines "special relations" between the two countries.
Putin pointed out that economic ties between the two countries have risen, with annual trade turnover reaching $3 billion in 2006. The visit, Putin said, "is a sign that our relations are going to develop further, as they have been developing in the previous years. Our bilateral relations have been quite good. It is enough to say that the growth of the trade turnover was 37 percent, which is approximately $3 billion."
Karimov also praised bilateral relations, saying the meeting "underlines once again the special relations between our two countries; indeed it underlines Uzbekistan's high respect for Russia."
Positive official declarations and elevated rhetoric are nothing new in the two leaders' meetings in recent years.
However, as Sergei Luzyanin, a professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), says, there is a new element in relations between Russia and Tashkent. Luzyanin notes that Karimov is visiting Moscow before the end of Putin's term as president in March, and that meeting with Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is one of the goals of the visit.
Karimov has already met with other high-ranking officials including former Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and his successor, Vladimir Zubkov, who visited Tashkent last year.
A Much-Needed Ally
Putin was one of the few world leaders -- in addition to his counterpart in Beijing -- who openly supported Karimov's moves to quell the Andijon protests.
Six months after the May 2005 incident, the two countries made an unprecedented agreement on allied relations. Uzbekistan rejoined the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, and became an active member of other Russian-led groupings, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Community, while quitting the pro-Western GUUAM (Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova).
Yury Fedorov, a senior regional analyst at the London-based Chatham House, says the Putin government is likely to continue its endorsement of Karimov.
"Of course, Moscow has been Tashkent's ally," Fedorov said. "Development of relations with Tashkent [such as] Tashkent's agreement to rejoin the Collective Security Treaty Organization are seen as great foreign-policy achievements in Moscow. Russia is ready to continue its support for Karimov at least until [Karimov's] successor emerges -- which is not going to happen soon, obviously."
Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Karimov on his reelection on December 23. Karimov won the polls virtually unchallenged, even though he was constitutionally barred from running for a third term. Putin also sent a congratulatory letter to Karimov on his 70th birthday on January 30 and said Russia values its "strategic partnership and alliance" with Uzbekistan.
Despite these acts of courtship, Fedorov says Moscow does not consider Karimov a trustworthy partner.
"Relations between Russia and Uzbekistan are not sincere, I would say. Strategically, Moscow does not trust Karimov because of those foreign-policy zigzags Uzbekistan has made in the last decade. On the other hand, I think Tashkent sees Moscow as an unwanted partner it has to deal with in the absence of other allies," Fedorov says.
Analysts say the issues of Uzbekistan's gas exports to Russia and the price that Russia pays will top the agenda.
Uzbekistan has reached several agreements with Russia's state gas monopoly, Gazprom, in recent years. The Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on February 6 that Uzbekistan intends to ask for higher gas prices from Moscow and to increase the fees for Turkmen gas that transits Uzbekistan.
"Kommersant" also noted that Karimov is following the policies of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which already reached an agreement to sell their gas at higher prices to Russia, which in turn exports the Central Asian gas to Europe at a higher price.
Security is also on the agenda, as common security threats have helped strengthen cooperation between the two sides, the MGIMO's Sergei Luzyanin says.
"The 'Afghanistan-Pakistan' problem has become extremely acute," Luzyanin says. "Well-known events in Pakistan and permanent chaos in Afghanistan, amid serious concerns that Afghanistan may follow the path of Iraq and fall apart -- along with the possible fall of President [Hamid] Karzai's regime -- will directly impact Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, and therefore Russia."
Interfax quoted Putin as saying on February 6 that he was delighted to discuss with Karimov "not only bilateral relations, but also regional problems."
Luzyanin adds that despite apparent competition between the West and Russia, as well as China, for energy resources in Central Asia, the security threats of Afghanistan and Pakistan are common for all of them and should become a basis for cooperation.
Karimov's visit to Moscow comes amid apparent signs that Uzbekistan's international isolation may be ending. The head of the U.S. Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, met with Karimov in Tashkent in late January, while the EU's special representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morrel, visited earlier that month.
Baku-Ashgabat Thaw Could Have Energy Impact
But an intriguing relationship is emerging around the Caspian Sea -- one that could have far-ranging implications for Europe's hopes of diversifying the source of its gas and oil supplies.
Relations between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan -- countries on the Caspian's eastern and western shores, respectively -- are warming up after a deep freeze that has lasted more than a decade. The Azerbaijani government has even indicated that it would be willing to proceed with Ashgabat on building a trans-Caspian pipeline.
With encouragement from the energy-hungry European Union and the United States, envoys from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have now kicked off five days of meetings in Baku to follow up on successful energy and diplomatic talks they held in mid-January. The talks this week are expected to focus in particular on their Caspian maritime border -- an issue that, if resolved, would remove a key obstacle to implementing any trans-Caspian pipeline project.
An EU delegation, meanwhile, was also in Baku this week. "One of the essential items of our agenda certainly is also energy security," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, said in the Azerbaijani capital on February 4. "We are encouraging relations, contacts, and agreements not just between the EU and Azerbaijan but also between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan." Rupel added that Turkmenistan is key to any new pipeline project.
Accompanying him was EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who emphasized the participation of other Central Asian states in the project: "We have a memorandum of understanding already with...Azerbaijan, we have one with Kazakhstan, we are going to Turkmenistan together also as a troika. So things are moving and they are certainly moving in the right direction, but of course it will have to be decided at the right moment in which way this is being done in detail."
Why the Caspian climate change? One reason is Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. The Turkmen president took over after the death in December 2006 of Saparmurat Niyazov, whose bizarre reign ensured Ashgabat's regional isolation for more than 15 years.
Berdymukhammedov has taken steps to end that isolation, forging a "multivector" foreign policy open not only to Russia but also to the West and China. Though the Turkmen government has played down hopes of a revived trans-Caspian project, the warming relations between Ashgabat and Baku were underscored again last week with the announcement that Berdymukhammedov would travel to Azerbaijan before summer -- the first Turkmen president to do so in more than 10 years.
In Baku, an earlier leadership change might well have helped smooth over past differences with Ashgabat, with President Ilham Aliyev succeeding his father, who died in December 2003.
Nurmuhammet Hanamov, a former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey, is the founding chairman of the opposition Republican Party of Turkmenistan in exile. Although an opponent of the Turkmen government, he tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that Berdymukhammedov's fresh approach to Azerbaijan opens new doors for energy projects.
"Since he has come to power, Berdymukhammedov has strived to make relations with neighboring countries closer than before," Hanamov says. "For example, recently the most disputed issue between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan -- the Caspian deposits issue -- has been discussed. It is a positive development. Through dialogue all issues can be solved, so we hope that the solution of disputable issues with Azerbaijan will lead to the realization of the trans-Caspian pipeline project."
Nazar Suyunov, a former Turkmen oil and gas minister who now lives in exile, agrees that the new cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan brings new possibilities and hopes for the people of both countries as well as energy consumers in Europe. "For Turkmenistan, from an economic point of view and from a political point of view, this [oil and natural-gas pipeline] is advantageous," Suyunov says.
Suyunov credits the policies of Berdymukhammedov for bringing about change. He says that plans for pipelines between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan were drawn up not long after both countries became independent in late 1991, but that political differences developed between the two countries that caused those plans to remain on the shelves until now.
Turkmen-Azerbaijani relations first deteriorated over ownership of a Caspian hydrocarbon field that both claim. Called Kyapyaz by the Azerbaijanis and Serdar by the Turkmen, the field could contain some 80 million barrels of oil and 32 billion cubic meters of natural gas, according to some estimates. Azerbaijan in the past vowed to commence work there with Ashgabat threatening to take Baku to international court and even the United Nations.
Now, that seems like ancient history.
Easier Said Than Done
Turkmenistan lies directly across the Caspian from Azerbaijan -- just 250 kilometers from Turkmenbashi City to the Azerbaijani capital, Baku -- and represents one of the shortest routes for the numerous proposed trans-Caspian oil or natural-gas pipelines.
Azerbaijan is already part of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, one that oil-rich Kazakhstan -- which is on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea -- has already expressed great interest in joining. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which share a border, are already working with Russia on a natural-gas pipeline along the northeastern shore of the Caspian. Yet another gas pipeline project to China originates in Turkmenistan and transits Kazakhstan.
Kazakh gas and oil could just as easily travel through Turkmenistan and then across the Caspian toward Europe and at the same time avoid going through Russia or Iran.
Deputy Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov, who participated in January 17 talks in Ashgabat, tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that cooperation with Turkmenistan is important, as is a diversification of reliable energy export routes. Khalafov says Baku is ready to participate in more energy-export projects: "But our position is that every state which has the intention or is interested in exporting its oil and gas to world markets should launch that initiative by itself. If there is such an initiative, other countries can join those projects. In this case, Azerbaijan can play its role in such projects."
Khalafov says energy exports to Europe have improved Azerbaijan's relations with the European Union, something that could have a similar effect for Central Asian states.
Meanwhile, Washington is playing its own role. Ashgabat over the past year has become a key stop for U.S. diplomats. Steven Mann, the State Department's senior adviser for Caspian Basin energy diplomacy, was in the Turkmen capital last week. In an indication of just how much the regional balance seems to be shifting, Iran this week expressed displeasure with Turkmenistan over an energy dispute and with Baku's warming ties with the United States.
"The expansion of the U.S. presence in Central Asia, in particular in Turkmenistan, also can be unfavorable for this country's bilateral relations with its neighbors and other countries of the region," Radio Gorgan, an Iranian state radio station, reported on January 30.
One sign of how far and how easily the new Turkmen-Azerbaijani relationship can proceed with any joint plans will come this September, when Baku is expected to hold the third Caspian Sea state summit.
When the leaders of Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan met in Tehran in October, they agreed that one or more parties would undertake no large projects without consulting all of the other littoral states. But analysts call that pledge vague.
Just how vague could be determined by whether Baku and Ashgabat finally move forward with their own trans-Caspian plans.
(Director Kenan Aliyev and Rovshan Gambarov of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service and Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva contributed to this report.)
Uzbek President's Daughter Takes Another Step Toward 'Throne'
"The rumors that Gulnara Karimov will become a regional governor or a Tashkent city mayor have been around for a long time. The reason was that if Islam Karimov saw his daughter as his heiress, Gulnara was supposed to gain managerial experience," says Toshpulat Yuldoshev, an independent analyst in Tashkent.
"I think Gulnara Karimova's appointment as a deputy foreign minister means that Karimov is preparing her to become president one day, although I think Karimov, if he lives long enough, would not like to give up power to anybody," he adds.
Karimova, 35, is a Harvard graduate who holds a doctorate in political science from Tashkent University, and also black belt in karate. Karimova has already had several positions within the government -- including as an adviser to the foreign minister and a special envoy at the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow.
But Karimova, one of the wealthiest people in Uzbekistan, is known mostly for her business activities. She reportedly controls the country's oil and gas industries, as well as its telecom and construction sectors.
Her business empire is believed to extend to Moscow, Dubai, and Geneva. It includes entertainment, mass media, retail network, and holiday resorts.
Her activities, which include designing jewelry and singing, have been showcased on Karimova's television channel, TV Markaz, and the radio station Terra, as well as in her beauty and fashion magazine, "Bella Terra."
Official Uzbek media have widely reported about fashion shows and concerts organized by Karimova's cultural foundation.
Observers say a key reason behind Karimova's new appointment is her father's attempt to ensure that the wealth remains within the family after he is gone.
"It looks like Mr. Karimov wants his daughter to have a very high post. But I don't necessarily mean the presidential seat," Suhbat Abdullaev, an opposition politician, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "There are other posts within the government that -- if occupied by [a Karimov] family member -- will guarantee two things [for the family]: first, keep political influence, and secondly, keep the family's wealth."
Opposition Among Public, Elite
But most observers say Karimova has a long way to go if she wants to succeed as a politician and become a prominent figure in government.
Dubbed "the Uzbek princess," Karimova is loathed by many in her home country. There are many rumors about her alleged cruelty toward business rivals, her luxurious lifestyle, and her lucrative business empire. Amid the poverty of ordinary people, these stories rub many Uzbeks the wrong way.
And as a potential presidential successor, Karimova will have to make allies among the political elite. There is increasing hostility directed toward her in recent years because she has taken over business interests from many other prominent politicians. She will also have to learn what her father seems to have mastered -- how to hold rivals at bay in a political system that still remains clannish.
And a Western-educated, Russian-speaking woman raised by an ethnic-Russian mother will have to overcome stereotypes in a male-dominated political system.
"I am quite sure that the Karimov family would like Gulnara herself to become president one day. But I don't think that's very practical," says Craig Murray, a former British Ambassador to Tashkent and an outspoken critic of the Uzbek regime. "I think there are far too many interests who would stand against the continuation of the Karimov dynasty, and, of course, the succession of a female president."
Murray says that if Karimov makes a different choice, his eldest daughter will still retain enough influence on her father to ensure that the country's new leader "will not steal the money off the Karimov family, which the Karimov family, of course, stole off the Uzbek people."
Yuldoshev says Karimova is still known mostly as an influential and wealthy entrepreneur, while her political activities remain obscure for many Uzbeks.
"Her businesses are thriving only because of her father, who is the country's absolute 'owner' and only lord. More than half of the country [is believed to] belongs to her," the analyst says. "However, I can't recall anything about her political activities and achievements. She has been a woman whose business succeeded under her father's protection."
Some observers see another, more pragmatic reason behind Karimova's new appointment. An independent news website, uzmetronom.com, noted on February 3 that Karimova's new job will give her diplomatic immunity, which in turn will enable her to travel abroad.
That's something Karimova can't currently do. After she divorced her Uzbek-born American husband Mansur Maqsudi in 2003, Karimova lost a legal case in the United States over custody of their children, Islam and Iman. She defied that verdict and her kids live with her in Uzbekistan, where a court has granted her custody of them.
But the U.S. verdict has made it risky for her to travel to the United States and any countries that share extradition agreements with Washington. Diplomatic immunity could resolve Karimova's international isolation.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)
Central Asia's Economies Fail To Seize Golden Opportunity
Observers suggest those countries risk missing out on the potential boom but appear to be sidelined by indecision and tempestuous relations with foreign investors.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all have sizable deposits of gold, most of which were discovered and initially mined during Soviet times.
"A country that owns large reserves of gold either minted in bars or in [unmined] deposits is potentially a rich country," Kyrgyz economic analyst Jumakadyr Akeneev tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.
Kazakhstan's gold reserves are estimated at over 800 metric tons, Uzbekistan's estimated gold reserves are more than 2,000 metric tons -- and it is already the world's ninth-largest producer of gold. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also have large deposits of gold -- more than Kazakhstan but probably less than Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have large hydrocarbon resources and are perhaps too involved in exploiting them for the world market to increase gold production to take advantage of the extremely high prices.
But for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have no significant oil or gas resources, gold might represent an opportunity to exploit a high-revenue export. However, gold production in both countries has actually decreased in recent years and -- like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- neither the Kyrgyz nor the Tajik government has given any indication that it will try to increase gold output.
By the end of the 1990s and early in this decade, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were each producing more than 2 tons of gold annually. They are now producing about half of that amount.
Bakhtiyor Rabiev, an aide to the director-general of the Zarafshon Gold Company in Tajikistan, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that his company expects to produce slightly more than 1 ton of gold this year. Zarafshon is one of just three gold companies currently operating in Tajikistan.
Kyrgyzstan's experience has shown that gold production can provide an economic crutch. In 1997, the Kumtor gold mine's first full year of production, Kyrgyzstan reduced its foreign-trade deficit by more than two-thirds.
Kumtor is the best-known gold-mining project in Central Asia. Original estimates in the 1990s suggested there was 514 metric tons of gold in Kyrgyzstan. A later assessment raised that figure to 818 metric tons.
Kumtor, a joint venture between Kyrgyzstan's state gold company Kyrgyzaltyn and Canada's Cameco (known as Centerra Gold in Kyrgyzstan), provides an example of what is happening to Central Asia's gold business in general.
For at least the last two years, Kumtor has decreased output, as have other smaller gold-mining operations in the country. Currently the Kyrgyz government is negotiating with its Canadian partners to gain a bigger government stake in Kumtor.
Kyrgyz Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov has said those negotiations are nearing completion.
"We have the big deposit at Kumtor and we are gradually coming to the end of our negotiations with the company Centerra and we [will] have a stake worth $1 billion," Japarov says. "No country has ever had $1 billion in such shares and the higher the price of gold the more these shares [will be worth]."
Foreign investment looks to be key to improving Central Asia's gold-mining industry, although the history of foreign ventures in the region is arguably lacking success stories.
Analyst Dosym Satpaev, director of Almaty-based Risks Assessments Group, has warned of a recent trend in Kazakhstan to reassert state participation that might equally apply to other countries in the region.
"The situation in the gold-production sphere is similar to the situation in the oil and gas [spheres] -- that is, according to some figures, Kazakhstan as a state, for example, owns between 12 to 15 percent of the oil and gas extracted, [while] the remaining 80 percent-plus belongs to foreign investors," Satpaev tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "We have the same situation in gold mining and other precious-metal sectors."
Satpaev notes that many foreign investors arrived in the early 1990s and are working Soviet-era sites with more advanced technology. "After the events with Kashagan, I wouldn't exclude that once [the government] has gotten a handle on the oil and gas spheres it will try to boost the role of the government in other areas, [including gold]."
The Kazakh government recently managed to double its stake in the oil and gas company in the Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea at the expense of an international consortium.
A similar process is already happening among Central Asian gold fields. Commonwealth and British Mineral, Nelson Gold of Canada, and the U.S.-based Newmont Mining are examples of how complicated the gold-mining business can be in Central Asia. All of these companies signed significant contracts that gave them special tax exemptions and other incentives that the governments in Central Asia later reconsidered and changed, like the Centerra contract was in Kyrgyzstan. Commonwealth and British Mineral sold its shares in the Zarafshon gold mine to China's Zijin Mining in 2007.
The Uzbek government canceled the contract with Newmont in 2007 after seizing some of the company's assets. Newmont's gold mines were Uzbekistan's largest direct foreign investment to date.
With the possible exception of Kazakhstan, none of the Central Asian governments could probably fund their gold-mining industries without foreign backing. But the record of foreign companies mining gold in Central Asia is complicated and many are unwilling to take the risk. As Western companies have left the region, Chinese and, in Tajikistan's case, Iranian companies have taken their places.
Satpaev said there is still a window of opportunity for these countries.
"The high value of gold will be maintained for a rather long period of time," Satpaev says. "According to economists' forecasts, in the next 1 1/2 or two years the economic situation will remain somewhat unstable -- and that means many investors will try to put [their money] into more reliable instruments, in particular gold, platinum, and other precious metals."
How aggressively Central Asian governments strive to cash in on those developments is far less predictable.
(Ulan Eshmatov and Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service, and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
Tajikistan: Senior Member Of Islamic Party Dies In Jail
Shamsuddin Shamsuddinov, who was a leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRP) during the country's civil war of 1992-97, was a key figure in the party, but also one of the most controversial. Among other things, the 55-year-old was convicted in 2004 of organizing a criminal group.
IRP officials confirmed to RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Shamsuddinov, believed to be suffering from tuberculosis, died today in a prison on the outskirts of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. Senior IRP official Hikmatullo Saifullozoda said the party had hoped to honor Shamsuddinov, but relatives asked to bury his body in accordance with Islamic tradition.
"As for a man who was sentenced because of false and fabricated accusations, we were eager to make a funeral ceremony at the party's headquarter for participation by followers and activists," Saifullozoda said. "But since the relatives have the right to decide, his brothers asked to transfer the body to the north."
Although he had recently been transferred to a hospital ward, officials blamed his death not on tuberculosis but on cancer. Shamsuddinov's relatives have told RFE/RL that they do not believe the officials' explanation of his death. RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports that one prisoner says he saw Shamsuddinov a few days ago and that he looked all right. But Saifullozoda says he was ill.
Unlike most of the IRP leadership, Shamsuddinov was from northern, not southern, Tajikistan. This raised the deputy chairman's importance considerably in the party, which relied on him to help the IRP gain support in the more industrial north, home to 40 percent of the population.
IRP Says Arrest Politically Motivated, Violates Amnesty
The IRP became Central Asia's only legal Islamic party after the 1997 peace deal that ended the civil war. As part of the deal, which ended hostilities that killed some 100,000 people, the party received an amnesty for its members and a share of power. It had been the dominant faction of the United Tajik Opposition, which also included democratic groups opposed to the government of mostly former communists backed by Moscow.
The IRP supported Shamsuddinov after his arrest and conviction in January 2004 on charges of organizing a criminal group, illegally crossing the border, and polygamy. The IRP maintained that the charges were politically motivated and that the timing of his arrest and conviction were meant to hurt the IRP in parliamentary elections in early 2005. Other party members were also arrested at the time, but Shamsuddinov was the most senior figure to be imprisoned.
At the time, another IRP deputy leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, who is now the party's head, criticized the court ruling and pointed out that Shamsuddinov should have been immune from prosecution because of the amnesty the IRP received as part of the 1997 peace deal.
"I think he was sentenced mistakenly. There were some mistakes in his case," Kabiri said. "Because even if he has been involved in some armed groups, he already has been amnestied. There is no secret that we have had three general amnesties that applied to all armed groups, including government and opposition groups. And I'm not sure that Shamsuddinov had any connection with criminal bands."
Said Abdullo Nuri, the longtime head of the IRP, also expressed disappointment at the time with the verdict against Shamsuddinov, saying he was expecting President Emomali Rahmon to intervene in Shamsuddinov's case.
Nuri said that "frankly, we did not expect government officials, especially the respected Emomali Sharipovich [Rahmon], to approve of this verdict. We believed that [Rahmon] would free Shamsuddinov because the charges against him amounted to slander."
Nuri died in 2006. But until his death, he continued to say he believed Rahmon would one day grant Shamsuddinov a presidential amnesty.
(Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
Uzbekistan: Rights Activists Decry Signs Of Western Rapprochement
In recent weeks, the European Union has sent envoys to Tashkent and the secretary-general of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) has congratulated Karimov on his reelection last month -- despite the fact that the Vienna-based organization had called the poll undemocratic. And on January 24, Admiral William Fallon, who heads U.S. Central Command, was also in Tashkent.
Uzbek human rights activists and opposition figures say it's unlikely that these Western officials went to Tashkent for carpets. They are outraged at what they see as the West's hypocrisy and geopolitical games with one of Central Asia's most authoritarian rulers, and warn that a policy of appeasing him not only ill serves the Uzbek people -- but will lead to instability and blowback for the region and world.
Ismoil Dadajanov, an exiled Uzbek opposition activist, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the OSCE shouldn't have congratulated Karimov.
"It will lead to the strengthening of Uzbekistan's dictatorship and terrorist threats in the world in general because people will think: 'If Western democracies support Islam Karimov, it means democracy is alien to us,'" Dadajanov says. "And the Uzbek people will resort to other means [in order to change the current Uzbek regime]."
It's all quite a change from May 2005. That's when Western relations with Uzbekistan -- up to then a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror -- suffered a major blow after Uzbek troops fired on peaceful protesters in the eastern city of Andijon, reportedly killing hundreds.
U.S.-Uzbek relations were broken off following U.S. criticism of the Uzbek government's handling of those events. Karimov kicked out U.S. troops deployed at Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad air base since shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The base aided U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Karimov also refused to let foreign experts conduct an independent probe into the events, saying it was a terrorist plot masterminded from abroad and aimed at overthrowing the government.
Now, however, memories of Andijon seem to be receding.
To be sure, there were already signs of a thaw in Western relations with Uzbekistan back in May, when the EU lifted a travel ban on senior Uzbek officials introduced following the Andijon events.
But Fallon's talks on January 24 with Karimov and other senior Uzbek officials are the first high-level U.S. attempt to reengage Uzbekistan since Andijon.
Prior to his visit to Tashkent, Fallon said he had not planned to discuss the air-base issue. But official Uzbek media reported that he met with Uzbekistan's defense and foreign ministers, the secretary of the National Security Council, and the commander of the Uzbek border troops.
Uzbek television reported that the two sides discussed terrorism, illegal drug trafficking, organized crime, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as regional security.
Fear Of Russia, China
So where's it all leading?
Abdummanob Polat, a Washington-based Uzbek political analyst, says recent rapprochement is based on the two sides' national interests and immediate security concerns.
"The U.S. administration wants to reestablish its relations with Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government is also interested in recovering its relations with the U.S. to some extent," Polat says. "Cooperation of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states with Russia and China goes against the interests of the U.S. and Western Europe."
Vladimir Mukhin, a Moscow-based military analyst, largely agrees. But he rules out the possibility that the United States could reopen the military base in Uzbekistan. He says Tashkent will be engaged in only a limited dialogue with Washington.
"Uzbekistan will try to open up. Karimov, who was reelected again, will seek more contacts with the West [and] the U.S., despite the West's criticism that the election was illegitimate and undemocratic," Mukhin says.
Analysts say the United States and the EU are trying mend fences with the energy-rich country in order to block Russian attempts to reestablish its hegemony and to stop China's growing influence in Central Asia.
Under German guidance, the EU has sought since May to improve relations with Tashkent. The EU's special representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morel, met with Karimov on January 17 -- a day after the Uzbek president's inauguration.
It all adds up to a depressing picture for Uzbek opposition and human rights activists, at a time when they had started to shine a light on some of the most egregious rights abuses in Uzbekistan, such as the use of child slavery in the cotton industry.
Nadejda Atayeva heads the Paris-based Association on Human Rights in Central Asia. She tells RFE/RL that rapprochement sends signals that geopolitical interests -- not human rights -- are the priority for the West in its relations with Tashkent.
"Congratulations from the United Nations secretary-general, the EU representatives, and the recent one from the OSCE send a signal of approval of Karimov's anticonstitutional usurpation of power," Atayeva says. "Karimov is not the choice of the majority of the Uzbek people. They do not want to live under an authoritarian regime. They want to live in a democratic society where their rights and their choice are respected."
Lions And Tigers And Mozart To Return To Turkmenistan's Cultural Life
But that was not exactly how the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov viewed it. In April 2001, less than 10 years after his country became independent, the former Soviet apparatchik declared that opera and ballet were "alien" art forms that had no message for Turkmenistan's people. Opera was filled with "unnatural feelings and indiscreet dances" and had "exhausted its creative life," he said.
And so opera and ballet performances -- and eventually the circus and cinemas -- were closed down, replaced by works based on Turkmen lore and television programs glorifying various parts of Niyazov's life.
It was all part of Niyazov's campaign to transform the former Soviet republic into a bastion of Turkmen heritage. History was rewritten and the state placed an emphasis on all things Turkmen.
This practice was epitomized in Niyazov's book "Rukhname" (Book of the Soul), which glorified the Turkmen nation and provided its people with a guide to proper conduct in Niyazov's Turkmenistan. Those who were not ethnic Turkmen found it increasingly difficult to find employment -- their children were forced to dress in Turkmen clothing and study in the Turkmen language -- and as a result the non-Turkmen population of the country trickled away.
Niyazov's death in December 2006 and Berdymukhammedov's unexpected ascension to the country's top post afterwards raised hopes that change was coming.
Welcome Changes To Old Regime
Berdymukhammedov's announcement that foreign culture was welcome again in Turkmenistan is welcome news to many. Mommak Kuly, a Turkmen artist who now lives in Germany, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service he hopes Berdymukhammedov's decision will bring performing artists back to Turkmenistan.
"We are so glad about the news that the ban on opera, ballet, and circus has been lifted," Kuly says. "I hope that former theater performers will come back to the theater. It was not good to say that our people didn't understand opera or ballet and ban these arts. It is very important to let the people understand [these things.] This is an art and a culture that help the world understand the nation."
The announcement of the return of the performing arts was also good news to Akmukhammet Saparov, a well-known singer and composer, who stayed in Turkmenistan despite the fact he was officially unable to perform.
"Like other artistic workers, I continued my work as a singer and composer, without 'turning either to the right or to the left,'" Saparov says. "I have been giving concerts to the people, creating songs, and composing music; helping the [young] singers and musicians who need my assistance."
Even before he was elected president in February 2007 Berdymukhammedov promised changes, and he has delivered, restoring the education system that Niyazov had cut back, replenishing funding for the health-care system that Niyazov had all but destroyed, and allowing some Internet cafes to open and lifting a number of small restrictions that unnecessarily complicated the lives of Turkmen citizens.
But Berdymukhammedov has stopped short of introducing any of the major changes that many have called for, such as breaking the monopoly that the sole political party, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, formerly the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, has or allowing independent media to exist.
Some say that Berdymukhammedov inherited one of the most repressive and bizarre governments in the world and that it takes time to make some of the more important changes.
In announcing the return of the performing arts to Turkmenistan, Berdymukhammedov said, "I propose to breathe life back into the lyrical arts in this country."
If he follows through on this promise, Turkmenistan may one day see a return of the many performers who left the country in the last decade -- and they will include non-ethnic Turkmen.
Since Turkmenistan does not produce many movies for the big screen, reopening the cinemas means showing foreign films in theaters that will give citizens a taste of the world outside that has been difficult for them to see.
And the return of the circus also should showcase a source of Turkmen national pride. Berdymukhammedov noted that bringing back the circus will include "national equestrian shows" because -- as for many Central Asians -- the horse enjoys a prominent place in Turkmen history and culture.
Much work still needs to be done to prepare for the return of the performing arts to Turkmenistan. The state opera house was torn down after opera was banned and in its place stands a shopping center.
Berdymukhammedov acknowledged this by saying that it is "time to rebuild and reopen." And this small but important step could be the first stage in ending the government's "Turkmenization" policy.
(RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Jamal Yazliyeva and Guvanch Geraev of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)